The last word: luxury goods – ethics out of fashion

By Chandran Nair
The Ethical Corporation

This column by Chandran Nair appears in the November 2008 issue of the Ethical Corporation magazine.

Responsible business has never been in vogue for luxury brands, argues Chandran Nair.

In response to the outcry against Vogue India’s August luxury goods advertising spread, which featured poor Indians as models for Hermes, Burberry and other products, editor Priya Tanna is reported to have claimed: “Fashion is no longer a rich man’s privilege. Anyone can carry it off and make it look beautiful.”

Never mind that the products being modelled are completely out of the models’ reach given that, like nearly half of India’s population, they probably live on less than $1.25 a day. Tanna’s comments are an obvious attempt to put a positive spin on a bad decision – common behaviour in an industry with a history of shunning responsibility for its actions.

The target audience of luxury goods producers in India and other emerging markets is undoubtedly the increasingly affluent wealthy class who are keen to flaunt their new prosperity with western luxury status symbols. The exploitation of poor individuals to reach this market demonstrates the extent to which luxury brands run their businesses without regard for the pressing global issues of our time and with viewpoints that are steeped in ignorance and old-fashioned views of the world.

Last year leading luxury brands were strongly condemned for poor environmental, social and governance performance in WWF’s Deeper Luxury report. The pressure group called luxury goods firms laggards among other consumer goods producers in areas of ethics and sustainability.

Why did Vogue use the poor as models? One silly reason given is that the models may one day be customers in a society where many consumers are moving quickly up the economic strata. But the very idea of planting the seeds of desire for a $10,000 bag in a community that struggles for basic food and clothing is immoral, and a sad indictment of an advertising industry that will go to any lengths to sell a product.

The blatant lack of judgment in the Vogue incident is just the icing on a rather large cake. The list of luxury brand faux pas is long: the use of conflict diamonds in products, poor compliance with supply chain requirements and lack of reported environmental monitoring are just some of the factors that point to weak value-systems at the top of the industry.

When criticised for fuelling a culture of vapid elitism, over-consumption and wastage without considering the broader implications on societies in emerging markets, luxury brands revert to the same old lazy and inept arguments. They say that increased market demand creates jobs for the poor; people should be able to decide for themselves; and their products can even improve the quality of lives of the consumers. Even the use of destitute models by Vogue was defended with the claim that the photo shoot allowed the models to earn a good wage.

Get serious

While it may be true that the models earned a decent wage for their day’s work, the general nonchalance displayed in this instance is disturbing. Tanna defended the Vogue ads by saying: “You have to remember with fashion, you can’t take it that seriously.” She argued that the ads were not meant to make any political point, or attempt to save the world, but rather were simply a “creative pursuit”. Standards must be very low if this is the cutting edge of creativity within the industry.

In a world where corporate responsibility is an important strategy for all companies that want to be successful in the long term, luxury brands need to move rapidly from the shallowness that seems to be an intrinsic feature of the industry.

They must begin a serious debate about how the industry will begin to meet minimum social and environmental standards. This would be far better than the vast spending of marketing dollars on silly campaigns that trivialise the issues. Advertising vehicles such as Vogue and other media should use their unique position of influence with the more wealthy to raise awareness and take action.

In working towards taking action, the luxury industry will in fact strengthen its position in places such as India. As WWF’s report points out, in emerging markets “the credibility of luxury products and services will be derived from their ability to generate wellbeing, not only for consumers, but also for those involved in or affected by their production, use, reuse and disposal”.

What better way to demonstrate responsibility than to equate high-end brands with improving the lives of millions? If the draw of brands like Hermes and Fendi can spur wealthy consumers to become aware of the deprivation around them and take action, this will be a step in the right direction.

Chandran Nair is the founder and CEO of the Global Institute For Tomorrow.