As millions prepare to celebrate St. Patrick's Day this weekend, we're reflecting on a teachable moment and what it tells us about inclusivity. Last month, apparel retailer J. Crew released a St. Patrick's Day T-shirt to help shoppers mark the holiday, but the company ultimately pulled the item after many social media users called it “offensive.”
The shirt in question features a stylized map of Ireland overlaid with symbols and phrases that supposedly represent Irish culture, but what J. Crew’s designers did—and did not—include seemed questionable. The shirt excludes the whole of Northern Ireland and is replete with stereotypes—including text that reads “beer” and “more beer.” Not only are these stereotypes offensive, but leaving out Northern Ireland disregards St. Patrick’s history—the patron saint is buried at Down Cathedral in the province of Ulster, which straddles both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
As one Twitter user, @FXKennedy, said:
"Hey, @jcrew, it's great that you're doing an Irish t-shirt for St Patrick’s Day, but this is offensive, bordering on obnoxious, for a couple of reasons. I'll let you figure it out for yourselves, but showing the design to any Irish person would have helped."
The company apologized, but social media users had already felt the outrage. Some went so far as to say they would never buy anything from the brand again—indicating the misstep could have long-term effects on the company’s reputation and bottom line.
Several other companies have recently had to save face from similar circumstances. At a London Fashion Week show, Burberry sent a hoodie that featured a noose down the walkway, though the company said it was supposed to go along with the marine theme of the collection. Katy Perry also recently apologized and pulled a pair of shoes from her line that resembled blackface.
With all of the resources at their disposal, major companies can—and should—do better than this wave of offensive and distasteful fashion mistakes. The J. Crew case, for example, could have been prevented with even a small amount of research into Ireland’s history. Clearly this didn’t happen at the design phase, nor did anyone notice the inaccuracies and stereotypes before the shirt went into production—indicating a lack of diverse voices at the decision-making table.
In today’s time, an apology will not always cut it. It has become almost cliché for companies to apologize. People want companies to take action and prove they have learned from their mistakes.
Starbucks, for example, instituted racial bias training in stores across the U.S. after a manager accused two African-American men of trespassing in a Philadelphia Starbucks and called police. Following the incident, the company also added a new training module for employees that focuses on community-building and self-care.
No matter what J. Crew does to rectify the situation, the company needs to be more cautious about offensive stereotypes and misrepresentations moving forward. Even in the midst of consumer backlash, leadership has a chance to make the situation better by taking steps to ensure this does not happen again. Pulling the shirt was a good decision, but more needs to be done. Words can only fix so much. When dealing with a public mistake, companies would be wise to consider the root cause of the issue—be it lack of diversity at the decision-making level or insufficient training across the company—as both customers and employees have come to expect.
Image credit: Pixabay
Ashley Paskill is a journalist from Hatfield, Pennsylvania. She graduated from Temple University in 2017 and has since been writing for publications such as Uloop, That Music Mag, Totally Driven, and North Penn Now. In her free time, she loves spending time with friends and watching “Law and Order: SVU” marathons.