What Abercrombie and Fitch Can Teach Us about the Same-Sex Marriage Controversy

When I was a young teenager, Abercrombie & Fitch was one of the “it” brands. Everyone in school wanted to wear it, and it was absolutely used to signal that one was up-to-date on recent trends. As the child of two schoolteachers, I learned very early in my life that paying $50 for a t-shirt I’d grow out of in six months was an absurd expense that would not be paid (you can imagine how well this line went over with a 12-year-old girl).

A few years ago, former Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries and the company came under fire when Business Insider published a piece containing comments Jeffries had made in 2006. In the interview, Jeffries stated that he didn’t want fat or “uncool” people wearing the brand. In fact, the store carried ladies pants only up to size 10 and didn’t carry any women’s sizes above a “large.” Jeffries stated,

[W]e hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t want to market to anyone other than that.

In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and lots of friends. A lot of people don’t belong, and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.

The company came under scrutiny once again after a lawsuit regarding its aesthetic guidelines, or “look policy,” for its employees, dictating everything from hair color to nail length. The outrage was immediate and intense. A variety of celebrities and talk shows discussed the story and called for a boycott of the brand. Another group began giving Abercrombie & Fitch shirts to homeless people.

Then, miraculously, something amazing happened. In 2013, Abercrombie & Fitch, in a complete departure from its standing practices, started stocking larger women’s clothing. Although the company continues to defend many of its policies for employees, it’s clear that Abercrombie has caved to the pressure and now encourages even “uncool” clientele to buy their products.

So why should we care about a change in policy for some clothing company?

We should care because it’s a marvelous example of market forces at work. The CEO of Abercrombie chose to indulge his preferences, what some have called “fat shaming” or “fat-bias.” He chose to restrict his company’s product to particular groups and exclude others. As a result, he not only eliminated a potentially large source of revenue, but turned many potential customers away from his brand as they found the policies offensive. Jeffries’ firm suffered the consequences as a result. Their popularity waned, their profits declined, and eventually Jeffries stepped down as CEO.

Often when discussing issues of discrimination and exclusion, there are immediately calls for government to “do something” to remedy it. “Congress should pass a law,” “government should ban,” “retailers should be required to…” The list goes on and on.

But note here that Congress didn’t have to pass a law stating that Abercrombie & Fitch had to create clothes for larger women or let chess-team captains shop in their stores. No committees needed to be formed. No bureaus were created to advance the cause of “ugly people.” Instead, it was individuals, their choices, and profit and loss incentives that put a check on poor business decisions. Jeffries and Abercrombie made choices that cut against many people’s ideals—and suffered the consequences.

Such a case and the logic behind it are important to remember when discussing a variety of current issues. Several weeks ago, I discussed one such issue surrounding same-sex marriage. In particular, I made the argument that businesses should be allowed to serve whatever clientele they wish. That is, if a bakery or photographer has moral or other qualms about providing their services to a same-sex couple, they should be allowed to decline their services. I made the case that vendors choosing not to serve same-sex couples would suffer the consequences of such a policy, whether positive or negative.

The case of Abercrombie & Fitch is one example of how the market enforces social norms. If people think discriminating against overweight, ugly, or “uncool” people is wrong, then letting a company like Abercrombie demonstrate its preferences against these groups unleashes the wrath of the consumer. In the same way, allowing vendors to openly indulge their preferences on same-sex marriage will let market forces work. Those who find such policies offensive won’t buy, and those who agree will continue to support the business.

So perhaps it’s time to stifle our moral outrage and quit calling on the government to “fix” these kinds of problems and instead let the market do its job.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Associate Professor of Economics at Sykes College of Business at the University of Tampa.
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