A LETTER TO THE FREE PEOPLE
I just put down a book I am reading, Good Morning, Beautiful Business, written by Judy Wicks. It is an inspiring memoir of Judy’s journey as an activist, entrepreneur and local economy pioneer. The beginning of her journey started in the early 1970s in West Philadelphia, where she and her husband Richard Haynes founded a small retail store called The Free People’s Store that sold new + vintage clothing (including a free clothing bin) and housewares to the earth-loving, free-loving, love-loving hippies of that era. It was founded on the roots of antiestablishment and antiwar, during the tail-end of the Vietnam War. Today that store is better know as URBAN OUTFITTERS.
Just like so many corporations, Urban Outfitters started out as a grassroots business with good intentions. Very early on, Judy left the business (and her marriage) because she didn’t like the direction it was heading in - one driven by her husband’s focus on profit. Judy moved on to become a prominent community leader in Philadelphia, working as an activist and pioneer for social + environmental justice through her work as a publisher, restaurant owner, and founder of organizations such as Fair Food Philly. Richard (aka Dick) Haynes went on to turn Urban Outfitters into an international corporation, establishing himself as the #262 richest person in the U.S. according to the 2008 Forbes 400 list. He has nurtured a monster of a company, explained in this article What’s Wrong with Urban Outfitters? by Jezebel, highlighting their campaign against gay equality, and most recently demonstrated by their unauthorized use of the United Farm Workers of America logo for a denim shirt.
Judy just joined my list of role models, amongst the likes of Jane Jacobs, Clare Cooper Marcus, Randy Hester,Marcia McNally, Judy + Peter Berg, EF Schumacher and Gandhi. The thread tying them together? Design + economics…as if people mattered.
This story is so poignant and relevant to me as I have navigated the threat of a lawsuit from Urban Outfitters for the use of the word ‘terrain’. If my business were to grow into a corporate chain, I would be more inclined to empathize with the basis for their claims - 'causing unfair competition + confusion amongst consumers.’ Clearly they are protecting themselves from this possible threat. If they knew that I am more the likes of Judy Wicks than Richard Haynes, than they would realize that they have nothing to fear. Or maybe the Judy Wicks of the world make it hard for them to sleep at night? If more people carried her type of passion + integrity, it is likely that large corporations would not be able to conduct business as usual.
There. I’ve pointed my (middle) finger at who I consider to be the bad guy. Moving on…to the more significant reflection that has come to the surface for me. The power of us. The all-powerful, power-hungry consumers. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have the freedom of choice are in turn handed the responsibility of owning the effects of those very choices. Considering how those choices affect the freedom of others, it seems to me, should be of particular importance. It is an ideal amongst the people I am drawn to lately – an ideal that states that as long as my neighbors are suffering, I am not free.
Our choices are so incredibly powerful.
It would be paralyzing to stop and consider the consequences of each and every consumer choice we make. But I do believe it is a worthy pursuit all of us should practice and strive for. I’m not suggesting that we should only buy organic, fair-trade, locally hand-crafted underwear. I am suggesting that we should educate ourselves about the companies we support with our purchasing power. And that we evaluate our consumption needs…just how much is enough? I personally know that I make poor choices quite often. I face my own conflicts and contradictions when I buy things that I know are not in alignment with my ideals; usually because they are more affordable or I know that they will bring compliments or I simply desire them more than I care about their effect.
It irritates me that I do this, and more so that our larger popular culture affirms and supports me when I do. It irritates me when people get outraged about our government and our corporations, yet fail to see how our smallest, everyday choices govern those entities. Everyone contributes. Urban Outfitters exists because we (the collective we) want it to.
Luckily my smaller, more intimate community holds a up different bar. I am appreciated + valued for making choices that support a kinder, more harmonious world. If this business, now known as VILLAGERS, should become misdirected in its intentions toward acts of greed and selfishness, please recall this letter and send someone I love to put me in my place.