What first started as a simple, local business venture was shut down when fears of customer disapproval became priority.
Underground Printing stopped selling political merchandise last month in an effort to stay politically neutral, according to Underground Printing co-owner Rishi Narayan.
The company, which began when co-owners Narayan and Ryan Gregg were students at the University of Michigan in 2001, is primarily a custom T-shirt company. With two retail stores in Ann Arbor and several more on other college campuses around the country, it has established itself as a major college apparel outfitter.
The company also sells printed apparel on Amazon. Last year, it began to experiment with selling political merchandise, and released “Not My President” shirts and “Make America Great Again” apparel.
Narayan said the decision to sell political gear was purely a business experiment, based on current nationwide cultural trends.
“It’s just something we were kind of messing around with on Amazon,” Narayan said. “We’re not making a political statement in any way. … It’s just what’s out there in Americana. Like, there are cat T-shirts, too. Sometimes we just try to follow some of those trends.”
As a custom shirt company, Narayan said giving customers ways to express themselves is their primary goal, and wearing political merchandise is an important way to do that for people of all political parties. Furthermore, Narayan added the company initially felt it was important to create merchandise for both sides of the aisle to stay politically neutral.
“Ultimately, our customers are just expressing their ideas and opinions,” he said. “We do sell a variety of different types of shirts on Amazon and other platforms … but our position is that we’re going to help our customers express themselves and we should always take a neutral standpoint so that we’re helping our customers express whatever their ideas are.”
However, this August, Underground Printing decided to halt its sales of political clothing for the time being. While there was no outright backlash to its merchandise, Narayan said the company worried it would make some customers feel uncomfortable coming to UGP with their apparel orders.
“There hasn’t been (any backlash),” he said. “We have decided due to recent events that we feel like the best way to remain nonpartisan is to remove ourselves from any kind of political shirt on Amazon. For us, it’s super important that someone who is conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, to feel comfortable coming to us and printing their shirt.”
Narayan emphasized Underground Printing does not tolerate apparel orders that promote hate or violence, but it also wants to protect the role clothing plays in freedom of expression.
“So as long as it fits within our content requirements, we feel like it’s not our position to make commentary on what someone is saying, and we felt like with the emotion tied around it, we felt like the best way to handle it was to step away from that arena,” Narayan said.
Members of the University community felt mostly ambivalent about Underground Printing’s foray into political merchandise. LSA senior Enrique Zalamea, president of University’s chapter of College Republicans, applauded UGP’s business acumen in all parts of the experiment.
“Kudos to them for taking the opportunity to make some more money and expand into more markets,” Zalamea said. “(But the fact that they’ve stopped selling the shirts) doesn’t come as a surprise given that a good business would stop selling irrelevant merchandise … the elections were a year ago, I don’t think many people would buy Hillary or Trump campaign shirts anymore.”
Public Policy senior Rowan Conybeare, chair of the University’s chapter of College Democrats, agreed with Zalamea that Underground Printing was just making a good business decision by moving into the political sphere. She said she feels the whole process is pretty noncontroversial.
“I don’t think that it sends that strong of a message,” Conybeare said. “If they were selling both Democrat and Republican gear and they only pulled one of them, that would have sent a stronger message. This is just showing they don’t want to get involved in politics.”
When asked if Underground Printing would ever venture into the world of political merchandise again, Narayan said the company wouldn’t cross it off the list, but he doesn’t see it returning to it any time soon.
“I don’t want to say no, we’d never sell it again, but I think that right now we feel like it’s not a good area to be in if you’re trying to stay nonpartisan,” Narayan said. “It’s easy to seem like you’re supporting one or the other.”