“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids … we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."So an over-priced clothing company whose brand is built on catering exclusively to image-obsessed, brand-conscious middle class white kids so they can fashion themselves out as “the cool kids,” is… in fact, exactly about that image. Uhm, I’m not sure I get the sudden outrage, but okay. (Also, his statements aren’t just fatphobic, they’re also blatantly racist when your definition of “All-American Kid” is always and only ever white. But nevermind.)
So an LA writer, Greg Karber, responded.
In the video, Karber launches a new campaign entitled “Fitch the Homeless,” where he goes to Goodwill in search of used Abercrombie & Fitch clothing to then donate to homeless people on the street. The video has since then been picked up by UpWorthy and gone viral with the hashtag #FitchTheHomeless.
Some thoughts on this: I actually think most of what is wrong with this “movement” is evident just by looking at the video. In the video, Karber has difficulty finding A&F clothes at first, so he asks the sales clerk,“Where is like—the, the douchebag section?” This is to find clothes to “help” people who are in need, folks.
He goes on to say, “At first, people were reluctant to except the clothes..." You know, as he proceeds to approach random strangers on LA’s “Skid Row” who he thinks look homeless to offer them whatever castoffs he could find at Goodwill, never mind any questions about their sizes or tastes. And keep in mind, a main catalyst here is that A&F refuses to sell diverse sizes.
“Perhaps they were afraid of being perceived as narcissistic date rapists.” Oh.
“But pretty soon, they embraced it whole-heartedly,” says the voiceover, as Karber in the video basically just thrusts clothes at people, some of whom flinch away from him or simply look perplexed by it. At one point, he simply leaves it on a pile in front of a person sitting motionless.
He thus declares his “expedition” (into the wild, uncharted territory of LA?) “a huge success.”
There’s nothing more progressive than putting unwanted brand name clothes on the backs of homeless people in order to embarrass the CEO of the company! Wait a minute. Isn’t that just using homeless people as a prop in order to ruin the marketability of a brand name of a company you already think is horrible anyway? (As Karber says at the very beginning of the video.) Oh, no no. You see, it’s really helping homeless people because they get free clothes. Don’t bother yourself with even asking if clothing is actually what they need—They’re homeless! Of course they want free stuff!
I’m not alone in my utter disgust at this campaign:
Forcing Your Old Abercrombie and Fitch Clothes on People is a Bad Idea
Why Fitch the Homeless is a Really Bad Idea
Help or Harm? Power, Intent & Objectification #FitchTheHomeless
Check Your Privilege Alert: #FitchTheHomeless
Six reasons the #FitchtheHomeless campaign is problematic (Apologies for the use of the word “problematic,” lol.)
Please don’t #FitchtheHomeless
As others have pointed out, there’s no discussion in the film of whether anyone besides Karber actually consented to being filmed, and there’s no acknowledgment that the camera lens itself can act as a coercive force. Putting someone on camera immediately sets up a power dynamic where you get to control how they are represented, while they are made immediately aware that their behavior is being watched. This functions as a policing influence, and it limits how much agency people have to consent to what is done to them.
There already exists a social norm in society—blatantly and cruelly demonstrated by supporters of the Fitch the Homeless campaign that homeless people shouldn’t care or be choosy about the clothes they’re given—that says being impoverished and “needy” means you can’t turn down offers of charity. Because, after all, you’re the one asking for hand-outs, right? Who are you to turn down free stuff when you have nothing anyway? How many people, then, knowing that society will view them as uppity and ungrateful if they refuse, are really going to say no when they’re offered free clothing by the helping-white-guy while a camera is pointed at them?
Note: This point has nothing to do with whether some people would welcome the clothes and feel grateful for them. I don't/can't speak for any homeless people about how they would actually feel about the campaign. Some people undoubtedly will appreciate it. But the problems with this campaign aren't washed away if they do. A fucked up campaign doesn’t become unfucked up just because some people aren’t immediately offended by it. That’s not how it works.
The people who are the target of this campaign are, obviously, capable of interpreting it in their own ways and can feel however they want about it—that doesn’t stop it from being exploitative. Sure, many homeless people may be genuinely grateful for any assistance and acknowledgment anyone is willing to offer—but they’re not obligated to feel that way, and defending Fitch the Homeless on the basis that “they’ll be grateful for anything” “because they’re homeless” is disgusting. Homeless people, like anyone else, have a right to control when and where and how they accept assistance from other people.
It's also worth pointing out that when your day to day existance is full of: people walking past you as if you're invisible, or treating you as the unwanted, unwashed scum of the earth; shop owners refusing to let you use their rest rooms or even to just sit inside for a few miniutes to warm up because they're fearful you'll chase away their customers; or city governments' efforts to "clean up the streets" effectively legislating you into obscurity; which is how many homeless people I've met describe their experiences... Any act of kindness can be appreciated simply as an acknowledgement of your humanity, and not necessarily because the offer really adequately addresses your needs.
Alex Iwashyna discusses this issue of consent and the right of refusal in regards to charity in her post here and a related post over hers about trying to give a sandwich to a homeless man.
To me, as I wrote on twitter, this “Fitch the Homeless” reminds me a lot of the #Kony2012 campaign—but without the exporting of imperialism abroad part. This is again mainly targeting people in relative privilege, to do some baseless performance of “doing good” that in reality is totally disconnected from the actual needs and problems of the people it’s supposed to help. Sure, Fitch the Homeless is not asking you to give money to a potentially shady non-profit org? It's largely asking you to donate clothes you already have (but presumably don’t need, because we’re all wealthy enough to just have closets full of clothes we don’t wear, amirite?), or at worst, go buy them from second hand shops and donate them away. (Although, what is the point of buying donated clothes to donate them away exactly?)
Thankfully(?), Karber is now advocating that you NOT approach random people on the street to thrust clothing at them.
Also, admittedly, the end of the video suggests donating to shelters, not just copying the video. (Though that raises the question, why make the video that way then?)
Oh. About that.
First of all, it’s worth looking at whether clothing donations actually go to people in need in the first place. Elizabeth L. Cline wrote an entire book called Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion exposing the underside of the fashion industry, where all those donated clothes really go. You know, the clothes that you feel so good about giving up so you can free up space in your closet for new fashion. Here is an excerpt I found:
Most Americans are thoroughly convinced there is another person in their direct vicinity who truly needs and wants our unwanted clothes. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Charities long ago passed the point of being able to sell all of our wearable unwanted clothes. They started to look for other solutions. A wiping rag industry sprang up to turn unsellable clothing into rags for industrial purposes. Still, anything left over went into the landfill.
There are thousands of secondhand textile processors in the United States today, mostly small family businesses, many of them several generations old. Without textile recyclers, charities would be totally beleaguered and forced to throw away everything that couldn’t be sold. Charities might even have to turn us away.Now, I shop at second hand stores a lot, because I am poor in the way most college students I know are poor. Almost all of my kitchen utensils are from a thrift store, and that suits me just fine. I have also found some reasonable jeans—and also, at times, been forced to buy jeans that I hated because I didn’t have anything that fit. Anyway. I'm not saying don't donate-- I am saying though, that donating entirely for the sake of making yourself feel good to relieve your own over consumption is a very low form of "charity."
You might point out (pedantically), that the Fitch campaign wants you to donate to shelters, not to second-hand shops. Surely, this will better help to directly benefit homeless people? Before you troop off to your nearest homeless shelter with trash bags full of stuff though, ask yourself, how much time and energy is required to sort through and process, let alone the storage room necessary to hold onto, bags and bags of used clothing? And, what kind of resources do most homeless shelters have at their disposal?
This morning I went in search of an answer to this. I searched for homeless shelters in Madison, Wisconsin and looked for their guidelines to donating used goods. I found several online wish lists specifically for this purpose, and I also called one shelter to ask.
Salvation Army of Madison and Dane County: In-Kind donations (Note, the top of this list says "Please, New Items Only.)
The Road Home: Basic Needs Wish-List
Porchlight's list of Client Needs
YWCA Madison's Wish List
The most needed items tended to be toiletries, shampoos and soaps, feminine hygeine items and also cooking and cleaning supplies. Only SA specifically asked for clothing, and they ask for sizes M-XXL, unused. One shelter that I talked to over the phone told me specifically, "we don't have the capacity" to take in donations of clothing, because it takes up too much room. However, the person on the phone did direct me to a separate local organization that they refer people to all the time, who they told me is able to accept large item and bulk clothing donations:
Community Action Coalition of South Centural Wisconsin's Wish List I was told that this organization does not resell their donations, that it all goes straight to people truly in need. So that was a really great find, in case you are looking for a place to donate clothes to!
Most shelters are small, almost all are underfunded, but some are run by larger organizations, like the Salvation Army, who also run a who.e number of other programs that make them more capable of dealing with bulk donations. (A word about Salvation Army though: they have a very long history of anti-LGBTQ politics, including denying LGBTQ individuals access to shelters.) Some thrift shops meanwhile, like St. Vincent's, are run by organizations that also run food parties and provide other assistance programs as well. It's not that donated clothes can't help the needy, but you can't just show up anywhere with your used clothes and expect them to be grateful.
Most organizations serving marginalized communities have specific needs, and they will gladly tell you what you can do to help. There are many more needs than just clothes. There's also a general over-abundance of unwanted second-hand clothes on the market in part created by our consumer culture, and many shelters aren't going to be able to handle a sudden influx of clothes when that isn't even their most needed item.
Other needs/services for homeless folks in Madison:
Luke House Community Meal Program
Bethel Lutheran Church -- Homeless Ministries runs some support services, a spiritual support group, and a book club
Operation Welcome Home is a homeless-lead group and their advocates working to find solutions in Madison
Madison Homelessness Initiative supports Project Bubbles, an effort to help homeless people access laundry facilities to wash their clothes.
First United Methodist Church runs a Food Ministry that stocks a food pantry and also provides meals. They also coordinate with MHI to support Shower Power, a project to help homeless people access regular showers.
When I asked around a bit to other people in the Madison area where to look for programs assisting with homelessness and poverty, @BrendaKonkel reminded me that the shelters in the area only serve people 30 - 90 days out of the year-- the rest of that time, they have to look beyond the shelters to these other programs for assistance.
So in the end, what is the #FitchTheHomeless campaign even about? Is it about helping poor and homeless people? Because if so, it fails pretty miserably to engage at all with any particular community to assess what their needs are and how to address them.
On the other hand, is it about reforming a brand that carries serious leverage within the fashion industry to shape unrealistic, fat-shaming and unhealthy beauty standards that harm women? Is it about how only carrying size 0 while putting the cut-off at size 10 works into the pressure on women to starve themselves in order to feel valued?
As the Business Insider article I linked to at the very beginning of this post points out the kind of image A&F are looking to cultivate is already being directly challenged by the push to create more diverse clothing for all kinds of bodies. It’s not perfect, there’s a long way yet to go, and it’s been a hard battle just to get “plus sized” models (for all the problems that exist with that category) even recognized. We need more, better designed clothing for all sizes and shapes, for all kinds of fashion tastes, that aren’t manufactured in horrible low-wage exploitative conditions. But let’s not kid ourselves—A&F suddenly expanding to XL and XXL women’s? Not even a drop in the bucket.
If you want to do a boycott-- do a boycott. Be loud and aggressive with the message that A&F's business practices--ALL OF THEM--are atrocious and untenable, and make sure every other company knows they're not off the hook either. (Looking at you, American Apparel.) Pressure every magazine and media source to refuse to carry or print their ads. Make sure everyone knows that wearing A&F is about declaring you're a douchebag. But don't turn around and throw your cast-offs, now that you've realized how awful they are, onto homeless people because either a) you want to use homeless people as a way to "get back" at the company, or b) you figure "well they're homeless, they'll take anything." That's gross.
Or maybe it's just about venting some outrage at a company we all know is outrageous, so we can feel good out our righteous anger, without any consideration for who is hurt in the process. ... Oh.
Edited to Add: Two things! First, I forgot to mention Suspended Coffees which is a cool program that recently spread to Madison also.
Second, I found this post from Jan Wilberg taking issue with the "exploitation" point of criticisms of the campaign. I think she makes some solid points, and I think it's a valid counter to some of my argument. I'm not sure that it makes the video itself not exploitative, and I think I do a good job of dealing with the "people need stuff" angle of it all, but I agree with her point that it's wrong to view homeless folks as uniformly weak and downtrodden. Yes! Lots of people are their own advocates and are capable of refusing gifts, services and shelter that doesn't work for them. They're not just liftless blobs unable to reject used clothing gifts, Obviously. Although, if you're donating to shelters, it's the staff that you're going to be interacting with (and potentially overwhelming), and that's a different problem. I think it's a good read, and I wanted to post it especially because it doesn't uniformly agree with me.