Thursday, January 20, 2022

Luxury Brands and Ethics: Expectations and Reality

(This is the fourth in a series of articles about the Luxury Market. The previous three may be found on my blog at Are the Roaring 20’s Back?, Meet the HENRYs and Gen Z. The previous three covered the nature of the luxury market and its target customers. One clear point that emerged from those articles is that the luxury customer demands a certain level of social responsibility and ethics from their brands. This article explores the picture of ethics among luxury brands and the customer’s expectation profile. )

In a Forbes article from January of last year entitled, “Luxury Turns From Conspicuous to Conscientious in 2021: Challenges and Opportunities Ahead,” the author explores the role ethics will play in the customer’s purchases and loyalty.

The author, Pamela Danziger, states that, regarding expectations, 

“Once luxury consumers emerge, they will dig deeper into the meaning and purpose of brands that they choose to connect with, looking for brand values that match their own. 

It means more than just brands taking a stand on the environment, sustainability and socially-responsible business practices, along with support of cultural values like gender, race, sexual orientation and income equality.” 

That said, luxury brands are starting from behind in terms of customer expectations regarding social responsibility and ethics. Danziger further states:

“As good as these ideals sound and important as they are, there is an inherent disconnect for an industry that at its roots is made for the ‘haves’ to suddenly be concerned about the ‘have nots.’” 

A 2019 scholarly article in the Journal of Cleaner Production by Elsevier goes deeper into this situation by conducting a study of luxury customers based on hypotheses that sing the same tune. They state that luxury brands are perceived to be less ethical than “sincere” brands and carry a “sophistication liability.” 

However, regarding luxury brands’ social responsibility efforts, they state that “companies invest more in CSR activities to improve consumers' perception regarding brand ethicality and attain their support.”  But, if consumers suspect this, they dislike this practice and will not reward the brands with their purchases or loyalty.

So, are luxury brands like Kering and LVMH being treated unfairly, the victim of an inaccurate social perception? What is the truth about their CSR activities? 

First let’s take a look at what they might say. Here is quote regarding human trafficking, debt bondage, forced labor from their 2021 Human Rights Policy:

“Forced labor, human trafficking, debt bondage and other forms of slavery are strongly prohibited in our supply chain and are considered breaches for which we have zero tolerance. The unlawful practice of forced or compulsory labor constitutes an element that would nullify any business relationship between Kering and its Houses and a business partner.

In particular, we expect that our business partners do not retain workers’ identity documents, do not withhold wages, prohibit recruitment fees paid by workers themselves and do not impose restrictions on workers’ freedom of movement. 

Vulnerable groups, such as international or internal migrants or illiterate workers, are particularly exposed to these risks and require special attention.” 

The report clearly outlines some of the most critical human rights issues in the supply chain: Forced labor, labor bondage and recruitment fees, abuse of vulnerable groups. While the report claims to advise follow up on the status of these policies, in my view it clearly puts the responsibility on the supplier in this and other sections by repeated use of phrases like “we expect.” Do they carefully investigate these issues before doing business? After engagement, do they monitor the social compliance of the supplier? Or is it to easy to excuse the supplier’s bad behavior by saying “we told you what we expected?” How about, instead, saying that “we will thoroughly vet our supply chain and not do business with any resource who either engages in or probably engages in these practices?”

It seems that Luxury Brands don’t follow up on their words, and don’t make it a priority to vet and monitor their supply chains. The 2021 Apparel and Footwear Report by KnowTheChain provides clear evidence of this.  

The report establishes two indices of apparel companies’ human rights efforts in the workplace. The first is a “benchmark score” on a scale of 0 to 100 which documents known efforts by the company to become involved in and remedy the key issues; the second is a “worker-centric” score which are “the indicators that focus on due diligence processes based on worker participation and on concrete outcomes for workers.”

The results of their work are particularly disturbing, but they take the time to point out that luxury brands as a group are not at the top of the list; in fact, they may be at the bottom. They state in particular:

“Luxury apparel companies score particularly low, at 31/100. Italian luxury fashion house Prada’s score has worsened over time, scoring a mere 5/100, while peers such as the French luxury goods company Kering (41/100) and the German brand Hugo Boss (49/100) have improved significantly since 2016. Also among the bottom five companies in the benchmark is US-based Tapestry (16/100), the owner of Coach and Kate Spade. No luxury company disclosed a process for responding to allegations and only two disclosed outcomes of remedy for workers in their supply chains, including reimbursement of recruitment fees.” 

Combining the two indices, the report lists the total scores of the companies it studied. The top of the heap is populated by brands that are not luxury brands by any stretch. The top four are Lululemon at 89, Adidas at 86, PVH at 74, and the Gap at 70.

The best showing for a luxury brand is Burberry at 53, followed by Hugo Boss at 49. Going down the list, Kering is at 41, Hermes is 24, LVMH is 19, and Prada is a 5. 

As a group, luxury brands average 31 against a 43 for Footwear and 47 for Apparel Retail. 

Further, they make the point that companies in general with market cap >$50 billion were particularly deficient in supply chain transparency, citing the fact that “LVMH and Hermes disclosed little to no information on the locations of their supply chains.” 

So where will luxury customers turn to satisfy their aspirations and prosocial goals? My view is that the winners in the future will turn to a different breed of luxury brands, startups and those whose social goals are part of their DNA.

A January 2021 report entitled “The 26 Most Sustainable and Ethical Luxury Brands” points out companies that are a different breed of cat. They were founded to market artisanal, environmentally-friendly luxury products and that is the core of their business model. Some examples are: 

So Good to Wear, which designs cashmere garments made by a fair-trade factory in Nepal. “Its knitters are well-trained, well-compensated and work under fair and safe labor conditions.” 

Another that practices transparency in their supply chains is Maggie Marilyn, who 

“prides itself on being transparent and shares on its website details of all its makers, suppliers, and where possible, farmers.” 

Granted that these brands are small, infinitesimal compared the LVMH of the world. So what good does their presence serve to solve the huge problem that exists and which is not being addressed by the giants? Two answers: 1. As they grow, their DNA will not pivot to where the others are; and 2. The more of these ants start to prosper and gain the attention of customers, the more the big brands will have to take note. Nothing, repeat, nothing, will get the attention the big luxury brands except the realization that their customers are going elsewhere.

Understood that may take some time to happen, or it may not—that is an unknown unknown; but if we believe it will-and I do—it becomes a known unknown. Not if, but when.

What really will push the timeline along is if some global brand gets the point and starts really making some efforts that will get the attention of its competitors. The same Ecocult report praises Gucci (Kering) and says, “The brand is committed to environmental benchmarks and guarantees that it will make 95% of its raw material traceable. Gucci is also committed to the sustainability objectives set out by the parent company Kering, which states several sustainability strategies including reducing its environmental footprint and choosing responsible and well-managed supply sources. “ And the best part is it offers some advice: “If you’re looking for a recognizable luxury logo that is more ethical than the rest, then Gucci would be the way to go.”  

There is an incredible amount of work to be done before anyone can claim that luxury brands as a group are ethical and that their impact on their supply chains is positive in terms of human rights. But, in the meanwhile, Danziger in her Forbes report offers one piece of advice which I think is a critical marketing point: We started this journey with the realization that consumers have a built-in negative attitude toward ethics in the luxury world. So, if your logo and brand on display in a garment, handbag, or shoes screams greed and irresponsibility, why not tone it down? 

She says, “True luxury whispers. It doesn’t scream.” 

That is really good advice. Let’s see who follows it.

(Not done yet. Lots more to write about luxury. Watch this space for my next piece)

©Michael Serwetz 2022


Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Gen Z: Up Next, Bigger than Ever?

But not without issues

(This is the third in a series of articles about today’s Luxury market and consumer. My last article, “Meet the HENRYs” focused on the Millennials as a luxury market consumer. Now we turn to GEN Z, who will follow Millennials into the workplace. Will they surpass Millennials as a target consumer segment?)

In 2015, Goldman Sachs issued a report entitled, “What If I Told You?” which as one of the “tells” said that “Gen Z will be larger and more influential than Millennials.” Numbers for this generation have ranged as high as 90 million, but there are unique attributes, which we will review below. 

But first, let’s be sure we all agree on the generational delineations. Starting points for Gen Z and ending points for Millennials have varied a year or two, but here I use the latest data based on Pew Research Center’s work:


So why should we be excited about Gen Z and what questions are there about their consumption habits?

To begin, Gen Z were “born connected.” In 1997, the internet already existed and was quickly turning to a viable business mode (Amazon started in 1994). After the dot-com crash of 2000 (the oldest Gen Zers were only 3), those survivors formed the core of today’s online marketplace. By any assumption of when Gen Zers started to use the internet for social media and shopping (let’s say 10 years old for arguments sake), the medium was already thriving. So they grew up with a device in their hand and they know how to use it. This is not to say that they are addicted to online shopping (we also know they love the shopping experience, as we will see later), but having a device in their hand all day is in their DNA.

An addiction which represents an opportunity for marketers but a troubling trend for Gen Z, is their mental health based on 5-6 hours or more online every day:


Gen Zers were born into a troubling world, and are growing up with phenomena like the above and COVID-19. Does the plethora of social media opportunities make them feel part of a global community and that they are an important part of it? Apparently not:


This troubling trend extends to a disturbing increase in suicide rates, especially among girls. CNN reports that “Starting in 2007, the rates of suicide for girls 10 to 14 increased 12.7% per year, compared with 7.1% for boys the same age. A similar trend was seen for teens 15 to 19, with rates of suicide going up 7.9% for girls and 3.5% for boys.” The report also points out that girls may be more vulnerable to the negative effects of social media and cites a JAMA report, saying that “’Compared with boys, girls use social media more frequently and are more likely to experience cyberbullying,’” 

So how does the above influence Gen Zers as customers, given that there sheer numbers are so large and that they will doubtless enter the HENRY ranks in the near future? Some trends in their purchasing outlook continue the trend that was begun by their Millennial elders, but with more emphasis.

Let’s begin with the social profile of Gen Zers. 

They are the best educated: 59% of Gen Zers were pursuing college in 2017, as opposed to 53% of Millennials in 2002;

They are more racially diverse than Millennials: 48% of Gen Zers were nonwhite in 2018, as opposed to 39% of Millennials in 2002; the percentage of whites in the age group went from 61% in 2002 to 52% in 2018;

One in four Gen Zers are Hispanic; these numbers increase in the Western US;

The median household income where Gen Zers live exceeds that of older generations when they were young, at $63,700;

They tend to be more liberal than earlier generations and vote in greater numbers.

So here we have a customer who is more diverse, is more educated than older generations, totally connected and sometimes unhappy. How does that affect their purchasing outlook and power?

To begin with, in addition to becoming a consumption powerhouse on their own in the near future, Gen Zers influence the spending of their households now.  The Shelf reports:

“Gen Z commands a remarkable $143 billion in buying power. That’s almost 40 percent of ALL consumer shopping — crazy, huh? Ninety-three percent of parents say their Gen Z children influence their household spending. Another 70 percent of parents ask their Gen Z kids for advice before making purchase decisions. That’s A LOT of influence.” 

Some more highlights from that report:

Gen Z values Privacy and Security, being more wise to the power and the reach of the global connection;

Gen Z is willingly loyal to brands who meet their product, price and social expectations;

Gen Z is working earlier and more than Millennials did at the same age;

Having grown up during a recession, they are thrifty. But they don’t want fast fashion that disappears into the trash—hence the explosion of the RealReal  and other second hand web sites.

They are passionate about social issues, hence would look down on companies that exploited workers as in Modern Slavery;

They prefer authenticity and transparency in marketing;

While they are at home with shopping online, 81% of the Gen Zers surveyed by The Shelf preferred shopping in store. They are a perfect example of the value of ROPO (Research Online, Purchase Offline) psychology because they value the in-person shopping experience, which makes them the perfect candidate for luxury brands. 

While we have so far focused on the US statistically, we should remember that this is a globally connected marketplace and the purchasing power of Gen Zers in Asia is huge, which will account for 50% of luxury spending by 2025. 

The fact that Gen Zers have grown up with some insecurity makes them even more of a passionate candidate for luxury brands. According to a Crobox report, the Gen Zer fits the psychographic profile of the luxury consumer:

Luxury purchases are hedonic, releasing dopamine and making the buyer feel good about themselves. For the moment.

They are impulsive, as gifts or “treats” making the purchaser feel they “can do it;”

Luxury shoppers give the purchaser a feeling of financial power (even if they don’t actually have it or have it yet);

Luxury consumers demand that their brands be “woke” in terms of sustainability, ethics, etc.

Further, the luxury customer falls into one or more of the following clusters, all of which appeal to Gen Zers:

The Need for Uniqueness- I am not just a number on social media

Costly Signaling and Status- Showing others you can spend it

Building the Self and Self-Narrative- Who I am and who I want to be.

Troubled, concerned, and passionate. This profile of the demographics and psychographics of the Gen Z customer has me convinced that they will surpass their Millennial elders as the bedrock of the Luxury business in the near future. The time is now for brands to start cultivating and following them.

© 2022 Michael Serwetz

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