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anthropologie sustainability

Are Anthropologie’s Sustainability Practices a Way to Deceive Consumers?

The free-spirited, bohemian atmospheres of URBN Group’s stores: Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, had me imagining myself swaying in a white cotton gauze dress, surrounded by butterflies in a wildflower meadow. In college, I’d browse through the shelves and racks, and go home having settled with a $15 pink crystal or a hat with a piece of a feather attached, found in the discount section. My idyllic imagination then would be shattered by URBN’s accountability score of 2/150, based on Remake’s accountability criteria.

Upon a quick glance at URBN’s impact report for 2021-2022, the brand has made progress on several fronts. On circularity, there is the repurposing program of Urban Outfitters – Urban Renewal, as well as a subscription and resale brand Nuuly. URBN’s existing donations and future pledges to support social causes are at least 12.5 million dollars. The company seems to be on some sort of path to becoming more sustainable, especially with its recent investment in textile reusing and recycling through the nonprofit Fabscrap.

URBN, which has at least 10 suppliers in Pakistan, [is] essentially free-riding on the improved safety conditions of “Accord factories” by sourcing from these manufacturers [that have already signed onto the Accords]

On Earth Day and during April every year, Anthropologie launches its eco campaigns. This year the brand highlighted the sustainable materiality of bamboo. The campaign, in partnerships with The Nature Conservancy, details the practicality and ethicality of bamboo, illustrating the harvesting process of these materials and all the ways in which bamboo could be a great alternative to more harmfully sourced materials. The comment section of the post is littered with comments calling for Anthropologie to stop “virtue signaling” and for the brand to be wary of its consumption and harvesting of the bamboo it touted as a solution to “fighting climate change” and living more ethically. Anthropologie’s sustainability has long been questioned for its authenticity, and while URBN’s sustainability facade is well constructed, the reality is, URBN lags far behind its industry peers in social and environmental commitments.



In closely reviewing its public records, Remake discovered in its 2022 Fashion Accountability Report that URBN’s supplier code of conduct does not even meet the Fair Labor Association standards when it comes to worker compensation and working hours. Furthermore, the company’s darling, Anthropologie, still needs to pay money it owes to suppliers for orders canceled during the pandemic. Urban Outfitters has also since been implicated in a wage theft case in Cambodia related to pandemic-induced factory closures.

 

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To add heat to the fire, URBN is not a signatory to the International Accord (for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry) nor its expansion program into Pakistan. The Accord is a landmark legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions to improve workplace safety in the fashion industry through conducting independent inspections, monitoring remediation, training workers, and offering a complaints mechanism for workers. The financial feasibility of these activities requires the financial contribution of each signatory brand. By refusing to sign the Accords for Bangladesh and Pakistan, companies like URBN, which has at least 10 suppliers in Pakistan, are essentially free-riding on the improved safety conditions of “Accord factories” by sourcing from these manufacturers, which have been made possible by other companies’ financial contributions, without contributing to the costs. Furthermore, if URBN sources from a factory that is not simultaneously being utilized by an Accord signatory brand, then workers at that factory, sewing for URBN, receive no Accord safety coverage.

A decade has passed since the Rana Plaza collapse, the life-taking tragedy that lead to the implementation of the original Accord protection program in Bangladesh. But Bangladesh is not the only country in need of these types of bind safety agreements. In 2012, 250 individuals lost their lives in the Ali Enterprises factory fire in Karachi, Pakistan. Since then, at least 135 workers have died in Pakistan’s textile and garment industry due to dangerous working conditions. The Pakistan Accord will improve workplace safety which is urgently needed for many garment workers, just as the Bangladesh Accord continues to do so. It is vital that brands, like URBN, sign onto these life-saving agreements.

Disappointingly, URBN’s refusal to sign the Accord, “a low-hanging fruit” initiative to improve the working conditions of its value chain, reveals the company’s hypocrisy in proclaiming how it cares and respects workers.

anthropologie's sustainability
Photo: Xuemin Guan, via flickr

Worker Safety Isn’t the Only Thing URBN is Faking

URBN appears to have introduced some more formal ESG leadership committees, policies and targets in recent years; however, both the disclosed goals themselves and the reporting on progress are written in a way that seems purposefully vague. For example, on the more environmental side, URBN states that by 2023, it aims to source at least 30% of its “direct-sourced” cotton consumption more sustainably, either through “sustainably farmed” virgin fibers or recycled textiles, and that as of February 2022, 5% of its “direct-sourced” cotton is recycled, or “sustainable virgin fiber.” The company fails to define what it means by “direct-sourced” or “sustainable.” Furthermore, according to the Paris Agreement, emissions are on their way to peak by 2025, thus needing reduction by 43% by 2030 if we are to limit global warming to 1.5°C. URBN has yet to disclose its scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions, nor has it set science-based emissions reductions targets.

URBN’s strength as a conglomerate has been its marketing, as many see its brands as alternatives to fast fashion — but that is simply not the case.

URBN’s refusal to sign onto the International and Pakistan Accords while also failing to reach adequate sustainability requirements demonstrates the company’s profession of sustainability as a farce. URBN’s usage of Earth Day initiatives continues to fall flat as it fails to enact practices that would lead to safer working conditions for garment workers and more transparency in the quest to appear more environmentally ethical. URBN’s strength as a conglomerate has been its marketing, as many see its brands as alternatives to fast fashion — but that is simply not the case. The bohemian aesthetics and greenwashed marketing of URBN’s brands have led consumers to believe the brand is more committed to ethicality than the reality. However, the brand’s scores are not so different from its counterparts as both URBN and Forever 21 scored a 2/150 in the 2022 Fashion Accountability Report.

Is Anthro using its bohemian vibes to fool consumers?

When discussing URBN, many consumers have remarks about its practices, however, many of the complaints up until recently have been URBN’s habit of stealing designs from smaller brands. But URBN has many more skeletons in its closet.

Even during Earth Month, when the brand installs storefront art made from sustainable materials to promote its image of environmental friendliness, it continues this “damage out” practice.

In a May 2022 article published by Remake,  we learned that the brand engaged in a “damage out” practice, destroying perfectly good but unsold products after speaking to a former employee that worked on the sales floor of Anthropologie during the pandemic. The irony of this is that even during Earth Month, when the brand installs storefront art made from sustainable materials to promote its image of environmental friendliness, it continues this “damage out” practice. The employee shared that Anthropologie would “flip” its inventory every two weeks, resulting in waste that contradicts the brand’s supposed commitment to sustainability.

Anthropologie recently started selling products from Reformation, a poster brand of sustainable fashion to many (scored 33/150 by Remake). This partnership with Reformation is the brand’s latest attempt at gaining credibility in the sustainability conversations. The partnership highlights Anthropologie’s image as a brand upholding sustainable practices; however, it is also highly possible that it is using its adjacency to Reformation to polish up its sustainability facade without taking any concrete action to work on its own business practice. Along with its eco campaigns like its Earth Month feature on pollinators and bamboos, an unknowing consumer might be influenced into thinking Anthropologie is more sustainable than it really is, negating the reality that the brand is merely another fast fashion conglomerate. With the increasing awareness among consumers about the unsustainable practices of the fashion industry, this unsubstantiated facade of sustainability could one day soon turn into a liability.

[URBN] is not taking enough meaningful action to address its environmental impacts or uphold decent labor conditions.

The lack of evidence and concrete action to back up URBN’s sustainability claims is the fundamental reason that it scored so low in Remake’s Accountability Report. The ethical brand rating app, Good on You, made the same assessment for Urban Outfitters, URBN’s namesake brand: the brand is not taking enough meaningful action to address its environmental impacts or uphold decent labor conditions. Its supplier code of conduct falls short of the industry standards, while the group has at least two outstanding cases of unethical business practices unaddressed since the pandemic. URBN’s absence from the International Accord’s signatories in Bangladesh and Pakistan along with its vague, unsubstantiated environmental claims (the total absence of action regarding textiles, chemical and water usage, as well as emission reduction) show that there is unfortunately little substance behind the company’s well-crafted facade of sustainability. Lest one forget, URBN also destroys unsold products that are in perfect condition.

Anthropologie's sustainability
Photo: Xuemin Guan, via flickr

URBN ought to step up before it suffers legal consequences. Governments around the world are drafting legislation to stop companies from greenwashing and misleading consumers regarding the environmental merits of their products, namely in the EU. In the face of the triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss, coupled with the intensifying social challenges, URBN is in a position where adopting transparent reporting, setting ambitious and measurable sustainability goals, and implementing ethical practices throughout its value chain would bring invaluable change to its impact on people and the planet.

Remake reached out to URBN for comment. The company did not respond.

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