Plagiarism is not a design flaw. It’s a persistent part of the fast fashion system, and we need to talk about why that matters.
A few nights ago, I discovered that Free People copied one of our designs. We were not the first. The company has done this to hundreds of small, independent, sustainable, and ethical lines over the years. Free People is owned by the same parent company (URBN) of Anthropologie, nuuly, and Urban Outfitters, and it has a terrible track record of copying small designers, human rights abuses, racism, and more.
For some background information, I co-created tonlé, an ethical, zero-waste fashion brand, in 2013. As part of our approach to a more circular fashion industry, our brand creates apparel out of garment factory remnants.
While it was not surprising that Free People stole one of our company’s styles, it was shocking. To set the scene: I walked into a party and met a friend of a friend who was wearing a jacket that is so similar to one of our iconic designs that I assumed it was a tonlé piece. “Nice tonlé piece!” I said to the woman. Her response? “Oh, I got this from Free People.”
We quickly did a bit of googling and found the piece on the Free People website. It had been produced in India, and the specs were exactly the same as what we initially showed to Free People in a conversation about purchasing the design years earlier.
In this case, the design Free People stole from us was more than a copy of our pattern. It was a theft of our weaving technique, something I personally spent months developing with artisans. Not only that, but the original color comes from a natural plant-based dye that is indigenous to Cambodia, a color I learned to make from Cambodian master-craftspeople. All the development work that went into this piece would have been impossible for Free People to do on their own. Instead, the brand requested a sample from us, and then copied it. That saved the company thousands of hours of work in not only designing the garments, but also developing the process to make them. To add insult to injury, Free People’s copy also stripped the design of the piece’s original Cambodian name, Phnom Vest (meaning mountain), and changed it to an anglophone, self-indulgent name, the Always You Top.
For the record, here is how the theft happened.
In June 2017, Free People buyers visited our booth at a trade show in Las Vegas, Nevada. Afterwards, we exchanged the following email thread.
The first email I received from Free People buyers in 2017:
Here is the email response I sent in March 2017:
A few weeks later, after I received no response from Free People, I sent a follow up email:
At this point the buyer acknowledges that they have received the samples and is “considering” them:
After this, I’m completely ghosted.
In full transparency, Free People has bought finished clothing from us, as has its sister company, nuuly, over the past few years. However, in 2020, Free People was late in paying us for over five months for placed orders, citing the pandemic as its reasoning even though the brand certainly had the money, and instead “borrowed” it from our small brand.
Many large companies operate on terms that don’t pay factories or smaller brands until 30 or 60 days after an order is delivered. In other words, they are effectively asking those smaller brands or factories to produce clothing for them on credit, even though they will eventually make a larger profit from the product order than the factory or supplier itself. If a supplier doesn’t have the money to produce an order (paying raw materials and workers up-front) they may borrow money to produce the order, which is called factoring or purchase-order financing. Thus, instead of a large corporation paying for its goods upfront, it forces more vulnerable people in the supply chains to take on that debt on its behalf. When the larger retailer doesn’t pay, the smaller brand or factory is still on the hook to pay back the debt it took on in acquiring resources and labor. In tonlé’s case, after Free People delayed payment to us, we still made sure to pay our team anyway, because that’s how we believe ethical brands should operate.
URBN did at last pay tonlé for placed orders, but that wasn’t the case for all of URBN’s supply chain. In 2020, URBN invoked force majeure (essentially, citing unforeseeable circumstances that prevent the brand from fulfilling a contract) to avoid paying suppliers for in production and completed orders, despite borrowing $220 million to preserve cash reserves at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. To date, URBN has refused to pay for these orders, despite calls from Remake for fair business via the PayUp campaign, which aimed to recoup the approximately $40 billion dollars lost to suppliers at the start of the pandemic. While the public pressure on brands has recouped $22 billion from major brands, including H&M, Nike, Gap, and others, URBN has yet to take accountability for its actions and pay suppliers.
(Want to help? Tag @URBNcommunity on Instagram with the #PayUp hashtag. They’ll know what you’re talking about. Alternatively, post the tweet below.)
Small Designers Get Put Between a Rock and a Hard Place
I’ve long considered halting design supply to URBN because of its lack of accountability, including its history with racism, profiting off liberal campaigns while contributing to right wing causes, and knocking off small designers.
Here’s just a tiny sample of URBN’s many “shock and awe” style marketing campaigns:
In a 2020 article published by CNN, the media outlet stated: “In recent years, URBN has been the subject of controversy because of some products sold at its stores. The Anti-Defamation League condemned the parent company’s Urban Outfitters chain in 2015 and 2012 for selling shirts resembling Holocaust-era prison uniforms and badges that Nazis forced Jews to wear, respectively.” These designs made headlines on the heels of the rising interest in the BLM movement during the summer of 2020 when the country’s newfound interest in combating racism came to a peak.
But truth be told, I have thought in the past that nuuly (another brand owned by URBN parent company) was attempting to turn over a new leaf and support more independent and sustainable brands, as I saw that the leadership team was specifically purchasing more sustainable and independent brands and replacing some of their less sustainable lines with better ones. I had direct conversations with the leadership team at nuuly about concerns I had about URBN, and I felt they were working internally to change things. My reasoning was that if URBN was replacing some of the unsustainably made products with more sustainable ones, they were making steps in the right direction. Ultimately though, because nuuly is still controlled by URBN, it will always be accountable for the same injustices. This was a rude awakening for me, but one that I (unfortunately) needed.
“The power imbalance that forces small designers and makers to have to choose between their values and a decent living is what I believe needs to be questioned and overhauled. A quick Google search turns up hundreds of accounts of Free People, Anthropologie, and Urban Outfitters stealing designs, as well as urgent notes warning small designers not to become victim to these thefts.”
I do feel conflicted for having sold to URBN in the first place, and I acknowledge the complexity for designers and makers who are put in a similar position of having to choose between orders that sustain their businesses and their teams while being conflicted about supporting such entities. But, I remind myself that no decent company should treat its partners this way — the very people who create its designs and makes its clothes.
The power imbalance that forces small designers and makers to have to choose between their values and a decent living is what I believe needs to be questioned and overhauled. A quick Google search turns up hundreds of accounts of Free People, Anthropologie, and Urban Outfitters stealing designs, as well as urgent notes warning small designers not to become victim to these thefts.
Copying and fast fashion go hand-in-hand. While writing this article, I saw that Zoe Hong had just completed an interview with Conscious Style Podcast in which she explains: “Fast fashion brands don’t do any design development at all…they pull directly from the runway. Knocking off means literally copying the pattern. You lay the fabric down on the paper and you trace the shapes out.”
We need to understand that copying is a huge part of fast fashion, and it is what fuels the growth of these brands.
“URBN is notorious for its theft of designs, but it is also a company that purchases from indie designers, so it can feel like feast or famine.”
Free People’s orders were significant and provided fair work to our makers, so we tried to make it work until it didn’t. On the other hand, orders with URBN were never easy, from unclear communication to trying to ask us to make orders more quickly than our usual turnaround times (most of our garments are handwoven by the way — think the slowest-of-the-slow slow fashion) to, as the pandemic demonstrated, holding the power to delay payment without any integrity. URBN was by far the worst buyer we’ve ever worked with.
Clearly, we will not be working with URBN going forward, but we also have the luxury of having more orders than we can handle right now, which I realize is a position of relative privilege. Putting the burden on small designers who are struggling but attempting to do things ethically during a tough time for small businesses, in general, is as unfair as it is heartbreaking. As with all systemic problems, it is those with the most power who bear the most responsibility, yet they often wield that power with impunity.
While we’ve been lucky to work with mostly small and independent boutiques with whom we’ve mostly had great partnerships, most of the mainstream fashion industry works in a similar way to URBN, deflecting risk, blame, and environmental consequences onto suppliers and vendors through disadvantaged terms. This brandishing of power ultimately works to consolidate more profit for companies like URBN.
URBN is notorious for its theft of designs, but it is also a company that purchases from indie designers, so it can feel like feast or famine. But talk to small brands who have supplied to Whole Foods, Target, Zulily, and others, and you’ll see a pattern of abuse of power by large brands who are claiming to create more space for sustainable products on their shelves. Meanwhile, these same companies use this small fraction of sustainable products to greenwash while simultaneously taking advantage of the very suppliers who actually do their sustainability work.
Many smaller brands may feel like I did, that the ongoing work is hard to pass up. But what is the larger cost?
The Shareholder Reports Say It All
In writing this article, I decided to read URBN’s investor reports for 2020 and 2021. (You can find them all here.) Because URBN is a public company, it is required to publish certain details. What I was looking for was evidence of decreasing inventory costs, which would signify that it either cut back, did not pay for, or paid suppliers late for its orders. I found significant evidence of this and more.
While this company has long been reported to be problematic, it still amazed me how much it says the quiet part out loud in its public shareholder reports. The company was not only called out by Remake in 2020 for not paying for orders, but in reading URBN’s reports, it feels as if the company is bragging to its shareholders about cutting inventory costs, canceling orders, and asking for discounts on orders. Here’s an example from page 20 of URBN’s 2021 shareholder report:
It is clear from the shareholder documents that it either did not pay for, rejected, or pushed out the payments for over $100 million worth of stock (about 40% of what it should have paid for) in 2020 which directly correlates to lost or significantly diminished wages to garment workers. It’s also notable that while URBN cut payments temporarily to the board of directors, these payments were quickly reinstated within a few months.
For reference, the average executive salary at the company is over $1 million per year, whereas the median employee made $14,967 in 2021. Garment workers are not included in this figure because they are not directly employed by the company.
Garment factories, who often make little profit to begin with, struggle to pay salaries to garment workers if brands do not pay for their orders or delay payments. In URBN’s report, delayed, diminishing, and canceled payments are demonstrated by the fact that the inventory valuation goes down from 2019 to 2021. However, there are significantly more payments carried forward from 2020 to 2021 while the inventory value still decreased. This suggests both that orders were paid significantly late (over a year), canceled, or negotiated on. Even in normal times, URBN is also known to ask for discounts from vendors after an order is delivered for any number of reasons.
I learned several other interesting things from its shareholder reports. For example, they state explicitly that the company is trying to speed up production by turning around more and more designs, pressuring suppliers to produce more quickly, and passing more of the risk onto its suppliers.
“What the report has described here is the true definition of fast fashion. URBN is working hard to become more of a fast fashion fashion brand, with no evidence of any concern for the well-being of any of its workers or partners.”
The suppliers section, both the 2021 and 2020 reports, states that “To keep our future inventory levels lean and maintain a lower merchandise weeks of supply on hand, we plan to continue to quicken our supply chain capabilities and place more frequent merchandise orders at lower quantities.” In other words, continue producing more styles faster, which ultimately puts more pressure on factories and workers. What the report has described here is the true definition of fast fashion.
URBN is working hard to become more of a fast fashion fashion brand, with no evidence of any concern for the well-being of any of its workers or partners.
Both the 2021 and the 2020 report also state that “No single vendor or manufacturer accounted for more than 10% of merchandise purchased during that time [the time of writing this report]. We do not believe that the loss of any one vendor would have a material adverse effect on our business.” To translate, the company considers its manufacturers as disposable and replaceable. At the same time, the reports also state (in the “risk section”) that a risk to its business can be to its reputation if its manufacturing partners do not “comply” with its “compliance program.” The report later states that the company “[believes] in protecting the safety and working rights of the people who manufacture the products we sell, while recognizing and respecting cultural and legal differences found throughout the world. We require our third-party vendors to register through an online website and agree that they and their suppliers will abide by certain standards and conditions of employment. If our third-party vendors fail to comply with our social compliance program, our reputation may be adversely affected.”
This so-called “compliance statement” is not only patently in opposition to what the report previously states about the company’s vendors (that they could, effectively, care less, about them), it is full of passing the blame onto suppliers if they fail to comply with URBN’s policies (not to mention, covert racism in insinuating that other people’s cultural standards are less than that of URBN’s). It passes any responsibility for violation onto already-squeezed vendors and suppliers.
“In the 2020 report, sustainability is not even mentioned once.”
Right after this statement, a short statement is included in the 2021 report about a sustainability committee: “We maintain an Impact Committee (which reports to our Audit Committee and is co-chaired by our Chief Sourcing Officer and Chief Administrative Officer) to set sustainability policies and goals, provide oversight of those policies, and track and report progress toward our goals. The Impact Committee also maintains a functional working group, which focuses on three areas: Environmental & Social, Data Privacy & Security, and Governance. The working group is comprised of operational management representatives and is responsible for recommending policies and goals to the Impact Committee, implementing policies established by the Impact Committee, and tracking and reporting to the Impact Committee on progress towards goals falling within the working group’s remit. If we do not demonstrate progress towards the environmental, social and governance ideals of our customers or such actions are not perceived to be adequate, our reputation and value of our brands could be harmed, which could adversely affect our business, financial performance, and growth.”
This is the only time in the 2021 report that sustainability is even mentioned, and it is only mentioned as a risk factor that if not perceived to be adequate by customers, could adversely affect their business. In the 2020 report, sustainability is not even mentioned once.
I have heard time and again from people working in management positions in manufacturing that it is indeed the brands who are squeezing the factories, and as a result, putting pressure on the workers. Yet, it is these same brands that can pass all responsibility onto the factories when things go wrong through such compliance statements.
Having gone through the Urban Outfitters website, where we have signed the “compliance policy” referenced in their shareholder document (which is really nothing more than a box-ticking exercise with no real vetting), it is absolutely a joke to say URBN has any concern whatsoever for the workers making its clothes.
Similarly, URBN recognizes that having good employees is important in maintaining its business but won’t let them unionize and considers raising wages for employees as a major threat to its business.
In a section titled “Human Capital” the 2021 report states: “Except in certain international locations, our employees are not covered by a collective bargaining agreement. We believe that our relations with our employees are excellent.” (Employees Section) I have several friends who have worked at URBN over the years. From what they’ve told me, the statement above is either complete fantasy or intentional woke-washing; probably a bit of both.
Another example of how URBN is working towards growing its fast fashion manufacturing is stated in the inventory section.
The 2021 report states: “Raw materials and work-in-process were not material to the overall inventory value.” This demonstrates that the company does not pay for the costs of raw materials or fabrics for production, and again, is putting this risk and burden on factories to pay for materials upfront. Manufacturers are the ones who have to pay for raw materials and are left with the burden of those costs (and the waste) when a brand cancels an order. This is another classic fast fashion tactic.
While I have seen several influencers promoting URBN brands as being in some way sustainable, there is nothing in URBN’s shareholder documents to suggest that the company cares about systemic racism, environmental justice, or its increasing footprint on the planet in any way. In fact, it is continuing to double down on an unsustainable growth plan.
Help Us Hold URBN Accountable — Demand the Company Pay Suppliers for Canceled Orders by using the #PayUp hashtag on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.