The special responsibilities that come with targeting younger customers made the news this week when a t-shirt sold by teen clothing chain Jay Jays sparked debate.
The t-shirt had the phrase, “You can’t sit with us” emblazoned on the front.
The quote is from a movie called Mean Girls, which explores the social dynamics between catty high school girls. It was released 11 years ago.
Another shirt, with the message “I never liked you anyway”, was also described by customers as offensive.
Many enraged customers on Facebook said it encouraged bullying, while others said the t-shirts were harmless.
The decision to sell these shirts could be considered ill-judged by the retailer, considering competitor Cotton On did the exact same thing a year beforehand and was forced to retract its products.
Cotton On released a range of products, including shirts, with “You can’t sit with us” on them in 2014, but after a barrage of complaints, it pulled the range and apologised.
So, do retailers have a social responsibility when it comes to what products they sell?
Child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg believes so.
He has proposed customers boycott Jay Jays stores until the t-shirts are pulled as he feels the shirts promote bullying.
“This is exclusionary bullying. This [bullying] is a major public health issue,” he told the Herald Sun.
“I talked to a mother of one 12-year-old who said if you had any idea what life is like in the playground for my 12-year-old old you would know this is obscene,” Dr Carr-Gregg said.
By contrast, teen clothing retailer Supré is focused on making a positive change and promoting a ‘zero tolerance’ attitude towards bullying.
The chain was bought by Cotton On Group in 2013 and has seven stores around New Zealand: three in Auckland, one in Hamilton, one in Whangarei, one in Napier and one in Lower Hutt.
Supré general manager and former CEO of Sportsgirl, Elle Roseby, says the company understands it has a responsibility to its customers, from the products it sells to the way it engages with them.
“We are constantly listening to what our girl wants, we know she is conscious about the community in which she lives and we are committed to building partnerships that will resonate with her,” Roseby says.
Supré isn’t just talking the talk, either – it’s investing $300,000 to bullying prevention projects over the next 12 months through youth mental health organisation Headspace.
“We look for ways to make a difference in our customers’ lives beyond just the products we sell. We've been working with national youth mental health organisation, Headspace, since August 2014 on instigating and implementing grass root grant programmes, and will be looking for more partners in this space both in Australia and New Zealand,” she says.
It’s the biggest contribution to Headspace ever made by an Australian retailer.
Headspace CEO Chris Tanti says it’s great to see a retailer Supré taking a leadership position, seeing as bullying has a significant mental health impact on young people.
Roseby says she believes brands can foster positive change and create a supportive world for teen girls, who are the company’s main customers.
Recently, Supré surveyed over 2000 customers and found that almost two thirds of teenage girls had been a victim of bullying, while 80 percent knew someone who had been bullied.
It makes good business sense to look at issues like bullying, she says.
“As a team we want to make sure we have a philanthropic heart, and as a young brand it makes total sense to look at the issue of bullying and what we can do to help,” she says.
“Our aim is to become a leader in the space, and, across our 106 stores, work together to raise awareness and support.”
Supre has also launched a campaign called ‘Always By Your Side’, which came about after the aforementioned survey found girls who were victims of bullying turned to friends for help rather than family or teachers.
Customers can become a part of the cause by buying things like water bottles, diaries and friendship bracelets, with all proceeds going back into the Supré Foundation.
Further afield, Hollister has announced an anti-bullying campaign called ‘All Equal’, which is aiming to increase anti-bullying awareness and reach one million students with its message.
Since 2013, it’s donated more than $400,000 to supporting causes. This year’s campaign features an educational video made by an anti-bullying expert.