Urban Outfitters has certainly been in the spotlight lately. Stevie Koerner was added to the long line of artists claiming the chain lifted their designs without giving them credit. Twitter then exploded with Outfitter haters. Even Miley Cyrus jumped on the bandwagon, tweeting, “Love that everybody is hating on Urban Outfitters…. Not only do they steal from artists but every time you give them money you help finance a campaign against gay equality. #SHADYASHELL.”
Miley was referring to the more than $13,000 Urban Outfitters contributed to the former Pennsylvania senator—and famously anti-gay—Rick Santorum’s political action committee.
It seems to add insult to injury that Urban Outfitters (along with its progeny, Free People and Anthropologie) rocks a freewheeling style and courts progressive youngsters. It just feels a little more insulting than, say, Target giving money to anti-gay candidates. But...you sold me that Obama shirt, UO! we sniff. How could you?
But nobody should be surprised: This is less the exception than the rule. Corporations (many of them right-wing) have long funded products that avant garde consumers buy, from the first advent of rock n’ roll to the blingification of hip hop. As soon as a counterculture emerges, it’s immediately co-opted by people with money who know that coolness and youth sell. It's a coup if the establishment exploits anti-establishment culture for a profit, but it isn't uncommon.
We have to remember that products with an ethos are a relatively new phenomenon. Only in the last ten years have we come to hope that companies have a message—even better if it doesn't conflict with capitalism. American Apparel, for one, built its mainstream success on the fact that the stores didn't use sweatshops, but still maintained its scrappy, entrepreneurial image. (True, AA is bankrupt. But so are, like, half of all companies nowadays.)
Even with our new expectations, style and substance seldom match up perfectly. American Apparel is run by a sexist creep. Whole Foods, the emblem of the lefty bourgeoise, spoke out against universal health care. Trader Joe’s may give health insurance to part-time employees, but it also doesn’t pay a living wage. It seems counter-intuitive that Old Navy, which hardly brands itself as countercultural, would be far more supportive of gay rights than a hipster haven like Urban Outfitters. Yet they're the ones stocking gay-pride T-shirts this year, while UO pulled them off the shelves a few years ago. This could very well be because pro-gay-rights is more "in style" (read: profitable) now that all these celebrities are jumping on the bandwagon, but that just proves my point.
So how do you know if your retail store of choice supports your values and politics? If you're progressive and buying from a major corporation, chances are they don't. But one thing's for sure: You can't tell by who shops there. So rather than taking a company at face (or skirt, or organic vegetable) value, we should be pushing for corporations to be transparent about their political affiliations and donations. Then we can decide for ourselves.