Warby Parker has distributed over a million pairs of glasses to people in need. Luxottica – the Italian firm behind about 80 percent of the eyewear business – has “provided vision care access to 8.5 million people worldwide.”
If you’re a conscious consumer looking for glasses, which provider do you prefer?
The question is not unique to eyewear. Footwear maker Toms has given 45 million pairs of shoes to poor children. Maiyet, a fashion brand, “seeks to elevate the next generation of master craftsmen from places such as India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Mongolia, and Peru,” and trains its partners to “promote stability and prosperity in their communities.”
And clothing designer Eileen Fisher’s vision “is for an industry where human rights and sustainability are not the effect of a particular initiative, but the cause of a business well run.”
Are these fashion companies practicing a more conscious or inclusive capitalism? Or are they making token gestures so they can tell their customers what they want to hear? Should an ethical observer even care about motives, or only outcomes? And what outcomes are relevant?
A growing number of consumers want to “vote with their wallets” – but the information provided about companies resembles political campaign messages rather than clear evidence of sustainability.
In my view, capitalism can evolve toward sustainability if the concept is understood to include all the impacts a business has on society – not limited to environmental effects but also including things like workers’ health, fair trade, and income inequality. All these companies claim to be sustainable capitalists, but are they really?
I was curious why my research into sustainability kept turning up examples in the marketing of upscale fashion companies; Eileen Fisher’s “business as a movement” statement was the deepest and most comprehensive I’ve come across.
Does the culture of this industry account for these companies’ seemingly more ethics-driven choices? Not according to Jeffry Aronsson, former CEO of several fashion companies including DKNY and Marc Jacobs, and now an investor in the industry.
In fashion a differentiated message is important, he said, and “authentic is good for the brand proposition.” But ethics “would only drive an investment as long as it doesn’t divert focus from the business mission.”
Paul van Zyl, co-founder and CEO of Maiyet and former executive secretary of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, did see an unusual situation in fashion, rooted in customer attitudes and the economics of the business.
“Artisanship is at the root of luxury and French and Italian artisans have historically been responsible for production. For both economic and social reasons European artisanal production is facing strong headwinds. This creates space for incredibly skilled artisans from developing economies…to satisfy the needs of the luxury consumer.”
The key according to van Zyl is to provide “these artisans with design direction, access to markets and the infrastructure to produce impeccable products. If you can solve these challenges you can produce a twenty-first century luxury brand – and do good in the world at the same time.”
If consumers want to use their wallets to make a difference, how can they tell which companies are sincere about social change? How can they compare Warby Parker with Luxottica, for example?
Both companies have philanthropic programs. But the consumer still has no data, for example, on whether one company insists on better labor practices at the factories it patronizes.
Also, Warby Parker is certified as a B Corp, which offers a stronger guarantee that they practice sustainable capitalism. By contrast, Luxottica – which controls many of the world’s top eyeware brands like Chanal, Prada, Oakley, and Tory Burch – behaves like a classic monopolist, pumping up advertising and raising prices (CBS reported that after the company bought Ray-Ban, the price increased from $30 to 150, for example.)
In other words, Warby Parker has a structural commitment to social benefit, while Luxottica pursues practices that shift consumer surplus to investors – an unsustainable form of capitalism.
The conscious consumer doesn’t need to know what is in Luxottica’s heart, nor Warby Parker’s, for that matter. The customer does need to know how broad and thorough a commitment the company has made to practices that can make capitalism sustainable.
Eileen Fisher claims “we don’t want sustainability to be our edge. We want it to be universal.” Does the company mean it? Do we care, as long as they are dealing responsibly with their supply chain, labor force, and environmental impact?
If you dig deeper into their practices, you do find evidence that substantiates their statements. For example, they became a member of bluesign in 2009 – a standard that “unites the textile supply chain to reduce its impact on people and the environment” – and then worked with Chinese silk dyers to make them compliant with the system.
And Jeffry Aronsson is right – fashion is not unique. The high-end home furnishings business displays similar characteristics, and has attracted competition from large companies like the Container Store or IKEA, who reduce consumer costs while bundling sustainability into their offers, as well as small companies like the Portuguese retailer Boa Safra, whose label promises low energy consumption, non-toxic materials, recyclability, local origin, biodegradeability, fair trade, and low waste.
But figuring out the results of a company’s sustainability efforts takes a lot of knowledge and consideration. Consumers are confronted with a proliferating set of markers of sustainability: LEED certified buildings, Fair Trade coffee or trustea tea, bluesign textiles, EICC certified electronics, and too many others to keep track of.
That guarantees that for many consumers a company’s reputation – not actual performance – will influence choice. What’s lacking is a comprehensive sustainability scorecard.
A Way Forward
As customers, we want to understand companies’ motivations because we think it will help us identify those who are genuinely trying to be part of the solution. But we’d be better off knowing more about their behavior.
When we choose meat that Whole Foods markets as humanely raised, we don’t need to know if the farmer loves animals – we trust that a “5” means that the animal’s wellbeing was protected regardless.
Why not create a universal measurement system that looks at the key elements of business and grades each one for sustainability, across industries, allowing consumers to make choices based on evidence rather than reputation. The system might consider materials, as Boa Safra and bluesign do; labor practices, as EICC and Fair Trade do; social engagement, as Maiyet and Eileen Fisher do; even competitiveness, as antitrust law is supposed to do. Then as consumers we could stop trying to read minds – and could more easily disregard empty assertions about the sustainability of a given brand.
What we need is a more comprehensive set of metrics for company behavior, and more customers who insist on high grades. This would convince consumer-focused companies to behave more sustainably, whatever their motives.
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