When shopping supports sexism: American Apparel's shady side

I firmly believe that followers of Christ are called to ethical consumption, which is why I have a love-hate relationship with American Apparel. (Although, I should admit that it’s only about 30 percent love.)

What I like about the clothing company is its pro-worker, “sweatshop-free” approach to garment manufacturing. We’ve all heard about the dark side of the garment industry, and if we hadn’t before, last year’s garment factory collapse in Bangladesh brought the issue sharply into focus.

But American Apparel has shady side, too.

That their ads portray women as vehicles for sex rather than as human beings is, perhaps, one of the best things you could say about them. That they promote a rape culture in which women are not the moral agents in charge of their sexuality is another thing you could say, and it would not be untrue. (See prime examples, if you dare, here and here.)

And this is before you mull over the sexual harassment allegations that emerged against the company’s founder, Dov Charney, in 2005, which, frankly, are enough to make your skin crawl. In 2011, a former employee accused Charney of forcing her to be his sex slave when she was 17. And those allegations don’t include what journalist Claudine Cho reported in her 2004 profile of Charney –  that he would openly masturbate during their interviews.

So when American Apparel’s board ousted Charney from his CEO and president position last week, I was elated. Initially.

It’s not that I’ve been hovering around American Apparel stores, desperately praying for the day I could confidently walk in and stock up on overpriced hipsterwear without feeling guilty for lining the pockets of an alleged sexual predator – I just like it when influential companies do the right thing. And getting rid of Charney was, to me, definitely the right thing.

But when you look at what the board is actually saying about the ouster, it seems like a lot of grandstanding.

Charney, they say, was fired after an investigation of his “misconduct.” The board hasn’t gone into details of this misconduct, but unnamed sources cited in several major news outlets over the weekend said most of it had to do with the misuse of company finances. These sources say Charney was also found to have played a part in releasing naked photographs of a former employee who is suing him for sexual harassment.

I would imagine the fact that American Apparel has not reported a profit in several years also had something to do with his firing.

Let’s say the board fired Charney because they are appalled at his role in the photo scandal. Are we supposed to consider that a moral victory for the board? Women have been accusing Charney of heinous sexual misconduct for a decade. A decade. But let’s say the decision to fire Charney was actually – as I suspect to be the truth – about money. Then we still have a company that places close to zero value on women. Sexual harassment? No big deal. But lose the company money? That’s a horse of a different color.

Last week, Global Sisters Report published a piece by Chris Herlinger about women in South Sudan. While he highlights the work women are doing in holding together their communities, he also shines a spotlight on the patriarchal laws in South Sudan that all but condone sexual violence against women. Women are often made to marry their rapists to avoid the stigma of having been raped, and sometimes police apprehend the women who report being raped.

These examples of blatant sexism make Americans angry and sad, but are they really so different from the culture at American Apparel?

Last fall, Pope Francis famously declared unfettered capitalism to be tyrannical, and he decried our tendency to idolize money. In many companies, this obsession with wealth and profits manifests itself as tyranny against the workers. After all, that’s how Bangladeshi factories come to collapse on their workers. Christian consumers have a moral and theological imperative to push back against this tyranny. We should care about how our food was harvested and where our coffee comes from. We should care about who makes our clothing and how companies we support value people.

The paradox of American Apparel is that it treats some of its people well, and while that should be applauded, its treatment of women is deplorable. Firing Dov Charney did little to solve that.

[Dawn Cherie Araujo is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report.]

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