A favorite brand of mine is American Eagle. Although I initially started shopping there simply because I liked their style of clothing, I began to really admire and respect them as an organization earlier this year. As many of you probably know, they launched a campaign for their underwear line, aerie, whereby they committed to using only authentic photos of their models, as opposed to editing and retouching them as is traditional. They describe the rationale behind their campaign on their website:
“We support real young women, not the airbrushed, unrealistic versions of what they’re told they should look like. We launched the aerie REAL campaign for our Spring 2014 line to bring this support to life. Our photographs of the aerie line feature un-retouched models and challenge the outdated ad campaign handbook. We understand that the media impacts young women, influencing how they see themselves, their bodies and their futures. Encouraging a positive self-image is one way aerie supports ongoing wellness. It’s time to feature beautiful images that reflect all realities.”
I think that, especially being in the fashion industry, and more specifically as a lingerie retailer, it was a very bold and positive initiative, and it’s one that I think a lot of customers responded strongly to. They’re encouraging all women to embrace their shape and then they provide means to enhance that shape through their clothes. Tackling issues of body image and dysmorphia is a big challenge (unless you choose to alienate those most prone to these issues, of course, as Abercrombie notoriously did) and one that is not the explicit responsibility of an apparel retailer to their customers. Launching this campaign positioned American Eagle as a leader in true customer care; a company who exceeds expectations to champion the emotional and psychological well-being of their customers, in addition to simply supplying them a product.
That’s why I thought of American Eagle when I saw this prompt. I decided to dig deeper into their corporate policies to see if they’re socially responsible in other ways as well. What I found was very encouraging. They have a link on their online retail site to “AE Better World,” which includes detailed breakdowns of the many ways they strive to improve the complex global community they interact with. They discuss their efforts related to their supply chain, the environment, community, fairness and equality, and health and wellness, and go into detail about each partnership, program, and standard. They’re also quite transparent and honest about their supply chain in particular, since they do outsource their manufacturing. They even posted a recent non-compliance report graphic that shows quite a bit of underperformance in many of their factories relative to the standards they outline, but then explain why these standards are so difficult to achieve and state their commitment to improving. Overall, I was really impressed by the breadth of their perspective of corporate responsibility and their clear implementation of the stakeholder mindset. But I decided to try to seek out some disconfirming information elsewhere, just to see if they were really as upstanding as they seem to be.
I didn’t uncover much in my search for “scandals,” but I did find one troubling document from 2008. An organization called Sweatshop Watch published a document entitled the “Sweatshop Hall of Shame” that “inducted” American Eagle for failing to enforce its Code of Conduct regarding employee rights to unionization and urged customers to boycott the company by joining the “American Vulture” organization. Although this is certainly an important point of concern, I think it’s also important to emphasize that it was published six years ago. Judging by the breadth and depth of their current “AEO Better World” site and the fact that I could not uncover any further transgressions in my research, I think it’s reasonable to deduce that this is probably an event that triggered the company to strengthen their commitment to upholding a variety of stakeholder interests, and I think if anything it is a positive indicator of sensitivity to their stakeholders and a willingness to change in order to satisfy them.
Overall, I think American Eagle has a very strong structure in place for corporate responsibility. I think they are currently trying to create value for its stakeholders in myriad, diverse, and innovative ways that will really strengthen their reputation as a principled, benevolent business while simultaneously bolstering its commercial and financial success. The aerie REAL campaign is a marked manifestation of that, and I as a customer can attest to its value.