URBN, a major fashion conglomerate, houses Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Free People, BHLDN among its more recognizable brands. The company is notorious for having been a continuous violator of ethical business practices and sustainability regulations. In 2020, the Human Rights Watch reported and tracked the conglomerate’s primary brand, Urban Outfitters. The brand came under special scrutiny for freezing wages and canceling orders in India, Bangladesh and Vietnam during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Urban Outfitters isn’t the only URBN brand to have issues within its supply chain.
Remake recently spoke with former employees of URBN who reached out with significant concerns regarding URBN’s consistent greenwashing practices within one of its brands, Anthropologie, in addition to general governance issues across the conglomerate.
Reports of URBN brands destroying product
Madison* worked on the sales floor of Anthropologie during the pandemic. During her time, she witnessed many ecological atrocities. The most shocking thing she was asked to do was “damage out” products that hadn’t been sold. “Damaging out” – essentially taking these clothes out of the inventory system – meant that Madison and her fellow employees were instructed to physically destroy unsold products, at the request of their management.
To Madison, this indicated a large-scale issue at URBN: its upholding of exclusivity: “They’re saying that only specific people get to wear our brands…if you’re looking to dumpster dive or resell these clothes, they don’t want you in their clothes,” Madison said. It’s a move they’ve taken from the most well known players in fashion.
In 2018, reports of luxury brands Burberry, Coach, and others destroying unsold product as a bid to maintain exclusivity drew severe criticism from the public. Vox reported that while Burberry made $3.6B in revenue in 2017, $36.8 million worth of the brand’s merchandise was deliberately destroyed.” This was a move that the brand later revealed in its annual report as part of its strategy of ensuring the defining exclusivity of a luxury label. Despite not being a luxury brand, it seems URBN has also taken on the practice.
If the products had been sitting for a while, I had to cut them up with scissors.
But exclusivity isn’t the only element. Madison says certain shipments were designated to be “damaged out” after notification of design flaws. When a shipment of mugs came in, the Anthropologie store received an email blast saying the design was incorrect. Employees were then forced to draw over the mugs and break them – damaging them out. It’s a process that happens constantly, with stores receiving new shipments of merchandise two to three times a week. Excessive merchandise means many shipments will end up immediately marked down and placed in the back of the sales floor. Often, excessive merchandise still did not sell, and Madison reports: “If the products had been sitting for a while, I had to cut them up with scissors” – essentially another method of “damaging out” inventory.
URBN’s Co-Opting Tactics
Since 2018, URBN whistleblowers have reported on the brand’s damage out practices. But URBN continues to hide behind the PR rhetoric of sustainability.
Madison reports art installations were one of the primary ways Anthropologie specifically pushed forward sustainability. For the month of April, known to the sustainability-oriented community as Earth Month, the brand installed storefront art made from seed paper and dyed with turmeric baths – attempting to market the store as environmentally friendly. But simultaneously, Madison reported: “Everything that is still ‘wearable,’ all got completely cut up and thrown away, like entire size ranges for the style that got shipped were cut up and thrown out. Also, garments were damaged out and destroyed even for the reason that the color wasn’t correct.” Essentially, the brand would “flip” its inventory, turning over to a new product every two weeks. Madison reported that inventory would essentially be thrown away throughout Earth Month, despite driving forward the narrative of a sustainable face via visual marketing tactics.
It’s this dichotomy between corporate PR and strategy that is at such a dissonance at URBN.
We spoke to Erin*, a Philadelphia native and interview candidate for URBN, who told us about URBN’s hypocrisy. In 2019, URBN began a partnership with FABSCRAP, funding the expansion of the Brooklyn-based nonprofit aimed at recycling fabric waste to Philadelphia. Erin shared this when asked about URBN funding the move of FABSCRAP’s into the city: “As far as their marketing goes, that is absolutely the type of thing they would do.” On their “making and impact” page, URBN reports FABSCRAP’s impact as their own, stating: “In calendar year 2021, URBN recycled 5,858 lbs. or three tons of pre-consumer cutting waste from our apparel and home business lines, the equivalent of 43 tons of CO2.” FABSCRAP essentially functions as URBN’s recycling service, with these URBN reported numbers being reflective of FABSCRAP recycling totals for 2021 – essentially meaning FABSCRAP collected 5,858lbs of textile waste from URBN to recycle and reuse.
Garments were damaged out and destroyed even for the reason that the color wasn’t correct.
This pattern of rhetoric isn’t exclusive to its partnership with FABSCRAP. URBN has long engaged in covering up its waste practices with brands like Nuuly, its clothing rental and resale brand. As a part of Nuuly’s mission, URBN says: “We hope our service and curation of hundreds of designers and labels provides customers with the opportunity to experiment with their style without the downstream impact of tossing the pieces that don’t make the cut.” Ironic, given that tossing pieces that don’t make the cut (essentially damaging out) is a core part of what URBN’s strategy entails.
In fact, on a broader scale, all of URBN’s impact initiatives draw on singular initiatives from each of its brands. There is no overarching push to address underlying lack of sustainability in any of its brands.
It’s a problem that is deep-seated in a lack of adequate governance at a corporate level.
Are URBN’s Problems coming from the top?
Erin, a previous interview candidate for Nuuly, spoke to Remake about red flags she noticed when applying for a “customer success” role at the company. The biggest one was that the company does not have a Human Resources department. When informed during the interview that she would be going in twice a week, for a $15 an hour job during the pandemic (another point of concern regarding URBN’s policies towards workplace health and safety), Erin asked who she would report to if she had any issues. The response she received: There is no HR. To clarify, she asked if that was Nuuly specific. The response was the same — the whole company did not specifically have an HR department. Erin was shocked. Over 10,000 people are employed by URBN, but there is seemingly no pipeline to address concerns outside of bosses or lateral coworkers.
Erin isn’t the only one who was surprised. In 2017, Philly Mag released an article with accounts of employees describing the lack of HR as a point of massive concern. They describe the company’s long standing “Open Door Policy” characterized by a hotline for complaints, at the number: 1-800-NOW-PREV. Notably, the authors of the article explicitly attempted to call the number multiple times, reporting that “it went straight to voicemail, where some guy tells you to leave your information after the beep. It doesn’t in any way identify itself as being associated with Urban Outfitters.” The brand refused to comment on the lack of HR at the time. As of 2022, information from LinkedIn and other employment websites suggests that Urban Outfitters (the brand of URBN that Erin made reference to specifically) has a team of people whose titles include HR adjacent activities, to manage HR issues, but no designated HR team.
I didn’t know who to go to because there’s always a weird tension as a retail worker because you are expendable, you aren’t as valuable to the company as they say you are.
It’s a frustration that’s insightful into corporate culture at the brand. In conversations with Remake, Erin explained that her friends who worked previously at URBN corporate offices have been let go with NDAs for speaking out internally about the company’s unsustainable practices. One of her friends, she says, had worked for Urban Outfitters for 13 years in sourcing its vintage department. Put off by Urban Outfitters stealing designs from smaller designers, the employee raised concerns with her boss, who asked her to kindly leave the company. Madison corroborated this experience with her own time working at Anthropologie; she said, “I didn’t know who to go to because there’s always a weird tension as a retail worker because you are expendable, you aren’t as valuable to the company as they say you are.”
This lack of HR has the potential to breed a corporate culture of toxic positivity, while silencing the perspectives of employees who speak up. By the accounts of the employees we’ve spoken to, it does just that. Among the most concerning of these reports are accounts by Madison on the company’s silence following the Black Lives Matter activism in Summer 2020.
While Madison said new training methods were implemented, they contained questionable prompts mimicking the tones of “here’s what to ask your coworkers…” — a method that she thought was laughable and tactically avoided structural change. Out of around 40 retail employees at Anthropologie, Madison said “there were four to five of us that were women of color.”
The company’s disregard for DEI initiatives was painfully evident to Madison who worked on the sales floor at the time. She said white designers were given more store space, while collaborations with creatives of color, like Morgan Harper Nichols, were brushed aside and not given the same level of advertising. The sales floor became a space of racial slights by URBN, ones that were incredibly reflective of the brand’s lack of diversity. Madison said that during her time working on the sales floor, she “didn’t see anyone appropriating indigenous and Southeast Asian cultures as much as Anthropologie.”
While URBN reports commitments under its Community Empowerment page, none of its race-based diversity initiatives (of which there is only 1: London Youth) are internal. Rather, URBN’s corporate strategy seems to be focused on using external partnerships to blur internal company data and contribute to a rhetoric of brownwashing, all while making no actual structural changes to its business practices.
URBN’s Storied History of GreenWashing and brownwashing:
URBN has a two-fold problem. The conglomerate is guilty of both greenwashing and brownwashing.
At a sustainability level, the conglomerate has been using corporate communication and PR to strategically avoid addressing supply chain level issues, instead focusing on marketing-based initiatives to create a false front of environmental consciousness. As a result, it si aiming to retain the demands of its consumer base without making any changes to its production cycles. This use of corporate PR is indicative of greenwashing.
URBN’s negligence of supply chain issues extends beyond simply having no formalized HR, leading to a corporate culture that largely pays no heed towards workplace issues like fair pay, health and safety, and working conditions – conditions that involve addressing representation, diversity, inclusion, and belonging.
UrbN, It’s Time to #Payup
As of 2020, URBN has continued its cycle of supply chain negligence, refusing to to #PayUp for canceled orders from the start of the pandemic. It’s an (in)action that has left garment workers in dangerously vulnerable conditions as they struggled to acquire food and shelter despite having already completed the unpaid work ordered by URBN. Paying up is the first step, the bare minimum, URBN can do to commit to worker rights, DEI, and sustainability, rather than hiding behind the work of corporate partners and wasteful marketing schemes.
Help Us Continue to Hold URBN Accountable for their hypocrisies — Demand the Company Pay Suppliers for Canceled Orders by using the #PayUp hashtag on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
*Name changed to protect identity