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|Screenshot pulled from American Apparel’s website|
American Apparel has been on my Conscientious Companies list from the very beginning. They’re the first company I heard about that encouraged domestic production in a post-globalized world and I thought that was great. The extreme male gaze in their advertisements made me queasy, but I saw a fair amount of feminists applauding it, so I shrugged my shoulders and stopped fretting about it.
But things have gotten bad – really bad – in the past year or so.
Last year, former CEO, Dov Charney, was fired twice from American Apparel following allegations of sexual harassment and assault. He was known to invite shop employees into his home for raunchy photo shoots that eventually made their way onto billboards and magazine pages. The UK has even banned several ads and even online products listing photos due to the inappropriately “youthful appearance” of the models (models who appear 16 or under, even if they are of age).
Charney isn’t back at the company yet, but he’s already filed three lawsuits for damages, defamation, and wrongful termination. American Apparel has, in turn, filed a lawsuit against Charney for violating his standstill agreement. This despite the fact that American Apparel is in dire straits financially with 340 million in net losses over the last 5 years and 26 million in the last quarter alone, with stock plummeting as sales continue to dip.
Under new management, the company hired a third party service to clear out old inventory earlier in the year in an attempt to increase cash flow, but the Last Chance Sale mostly confused shoppers who were under the impression the chain was going out of business. And things still aren’t looking up. In April, the company laid off 180 workers and increased hours for remaining employees. In response, about 1,000 employees called on workers’ rights organization, Hermandad Mexicana, to lobby on their behalf.
Even with Charney out of the picture, things on the female objectification front aren’t looking so good.
In an enlightening discussion in the comments on this article about attempts to remove the soft core porn aura from their ads, several people pointed out that the company has begun white washing its models, opting for traditionally attractive, predominantly white women over their previous diverse, pulled-from-the-shop lineup. According to current AA employees, “the so-called ‘real models’ the brand now wants are 5’7″ or taller, predominantly Eastern European-looking and white.” Read the original leaked document here (it ain’t pretty).
Sexual misconduct. Worker mistreatment. Juvenile behavior. Racism and prejudice. Are these the marks of an “ethical” company?
American Apparel has one redeeming quality: it’s sweatshop free. But being comparatively kinder to one part of your labor force doesn’t mean you get a free pass on everything else. I will no longer be supporting American Apparel, but I will take this with me: ethics must expand to every nook and cranny of your life or you’re not doing it right.
Update 10/16/15: American Apparel filed for bankruptcy in early October with a strategy to become profitable again by 2018.
Update 4/12/16: American Apparel laid off hundreds of workers and considered outsourcing some production
Update 11/14/16: American Apparel files for bankruptcy again.
ETHICAL ALTERNATIVES TO AMERICAN APPAREL: