Thursday, August 14, 2008

Retail Activism

Last night I was pleased to see the “Retail Activist” tote bag in the window of my local Housing Works Thrift Shop.  I am on the board of directors of the shops, a not for profit agency which provides a variety of services for the homeless /AIDS population in New York City and beyond.  We raise money by operating over half a dozen thrift stores in New York. Primarily the money comes from the sale of donated goods.  Housing Works focuses on better gently used items.  We are a “luxury” thrift after all.  On the street they call us Salvation Armani.  The tote bag is part of new initiative, creating now our own branded products to raise funds.

I admit I take special pride in the verbiage.  I wrote it.  For five years I was the Visual Director for the company – creating window displays for all our shops.  I must have done well because I was recruited shortly thereafter by Donna Karan to fulfill the same role at her company.  I joined the Housing Works board after I left the thrift shops, consulting on merchandising issues for our ever fashion forward efforts.  The company expanded rapidly during that time (we have almost doubled the amount of stores in five years) and I put my hat into the ring to design a West Village thrift boutique, a smaller, more high-end business model with a big emphasis on in-store environment and personal service.  On the fitting room mirrors there we emblazoned the phrase “Retail Activist”, so that our customers could get a look not just at what they were buying or trying but what ultimately their business with us made them, namely activists, whether they thought about it or not.

There are many ways to make the world better and activism no matter the cause comes in many forms.  Is it really a surprise that in a consumer based culture such as our own that shopping would be one of them?  In fact in a culture like ours being a consumer might be the most powerful position of all – that is of course if we are aware of that power.  Now in a stalled economy the point is driven home.  People are feeling the need to reclaim their authority over their spending.  Their money seems ever more a precious and limited resource, one however that is more and more in demand as the increasingly sophisticated and pervasive advertising apparatus finds ways to cajole us into buying.  It seems that we are offered more and more stuff to buy, but we are actually given less choice: products are designed for obsolescence, large franchises smother independent retailers and designers and amounts and sizes of products, especially foodstuffs, are surreptitiously made smaller. 

The one choice that remains however is what and where to buy…or not.  Withholding our money is the one thing that the great forces of commerce and fear.  We all know the adage – Money talks “etcetera etcetera” walks.  It’s not easy though.  The homogenization of retail compels a lot of people, especially people outside of big cities, to shop at large franchises where product offerings are determined in anonymous corporate offices.  They don’t really address the needs of communities or individuals.  They aim instead to shape them.  And for years now retailers have appealed to the better parts of ourselves.  Breast cancer’s pink ribbon campaign is probably the most well known of such efforts.  Of course these efforts are as much about the good public relations they generate as they are about aiding their respective causes.  At Housing Works the model is perhaps reversed.  Our mission was in place long before we opened stores and our goal was never profit in the traditional sense.  Nevertheless since our inception we recognized the importance of savvy marketing and benefits of taking advantage of all the for profit methods of appealing to customer’s desires. 

Preserving our resources of course has become a very timely cause celebré.  Fashionistas parade down the sidewalks with the “I am not a plastic bag” bag.  Recycling is derigeur.  Green materials pop up everwhere from fine furniture to wedding announcements to coffee cups.  Locavores crow about the destructive “food miles” our eating habits create.  In a way Housing Works was a green company long before anyone ever thought about it.  Our entire business model is based on recycling, on stopping the flow of waste, on giving products a second chance, and of course giving the individuals who we help their second chance as well.

I hope these simple canvas totes can broadcast the same message – to change the world with the change in your pockets and to shop as thoughtfully with as much consciousness of its power and consequences as possible.

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