Good Deeds, or Better Sales? Examining Corporate Philanthropy in the Fashion Industry

In the current political climate, where businesses are seeking to align themselves with a “new wave of wokeness”, corporate philanthropy has become a big game in the fashion industry. For his final collection at Burberry, Christopher Bailey debuted a see-now-buy-now capsule which integrated the rainbow flag of the LGBTQ movement into the label’s iconic check pattern, and announced that the brand had made “substantial donations” to three charities; the The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), the Albert Kennedy Trust, and the Trevor Project.

Similarly, following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida back in February, Gucci announced it would be donating $500,000 to March For Our Lives, the student-led push for tighter gun control laws that took place across the United States on March 24th.

And in March, Balenciaga’s AW18 presentation revealed a number of garments and accessories adorned with the logo of the United Nations’ World Food Program, later announced as a collaboration between Balenciaga and the charity which would see 10% of proceeds from sales of all WFP-branded products donated to the cause. The Paris-based fashion house also stated that it had already donated a quarter of a million dollars to the charity.

From Maison Martin Margiela’s Special-Edition AIDS t-shirts to Vivienne Westwood’s well-documented activism in a number of fields, fashion feeling charitable is nothing new. The phenomenon of corporate philanthropy – when big business grows a big heart and writes a big charity cheque – has been a mainstay of Western consumer society for some time.

It’s understandable why people might see the line between individual acts of charity and corporate philanthropy as a nonexistent one – living in a society that largely treats corporations as people necessarily flattens the distinction between the two so that the only difference is how many zeros are on the cheque. But it’s an at best misguided and at worse wilfully disingenuous understanding of the nature of corporate goodwill, which is infinitely more complex than your nan reaching into her purse and dropping a quid into the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association bucket.

First of all, it’s important to consider not the quantity of the donation, but the quality. There are many different ways for a brand to give money to good causes, and they don’t all function in the same way. Take, for example, “a portion of proceeds”, an innocuous phrase worth analysing. At its most generous, this typically means that once production costs have been covered, an undisclosed amount from what is left over will be donated.

Noble, no doubt, but remember that when your nan puts that pound coin in the charity bucket, she’s left one pound worse off than she was beforehand. With corporate philanthropy, businesses that donate a portion of proceeds once costs have been recovered don’t actually lose anything – they do, however, gain a heap of glowing PR.

For the most part, individual acts of goodwill don’t come with the option to give your cash and have it too, and while it’s true that businesses lose out on potential profits when they give them to charity, it remains important to remember that “lost revenue” is not the same as putting cold hard cash on the table.

Another question worth asking within this dynamic is who it is that’s actually donating the money. For its collaboration with the WFP, Balenciaga stated that the label would be donating 10% of the sale price of all WFP-branded products to the charity, as well as 10% of suggested retail price from third party sales. Excluding their cash donation, the product side of the deal is much less a case of the business giving to a charity as it is the business passing a hat around to its customers asking them each to chip in.

Ultimately, it’s the customer who is encouraged into buying product to support the cause, while the brand collects the karma. Donating a portion of sales to a charity is all well and good, but in the case of high fashion brands, whose products often have incredibly high profit margins, it often only raises questions as to where the rest of the money is going.

It’s a familiar phenomenon in modern society; integrating a good deed into a commodity so that consumers don’t have to think too deeply about the impact of their consumptive practices. You see it in supermarkets in the form of Fair Trade labels, in the “one-for-one” business model employed by brands like TOMS who couple each purchase of one of their products with a likewise material donation to a needy cause, and in those big blocks of copy found on coffee shop walls which tell you who grew your beans and how much of a difference to their lives you’d make if you’d only size up to Grande.

Instead of donating their own cash or engaging with social causes in a tangible, material way, people are encouraged to consume as normal, safe in the knowledge that their good deed for the day has been seamlessly integrated into the sales transaction as if nothing had even happened. It troubles me when a brand attempts to represent their customers’ everyday consumptive practices as an act of charity, but it troubles me more when those same brands try to transform it further into an act of charity by the for-profit enterprise taking the money.

It’s also worth considering whether fashion industry is engaging in philanthropy to try and distract from the its many shortcomings elsewhere. For decades, the fashion world has been dogged by scandals surrounding questionable and discriminatory practices, exploitation of labour, environmental damage and a laundry list of other issues, and it’s only in recent years that the industry at large has appeared to even acknowledge, let alone confront, some of these issues.

This new wave of corporate goodwill could be an attempt to atone for previous sins, but if the fashion industry at large was truly interested in making the world a better place, I’d rather see it start with the problems on its own doorstep – the solutions to which might require brands’ bottom lines to actually take a hit.

Of course, there is a way to do charity right: Earlier this year, the New York-based label Proenza Schouler showed its support for gun regulation by releasing two special edition t-shirts with 100% of proceeds going to Everytown, an anti-gun violence charity founded in 2014 by mothers, gun violence survivors and community activists. The donation of proceeds means that the label is not only raising money for a good cause, but is also putting its own money on the line and treating the act of charity as something that should be factored into the entire production process – not just eventual profit margins.

It’s also worth acknowledging that Gucci’s lump sum donation to the fight for gun control, completely detached from any product, represents a donation based more on values than on potential sales. By being isolated from the complex world of fashion commerce, the donation feels more sincere than one more dependent upon customers walking through doors and buying product. Naturally, Gucci will still have enjoyed a healthy dose of media kudos for the donation, and the heavily protest-movement-inspired images in their AW18 campaign suggests that their awakening activism may still be little more than metatextual marketing. But the fact remains, Gucci put half a million dollars on the line for a cause, asking for nothing in return.

The thing is, consumers today, particularly young ones, are savvy. They’re plugged into the world via social media and have a strong sense of their values, and many expect the brands they support to reflect their values in a substantive way. In the fashion industry, this means occupying a cultural space which isn’t simply about commerce and clothing, but about driving real cultural change. Clearly, corporations are waking up to this, but their first steps suggest their chosen approach is more performative than introspective.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to write a piece criticising this phenomenon without feeling like you’re coming across as someone opposed to charity or philanthropy. But it bears repeating that the issue isn’t with the act of giving itself, but of how and why it is being done. We need only look at the recent scandal surrounding Oxfam’s work in Haiti, or the Red Cross’s long history of misallocating disaster relief funds, to see that even charity itself is a deeply complex and often flawed industry.

It only gets more complicated when profit-driven private enterprises are brought into the mix. Many businesses can claim back charitable donations as tax deductions later on, so even the simplest act of charity might not be entirely altruistic. All too often, brands are allowed to present as an act of selfless good will something which is realistically more a well-intentioned marketing initiative or PR drive, and it leaves me feeling uneasy.

Nor is this an attack on activism itself, which is more vital and necessary than ever. In fact, the most valuable thing that these big brand charitable donations can bring is visibility – one need only look at the comment sections for any of Burberry’s LGBTQ-related Instagram posts, or the response to Supreme’s collaboration with photographer Nan Goldin earlier this year, to see that homophobia and transphobia are issues that continue to infect our society. One can easily imagine the backlash Gucci and Proenza Schouler will have also received for daring to pick a side in America’s seemingly endless gun control debate.

No one should ever treat an attempt to challenge these troubling issues as a wholly negative thing. But it remains important to understand the distinction between who consumes media (us), who produces it (brands), and how our values might not be perfectly aligned regarding what we hope our solidarity will accomplish.

Opening up the company coffers to give vital financial support to a worthy cause? I’m all for it. But when the reality is little more than passing a collection plate around your customer base so you can claim the praise in the end, it’s worth asking whether the grand gesture of a good deed is actually just another sale.

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