Amy Boone: “Luxury and charity are like oil and water – they don’t mix well.”
The ethical luxury trend isn’t all it’s presented itself to be, writes Amy Boone. But there are several companies that are taking the right approach.
It’s hard to make the argument that luxury and charity are natural pairings. In fact, their natural differences could not be more stark. Luxury is an inherently individualistic, even selfish, concept. You buy high-end goods to signal your social and economic standing, to impress others, to advance your career. In luxury, it’s all about you the individual. Charity, on the other hand, is selfless — your actions are intended to help those in need. Luxury is consumption; charity, through giving, is the exact the opposite of that.
Yet as young shoppers in their twenties and thirties increasingly seek out purposeful products that come with a story, brands are taking notice. Many are starting to adopt philanthropic missions in order to capitalize on the ethical and “empathy” trends. But there’s a demonstrated side effect: Brands are tainting a traditional pleasure — the act of buying clothes and goods — with altruism.
This practice has been accelerated by ongoing concerns with factory working conditions especially after the very public tragedy of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 which killed over a thousand garment workers. The luxury and fashion industries are known for being incredibly wasteful and damaging to the environment. Think: harsh, unregulated dyes that contaminate water sources — and fast-paced fashion trends that cause people to buy cheap clothing and throw them out six months later. Even so, the sheer size of the industry makes it incredibly hard to set up a supply chain that makes true charity achievable to achieve to as many consumers prefer to show off superficially charitable acts rather than change their spending habits to usher in real change.
Despite their oil and water relationship, superficial philanthropy and fashion do, in a sense, blend well: Western consumers love to look and feel as though they are being charitable. This is the factor that makes companies like TOMS and FEED very successful because the branding and charitable mission are so publicized on the products that those wearing the garments and accessories can show off the fact that they did something “good”.
Unfortunately these companies that trumpet their charitable missions as the basis of their existence often ignore the tragedies in their own supply chain or offer a bandaid solution to a symptom of poverty instead of trying to truly empower developing economies. TOMS, for one, drew sharp criticism several years ago when some economists noticed the true effects of the “buy one, give one” business model: When a company gives away shoes for free, it makes it nearly impossible for local shoe cobblers in the area to remain in business. TOMS modified their business model after this revelation, but it is still very representative of how western brands approach solving these sorts of problems.
Wearing your ethics on your sleeve.
Philanthropy and fashion don’t always succeed together because the companies that are truly charitable are less appealing to consumers. There are many fashion brands in the so-called “ethical fashion” or “sustainable fashion” space that are constantly looked down upon for being “lame” or “unfashionable” — it’s because they are less prone to trend-chasing due to their commitment of ethical production.
Many of these companies are genuinely trying to do less harm in the world, instead of merely trying to cover up the bad things they’ve done to the people in the countries they produce in. But the problem arises with social comparison. While those who shop at more ethical and sustainable companies are trying to do social and environmental good just like those who buy TOMS or FEED products, it requires a larger shift in their buying habits.
The TOMS and FEED products are more statement pieces to accessorize your outfits with charitable acts as opposed to changing the way you shop. A series of studies by Rebecca Walker Reczek and Daniel Zane at Fisher College of Business (Ohio State) and Julie Irwin at McCombs School of Business (University of Texas at Austin) illustrate why this is a harder goal to achieve:
“Most of the studies [investigate] what’s called moral elevation—when you see someone act ethically and want to emulate that behavior—have looked at exceptional acts, like starting a soup kitchen to help the homeless. We’re inspired by people like Mother Teresa, who do really amazing things to transform their communities. This often does lead to moral elevation. But most of us haven’t encountered a situation in which we’ve deliberately made a choice not to do that inspiring thing. Since you didn’t actively choose not to start a soup kitchen, you don’t experience a sense of threat the way you do if you observe someone buying jeans in a more ethical way than you did.”
Basically, we feel threatened by those who were placed in the exact same position as us — the act of buying jeans — that made a more selfless decision than us. It’s a similar phenomenon as when someone touts their vegan lifestyle. The fact that you could have done the same and didn’t makes you more critical of their lifestyle in order to feel better about your own decisions — so the thinking goes.
This is why the truly “good” companies don’t succeed as quickly as superficially charitable companies. The real challenge for the future lies with ethical and sustainable fashion companies marketing their products in a way that doesn’t alienate customers who don’t necessarily shop with ethics in mind. (Some brands are well on their way to doing this.)
Brands that I think are trying to improve the world in a sustainable manner:
New Market Goods: Made in Bangladesh, responsibly. They source from ethical factories and the brand aims to further improve local livelihoods by returning a share of our profits directly back to the community they source from
Everlane: “Radical Transparency” in price and supply chain; they also help improve an individual factory every Black Friday with all their profits from that day’s sales
Zady: Online boutique selling other ethical brands as well as their own line with sustainably sourced materials and Fair Trade manufacturing. They also do a lot of work in educating consumers on injustices in the fashion supply chain (I recommend signing up for their newsletter, The New Standard)
Pamela Love: Sustainably-sourced jewelry, made in New York City
Brother Vellies: Men’s and women’s shoes sourced in Africa with consideration for the needs of the workers and incorporating traditional African elements
Ethical Silk Company: Producing silk products with Peace Silk (PETA-approved silk fiber), Fair Trade certified, and a portion of the profits are given to charity
On the traditional side, giving clothing to charities like Salvation Army or disaster relief groups comes with its own set of problems. Because our consumption of clothing has exploded in recent years, these charitable groups cannot handle the sheer volume of (usually cheap) clothing they receive.
For places like Goodwill, most of the clothing they receive cannot be sold in the same region since people usually give old clothes that are already wearing through. In fact, only around twenty percent of donated clothing can be resold, the rest is either recycled, sent overseas, or dumped in landfills. The U.S. sends away a full billion pounds of used clothing per year where clothes are bought in 1,000-pound bales, sorted and then resold to the local populace, sometimes wreaking havoc on local industries by taking jobs away from local textile workers (similar to the TOMS problem).
In Sub-Saharan Africa, the constant flood of used clothing is so pervasive that it’s even part of the language. The colloquial Ghanaian phrase “obroni wawu” can be translated to “clothes of the dead white man.” Eleven percent of donations made to Goodwill in 2014 were deemed unsaleable and carted to landfills — about 22 million pounds — costing the organization millions of dollars in transport fees and other expenses. This last point is an issue for those disaster relief groups as well.
Those in need after a natural disaster, for example, don’t need your cheap, unwanted clothes they need water, medical supplies, and food and the disaster relief groups need money to buy supplies people actually need. The sorting and transporting of these unwanted physical goods can cause a lot of problems for these groups and severely decrease their effectiveness in the areas they’re trying to help. By some estimates, about 60 percent of donated items cannot be used. These are mostly clothing and food. People even send strange items like high heeled shoes or sports equipment like Cher in Clueless.
The solution (beyond any government regulation) is to buy fewer but better, longer-lasting clothing that are produced responsibly. It’s not as fun and requires a lot more research than spotting a cute dress in a shop window but it can be incredibly rewarding and make you really care about each item in your closet. Yes, they will probably be more expensive but when you don’t shop as often it can start to make up the difference. If doing the right thing was cheap, the world wouldn’t be in this situation. Some companies like JUST are trying to reduce the research efforts and make it easier to shop responsibly.
Lean Luxe subscriber Amy Boone is a software engineer for LinkedIn and fashion history blogger for This Tailored Life. This editorial is adapted from a previous version on LinkedIn. The views reflected here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Lean Luxe.