Ethics is a philosophical concept that describes what is good or evil with reference to ascribed standards of action (Mackenzie, 2008). Being ethical is perceived differently by different people. For some people, it means great concern for the environment while for others it is great concern for both workers and the society.
For purposes of this paper, being ethical means great concern for the environment, the society, workers and consumers at large. In fashion industry, ‘ethical fashion’ reflects concerns in different areas including workers’ rights, trading relationships, production and processing practices, transportation of products, and social and environmental effects (Labor Behind the Label, n.d).
When it comes to luxury fashion, there is a dilemma as to luxury and sustainability. While ethics dictate luxury brands to be environmental friendly, luxury dictates that luxury brands reflect the highest quality and creativity ever and should not be restricted in any way. This thus leads to the question, is being ethical crucial for the survival of luxury fashion brands in the market?
Today’s marketplace has become more challenging as consumers are increasingly becoming aware of ethical codes of conduct and practices. In the marketplace, there is emerging type of consumers who are more concerned about the ethical performance of companies when making their buying decisions.
The case is even more serious when it comes to luxury brands. Luxury is never a priority and as more consumers become aware of ethical luxury, it only means that unethical brands might soon be faced out of the market. The luxury fashion market has been dominated by the most prominent and high ranking people in the society for a long time.
Such people are well-aware of the prevailing business ethics and can use their knowledge when making buying decisions. Even though, the luxury market has expanded to accommodate the low-class in the society, ethics remain a necessary tool for fashion brands to survive.
Bearing in mind that luxury is not a necessity, consumers are most likely to go for fashion brands that they feel have value for their money and in this case not the monetary value, but the ethical value. Similarly, fashion has the power to evoke change in the society (Chenay, 2011).
As Jem Bendell and Antony Kleanthous (2007) states, “luxury brands have the power to influence consumer aspiration and behavior by editing consumer choices through product design, distribution and marketing; and influencing how, when and for how long consumers use their products” (as cited in Chenay, 2011).
In this case, luxury fashion brands can use ethical practices as a necessary tool to influence consumer buying behaviors. This paper, therefore, seeks to examine the relationship between luxury and ethics. The paper explains the significance of ethics to the survival of luxury brands in the market as presented below.
The significance of ethics to marketing of luxury brands
Traditionally, fashion industries had little concern for ethics. With globalization taking centre stage, marketing of luxury fashion brands is faced with a number of challenges including counterfeiting, fast fashion, casual consumer, maturing new markets, democratized luxury, and western existentialism (Lode, 2008).
At the same time, consumers now use available information to question how production and marketing decisions of various luxury brands affect the social and environmental realms of life. In this regard, luxury fashion brands often face ethical problems while marketing.
As disposable income decreases owing to the recent economic recession, consumers are increasingly becoming conscious of their buying behavior. Consumers are now more than ever concerned about the ethical performance of companies while making decisions to support their luxury brands.
Besides, the luxury market is dominated by the affluent and global elite who show great concern for social and environmental issues, but at the same time are concerned about the luxury element of individual success in the products they purchase (Lode, 2008).
With the increasing demand from ethical consumers, fashion companies are forced to revise their marketing strategies. In order to survive in the current market, fashion industries have to show concern for the environment, professionalism, and the society as well (Lode, 2008).
With the current economic and environmental crises, sustainability cannot be overlooked. Consumers are now more conscious about their consumption habits. Most people only invest in luxury when it becomes a necessity. For this reason, companies dealing in luxury fashion brands must stand out so that their brands are considered.
Companies must convince consumers that they offer more than just status. They must make consumers believe that they offer some solution to the current crises. This can only be achieved through ethical practice. When consumers are convinced that a company brand offer solution to their problems, they will not think twice about supporting the same company by purchasing its luxury brands.
It is for this reason that Marks and Spencer is currently involved in a ?200 million eco-plan with a vision of becoming carbon neutral by 2012 (Eassey, 2009). The company engages in ethical production practices, which includes fair wages and eco-friendly dyes and eventually offers affordable prices to its target consumers who are the youth.
There is a widespread notion that fashion industry encourages conspicuous consumption when sustainability dictates otherwise. In such a marketplace, companies have to be ethical in order to survive. Unless fashion brands convince consumers that they are playing an active role in environmental conservation through their activities, ethical consumers would never support their luxury brands.
This is usually achieved through Fair trade and organic clothing, which most consumers consider environmental friendly. Going green is an ethical strategy that is currently being used by most companies, fashion brands included, to lure ethical consumers into buying their products.
Mark and Spencer plan A initiative is a perfect example of how far luxury fashion brands are ready to go in order to survive in the market. Similarly, the UK-based Monkee Genes has managed to be successful in the luxury fashion market simply because of its eco-friendly jeans and products (Just-style.com, 2011).
According to previous research findings, being ethical is crucial for luxury fashion brands to survive in the current market (Varley, n.d). There have been reported cases where consumers boycott luxury fashion brands on the basis of their ethical performance.
Balenciaga, Gucci, and Yves Saint Laurent, all from PPR SA, are some of the brands that have been faced with boycotts in the recent past for their unethical production practices. Boycotts on these brands were based on the belief that these brands have no respect for animal rights as they predominantly use animal fur in their products.
Better still, available data shows that brands have made remarkable sales when consumers perceive them to be ethical (Varley, n.d). According to Co-operative Bank Ethical Consumerism Report 2007, organic and Fair trade cotton increased sales by 79% between 2005 and 2006 while 2006 recorded significant boycotts in ‘low-cost’ clothing (as cited in Labour in the Label, n.d).
Luxury fashion brands are expected to cost a premium. If this is not reflected in the prices, then such brands may not attract ethical consumers. Besides, ‘low cost’ is perceived as an indicator of poor production and labor practices hence ethically incorrect. Consumers will always choose to support luxury fashion brands that they trust and share values with even if they cost a premium.
If a consumer is more environmental conscience, then he or she would rather support fashion brands that embrace sustainable environmental practices in their production process. Similarly, consumers that are more concerned about business ethics will choose to support luxury fashion brands from companies they consider to have the best business ethics. In an effort to lure ethical consumers to their products, fashion brands are currently taking a notch higher with their ethical practices.
For instance, Ermernegildo Zegna has embraced environmental sustainability it its “Solar jacket” brand that is able to charge handheld electric devices. Similarly, Stella McCartney has embraced eco-design in her shoes which has biodegradable rubber soles. Such initiatives have made their brands attractive to environmental friendly consumers.
Furthermore, the current luxury market has become accessible to many fashion brands hence making it too competitive for a brand to survive on the basis of exclusivity. With many competitors in the market, fashion brands have to work out marketing strategies that will make them stand out as the finest in the market. With the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) gaining momentum, that much needed added value could come from “deeper brand values and more sustainable business practices” (Lode, p.13).
In other words, it is high time luxury brands consider ethics as a luxury attribute in order to survive in the current market where the population of ethical consumers is rising by each passing day. Consumers will be more than willing to stand by those brands, which show concern for the environment, the society, and embrace acceptable labor practices.
Corporate Social responsibility is now the norm of the day hence there is no way a luxury brand would expect to survive in the market if it does not reflect this in its operation. In this regard, the US-based Toms Shoes has managed to curve out a niche in the market through their social responsibility marketing strategy.
Known for trendy sneaker-style shoes, Toms Shoes is involved in a youth movement initiative whereby for every pair of shoes bought, they give a pair to a needy child (just-style.com, 2011). This has made it attractive to consumers who value philanthropist initiatives.
Luxury is often associated with elitism, prestige, and premium (Chenay, 2011). This is an important ethical issue that cannot be underrated when marketing luxury fashion brands. Both the company and its products must be a reflection of luxury based on the premise, ‘nothing except the finest’ (Chenay, 2011).
This should be reflected in the company’s practices across its chains. Unless, consumers are made to believe that the brands are the finest in the market, they would not choose those brands over the others available in the market. The company must strive to be reputable in terms of its production practices and employment as well as its marketing approach. As the say goes, “survival is for the fittest.”
For a luxury fashion brand to survive in the current market, it must have all aspects of ethics. For instance, a company may be environmental conscience and have good employments practices, but produces counterfeit fashion brands. Such brands can never survive in the current market where consumers are well aware of patent property rights.
Similarly, a company that offers low prices for its luxury fashion brands may be perceived to be having poor production practices that translate into low prices hence may as well not survive in the current luxury market. However, with the current economic crisis, ‘low cost’ fashion brands may still survive in the market so long as consumers perceive them to be the ‘finest’ in the market.
In order to attract ethical consumers, companies will thus have to convince consumers that their low prices are in the benefit of consumers and that their practices are ethically right. Unless this is achieved, it will not be easy for a ‘low cost’ luxury fashion brand to survive in the market.
This paper has managed to address the role played by ethics in marketing of luxury fashion brands. From the discussion above, ethics is a must have tool for luxury fashion brands to survive in the current and the future market.
The future market even poses more challenge as consumers are increasingly becoming aware of ethical consumption and ethical campaigns taking centre stage. It will take more than just being the finest for luxury fashion brands to survive in the market.
It is, therefore, the responsibility of luxury brands to revise their production and operation strategies so that consumers perceive their performance as being ethical. Some luxury fashion brands have made recommendable efforts in this area, but the fashion industry still has to do more to convince consumers that they offer ethical value for their money.
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