Urban Outfitters, also known as URBN, is an American retail brand operating since the early 1970s under the name of ‘Free People’, later rebranding as Urban Outfitters, as we now know it, in year 1976.
Focused on marketing their pieces mostly towards teens and young adults, Urban Outfitters has amassed over 4.5 billion USD in the year 2022 alone, similar to the high-end brand Prada, which reached a 4.2 billion USD revenue in the same year.
Up to this day, Urban Outfitters ranks as one of the most popular brands among the younger folk, alongside fellow giant brands like Forever 21, Lululemon, or Hollister. But how sustainable is this particular brand, known for its stylish streetwear, boho furniture, and home decor? Let’s find out.
Is Urban Outfitters Fast Fashion?
Urban Outfitters is one of the least sustainable brands on the market, due to its absolute lack of transparency with its consumers. The brand provides little to no information about its labor practices, carbon emissions, or where or how their items are sourced. Therefore, we can declare it as fast fashion.
Urban Outfitters is known for its ‘Out From Under’ tops that have been trending on the video-sharing platform, TikTok, since the summer of 2022 among teenagers. Yet, behind its veil of fun and edgy clothing, Urban Outfitters hides a lot of underlying issues.
So, when exploring the question, “is Urban Outfitters fast fashion?”, we must transcend the brand’s facade of being entertaining and unique, deceiving us to embrace personal self-expression and stand out with trendy 90’s- and 70’s-inspired styles. Rather, we must delve deep into Urban Outfitter’s operations in terms of labor practices, material sourcing, production methods, and more.
What is Urban Outfitters (Not) Doing?
Urban Outfitters received a rating of 3/100 on the Good On You index – one of the lowest scores that we have seen, even among ultra fast fashion brands. There is practically no information regarding its sustainability on the website. Even if there’s is some, it is almost impossible to find and gives no insight into the retailer’s operations.
What’s more, Urban Outfitters, along with brands such as Versace, Miu Miu, Aritzia, and Prada, received a score of 11-20% on the Fashion Transparency Index in 2022. This is a trustworthy rating that regular consumers can rely on. The Fashion Transparency Index assesses and ranks the transparency of 250 of the biggest fashion brands and retailers worldwide. It examines their social and environmental policies, the effects of their business operations, and the ethics of their supply chains.
Considering this, the low rating from the index shows that Urban Outfitters does not share any information about where they get their clothes from, who makes them, and how it affects their workers and customers. This is concerning, as Urban Outfitters embodies a major player in the industry, with a market share of 1.73% as of 2023.
Fabrics And Environmental Impact
While the brand uses some eco-friendly materials, including recycled fabrics, there is no evidence it actually does anything to minimize textile waste.
Remarkably, the retailer has made a switch to renewable energy, with its main distribution center boasting of the largest solar arrays in the U.S. The brand also embraces sustainable packaging, as it has launched its own BYO bag program to reduce plastic waste. It has also introduced recycled materials in mailer packaging.
Yet, unfortunately, its limited commitments to the environment doesn’t translate into elimination of hazardous chemicals or water reduction initiatives. Hence, there is definitely a massive space for improvement, particularly, in regard to textile and resource usage.
High Levels of Lead Present in Urban Outfitters Apparel
According to a report by the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), clothing and accessories from Urban Outfitters carry dangerously high levels of lead and cadmium. The investigation found these heavy metals in the brand’s “Urban Renewal” collection, with lead levels reaching six digits.
While California prohibits accessories that have more than 60,000 parts per million (ppm) of lead, the necklace sold by Urban Outfitters had over 590,000 ppm of the metal, indicating that it is harmful to your health. This, once again, demonstrates that the industry is oblivious to safety regulations – therefore, consumers must avoid lead exposure by rejecting synthetic fabrics, cheap jewelry, and cheap pigments.
Suspicious Claims On Circularity
Urban Outfitters has made ambitious environmental, fabric, and recycling-related statements, giving new life to “66,000+ secondhand flannels and 45,000+ sweaters” this year alone. Overall, they claim to have recirculated over 7 million garments, keeping them out of the landfill and committing to circular fashion for over 50+ years.
However, these claims seem doubtful, as the company intentionally incorporates synthetic materials like acrylic, nylon, and polyester, which cannot be recycled and are non-biodegradable. If Urban Outfitters were a small brand, it would be somewhat understandable to work with less environmentally friendly yet low-cost materials. However, we must remember that Urban Outfitters represents a worldwide multi-billion dollar brand.
So, the main question is whether Urban Outfitters is genuinely working towards sustainability or if it is merely making empty promises without any real progress.
Is Urban Outfitters Fast Fashion? – The Fair Labor Issue
Almost, if not all of Urban Outfitter’s production lines operate in countries, where labor is cheap, such as Vietnam, Turkey, Cambodia, or China. This raises the question of how ethical their labor practices are and how much they pay their workers.
It’s not surprising that Urban Outfitters doesn’t present evidence on paying fair wages to workers in its supply chain. Yet, the brand claims to abide by its modern slavery act statement, requiring its suppliers to “conduct business in a lawful, ethical, and responsible manner.” Currently, there is no third-party audit report available to trace the brand’s compliance with the statement.
Nevertheless, the brand maintains an unfavorable reputation when it comes to labor practices. In fact, a 2020 press release named Urban Outfitters as one of the “top violators” of labor rights in the fashion industry, alongside fast fashion brands like Forever 21, Harley Davidson, Lulu’s, and others.
Violating Labor Rights
Urban Outfitters’ policy states that it does not sell products made with cotton from Uzbekistan. However, in 2014, the brand received the lowest score on a survey regarding this matter. Just a year later, in 2015, it was involved in a labor scandal for illegal overtime practices. During the incident, the company forced employees to work extra hours without any compensation under the false pretense of a training day.
Questions About Subcontracting
Moreover, the brand refuses to disclose information regarding their products’ levels of traceability. It’s also unclear whether it employs subcontracting – an industry-wide practice, where retailers hire factories overseas, which in turn, hire external help (workers, factories, or other entities) to do that work.
Why is subcontracting problematic? Well, if the company relies on offshore suppliers, it cannot ensure that those workers are being treated fairly and working in safe environments. And while Urban Outfitters works with manufacturers worldwide, questions arise about their ethicality.
The #PayUp Petition
Prior to the pandemic, Urban Outfitters ordered clothing from its suppliers, later refusing to pay them, which turned into a nightmare for many garment workers who were laid off or left without pay.
Other transnational retailers, such as Arcadia Group, Walmart, and Mothercare, also committed the same wrongdoing, withholding funds from their overseas factories and essentially, robbing them. This cost their overseas suppliers more than $16 billion in revenue.
The suppliers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Myanmar had already faced the burden of high upfront production costs, as they operated with razor-thin margins. However, due to the refusal of Western retailers to fulfill their financial obligations, they were forced to fire millions of garment workers and in some cases, close down.
What The #PayUp Campaign Achieved
To combat this, Remake launched a campaign, #PayUp, to protect labor rights, establish enforceable contracts, and put an end to drastic power imbalances in the industry.
The campaign turned out to be effective, however, only partially. Even after major retailers joined the #PayUp initiative, Urban Outfitters canceled additional orders due to the Covid-19 outbreak, asking for discounts on the orders that had already been shipped.
The brand’s despicable actions in the middle of a worldwide crisis put the lives of garment workers at risk as they tackled food and housing insecurity. Therefore, Urban Outfitters, put its profit-seeking motives over the well-being of its poverty-stricken workers, which goes against the very essence of sustainability.
Is Urban Outfitters Fast Fashion? – Cultural Fraud and Controversies
Urban Outfitters describes itself as “dedicated to inspiring customers through a unique combination of product, creativity, and cultural understanding”. Yet, there isn’t much proof to back up this optimistic mission.
Actually, the opposite is true. The brand has been caught selling “art”, heavily inspired by the Navajo Nation, with collections of underwear, flasks, and headbands featuring traditional Navajo motives.
By this, Urban Outfitters has perpetuated a despicable form of culture commodification, packaging a mockery of the Native American identity into distasteful goods. There is nothing appreciative in these cheap designs or motifs, as they’re driven by profit-making, rather than genuine celebration of different cultures.
Settling the Navajo Lawsuit
Urban Outfitters has been using the name of the biggest Native American tribe without permission since 2001, which made the Navajo Nation take legal action against them in 2012. The word “Navajo” has been legally protected since 1943. Therefore, the tribe argued that the brand violated their rights by creating a collection of 20 Navajo-inspired items.
In 2016, the lawsuit was resolved with an undisclosed agreement. The company’s legal representative, Azeez Hayne, stated that both parties were content with the resolution, mentioning a potential opportunity “to work with [the tribe] on future collaborations.”
Overall, Urban Outfitters has tackled many controversies, selling culturally and politically sensitive items. Some of the major scandals include selling items like Palestinian-style keffiyehs as “anti-war woven scarves”, shirts similar to Holocaust-era prison uniforms, a duvet cover featuring Hindu Lord Ganesh, Holocaust-themed tapestry in 2008, and badges resembling the ones worn by Jews during the Nazi era.
Although public complaints prompted a removal of all these items, it’s impossible to ignore the brand’s malpractices and its peculiar fixation upon culturally-charged goods.
Urban Outfitters: Targeting the Fast Fashion Audience
The brand’s ethical stance becomes crystal clear when scrutinizing its main demographic. Women between 18 and 24 represent the biggest consumer segment of fast fashion brands, and Urban Outfitters proudly capitalizes on this demographic.
Some might claim that the brand actively widens its audience, as it doesn’t only revolve around fashion, but rather also accessories, home decor, electronics, and beauty products. Yet, across all its product segments, the brand’s overarching facade aligns with the one of fast fashion. Particularly, it perpetuates aesthetic flattening, with trend-driven designs, prints, and motifs, hopping on 2000’s nostalgia through clothes or the ‘clean girl’ TikTok subculture via its beauty line.
The brand replicates the current fashion zeitgeist, following every latest fashion trend and upselling its products for almost twice the average prices.
Expensive But Still Fast Fashion?
The typical cost of a graphic t-shirt is usually between 25 and 30 USD. However, certain Urban clothing items can be as expensive as 50 USD, which is almost double the average price. This slight difference distinguishes the brand from cheaper options like Aliexpress or Shein, but still places it in the same category as other pricier fast fashion brands such as Zara, H&M, and Cider.
The illusion of higher price points in fast fashion serves a purpose – it makes consumers believe that a brand isn’t fast fashion. For instance, Urban Outfitters’s price range deceives the consumer into thinking that they’re purchasing better or higher quality clothes, when in reality they are buying something equally poor, if not worse. As in the case of a mid-range fast fashion brand, Aritzia, higher prices don’t indicate sustainability.
What Makes a Brand Fast Fashion?
“Fast fashion” is a new phrase used to refer to retailers that churn out low-cost clothes cheaply and efficiently, with some brands launching 52 different collections a year. This means that consumers can access new clothes every week, which burdens the planet with more and more textile waste.
Brands are now producing clothes much cheaper than before, molding fast fashion into an environmental and social disaster. Employing cheap labor overseas, overusing natural resources, and creating artificial demand for clothes, they maximize profit while sacrificing the well-being of people and the planet.
By paying their workers very little and keeping the expenses low, these brands present clothes as a disposable resource, aggravating consumerist attitudes.
Overproduction And Lack of Transparency
Brands labeled as fast fashion produce large quantities of clothes, generating significant amounts of textile waste, pollution, and emissions. They don’t disclose accurate sustainability data on their websites, hiding their labor and sourcing practices from the public.
The Recycling Myth
When it comes to making clothes, there isn’t a real “closed loop”, where clothes are actively recycled or transformed. What’s more, fast fashion brands intentionally design clothes that can’t be reused or recycled. Hence, cheap clothes are made, sold at a much higher price, worn out quickly, and ultimately thrown away in landfills.
Fast fashion brands utilize powerful marketing tactics to advertise their pieces, urging shoppers to overconsume trends. Yet, they mask it as a benign way to express oneself or have fun with fashion. After all, the false facade of circularity imbues our purchases with more excitement and less guilt.
So, don’t let Urban Outfitters’s claim of saving “over 6 million pieces from ending up in the landfills” fool you. With greenwashing and superficial marketing, fast fashion creates a never-ending loop of oversaturation and overproduction.
Misleading Environmental Claims
As in the case of Urban Outfitters, fast fashion brands provide no real evidence to back up their ‘green’ claims. Rather, they play upon the consumers’ good conscience with ‘eco-conscious’ collections, presenting ambiguous labels, and marking their fabrics as ‘eco-friendly.’
Such misleading marketing tactics are known as greenwashing. They’re an amalgamation of deceptive advertising that portray the brand as environmentally friendly and ethical, when, in reality, it is not. It targets primarily eco-friendly and environmentally conscious consumers and essentially, deceives them.
What Unites All Fast Fashion Brands
Some of the most popular fast fashion brands include YesStyle, Shein, H&M, Primark, Aritzia, and the already-mentioned Forever 21. They all have a myriad of shared characteristics, such as the following:
- Creating very cheap clothes marketed towards teens and young adult
- Keeping up with the latest trends, changing their collections almost constantly
- Using cheap fabrics like polyester that degrade quickly, almost forcing us to keep buying new clothes all the time.
Is Urban Outfitters Fast Fashion? The Final Verdict
Urban Outfitters is a brand with lots of underlying issues that consumers simply choose to ignore, or even worse, embrace to seek novelty, consume their pieces, and turn a blind eye on the obvious malpractices.
Is it a fast fashion brand? Absolutely, however, the issues go so much deeper than the label. The blatant cultural commodification, lack of transparency, false ‘green’ claims, and overproduction make it one of the most controversial brands out there on the market.
There aren’t many good things to say about Urban Outfitters, except that they use eco-friendly packaging and semi-natural fabrics. The latter include semi-synthetic or regenerated cellulosic viscose, cupro, or modal. However, overall, there are no positive aspects to mention.