H & M Goes Socially Responsible

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IMG_1644So fascinating how corporations have adopted the rhetoric of social responsibility as a branding tool. Here, we see this strategy at work with H & M, in a central Florida mall. References to Spidey are always fun, of course. We can all enjoy the pun. But more interesting here is the notion that fashion CAN be socially responsible. H & M attempts–in a slick and aesthetically pleasing way–to set itself up as a warrior in the battle against sweatshop labor. This ad is part of the company’s attempt to reinvent both its image and (it claims) its labor policies in the wake of the horrific factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013. The ad catches one’s eye. It caught mine, anyhow. Who knew H & M was socially conscious? As the retailer might hope, I went online to learn more. “H & M Conscious” is the company’s campaign to make a “fashion future” that both “looks good and does good.”

Indeed, some news reports also state the company has made an effort to get more control over production processes and improve working conditions in the factories that make its clothes  (companies like H & M use middleman factories, so efforts to control labor and safety are directed at putting pressure on those factories and creating standards they must adhere to).

However, even as the media has reported H & M’s commitment to these changes, reporters have noted what the company leaves out. And some progressive journalists are skeptical.
An optimistic view might say, this ad assemblage in the H & M storefront shows progress. Sweatshops are pretty much a household concept nowadays. The anti-sweatshop movement of the1990s gained enough success that corporations have responded to it. The cynic might say, stop! What’s really happened is corporations have co-opted this movement and neutralized it. Can social responsibility remain such when it is also an advertising tool? Can a “living wage” be both an activist goal AND a marketing tool and retain any of its core meaning?

Of course, the anti-sweatshop campaign with its focus on fair wages and safe , humane treatment is not the only example of corporate co-optation of activist language. The same process has happened with the green campaign, the red campaign, and more. The cynic might argue that using the words is just a strategy.

And the cynical historian might point out this process has characterized consumer culture throughout the 20th century. Particularly notably, Thomas Frank brilliantly points out in The Conquest of Cool how advertisers in the 1960s adopted the iconography, slogans, and themes of the countercultural movement. Once rebellion became an advertising tool, actual rebellion had to find a new voice.

Meanwhile, H & M has made “sustainability” part of its web address to promote its socially conscious theme.

I didn’t even get to gender dynamics here: perhaps the irony is obvious. H & M uses beautiful models to promote social responsibility, thus, of course, implicitly reproducing the usual standards of beauty that shape gender norms and objectify women. Moreover the beautiful, groomed, apparently happy, safe, and well-to-do women of the advertisements stand in explicit contrast to the laborers across the globe who make H & M’s clothes (and which its “conscious” campaign purports to help.)

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Empowering Women Through Bangles

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While strolling the streets of quaint and chi-chi Winter Park, with friends this past weekend, I made my first visit to an Alex and Ani store. This jewelry trend was new to me, but my friend who teaches high school knew all about it. The company has been around for a decade, but has only had retail stores for about five years, and the store in WP only opened last year. So perhaps I can be forgiven for my cluelessness. Now I’m completely fascinated by this company.

In case you, dear reader, are also not up on the latest jewelry trends, here’s the deal:

Along the lines of Pandora, Alex and Ani offer a sort of do-it-yourself experience; shoppers choose charms, combine bangles, or select symbolic stones  to create something unique for them.

The company says it is all about empowering women and expressing identity: “ Alex and Ani believes in the power of positive energy, a core company principle. We have made it our mission to share the benefits of positive energy through the unique beauty and symbolism of our products.”

(See their website, which is fascinating in itself.)

In its appeal to femininity, Alex and Ani taps into some centuries-old understandings of women as mysterious and nature-oriented. It also calls upon a vision of “you go girl” sisterhood that offers female bonding without the politics of 1970s feminism. (This puts me in mind of the great chapter in Susan Douglas’ book Where The Girls Are in which she talks about how advertising in the late 1070s and ‘80s co-opted feminist ideals of empowerment and independence by equating those goals w/ products. Everyone should read this book.)

The store promotes female uniqueness and difference (what students of feminism might call “cultural feminism,” which says that women have unique, special qualities that will enable them to contribute to society differently from men but in important ways). Here, you can express and attain that inner spirit through carefully chosen jewels and charms.

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Text here:

“Natural Wonders/Innate/Untamed/Mysterious

The heart and soul of the sixties flower child is firm rooted in a deep respect for the Earth. Inspired by this vast planet and the ancient belief in the healing properties of natural gemstones, the Natural Wonders Collection contains stones specifically chosen for their innate power. Let the vibrations created by these patterns empower you on a lifelong journey of joy and exploration.” 

Made in America With Love/www.alexandani.com

The company also  “honors a legacy of American tradition and culture with influential licensed partners, in alignment with our positive brand mission, across a broad array of institutions – from Major League Baseball® and the United States Olympic Committee to the five military branches.” (See photo: “sorority collection” and “collegiate collection”.)

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The organization also sells charms representing certain charities and benefits them by giving profit back to the charitable organization.

Cynically, what I draw from all this is how fabulously the company has created opportunities of marketing and cross-promotion. Creating a “sorority line,” for example, insures a built-in audience for the product. Same with the “collegiate” line.

The colored stones, each with a special meaning, IMG_0288remind me of the New Age crystals craze that swept the nation in the ‘80s; that was a sort of return of a hippie healing mindset, a step removed from the politics of late ‘60s America. Today’s version is yet a step further from its origins, updating and prettifying the crystals craze so that mystic connection to nature comes sanitized, pre-packaged, neatly presented in charms, beads, and bracelet wire.

Of course, what Alex and Ani offers is only a pre-packaged uniqueness; shoppers can decide who they are and how to express themselves, but they have to choose, of course, from the possibilities laid out before them. That’s nothing new in the world of consumerism—the illusion that choice offers us possibilities to define ourselves, but in fact, those very choices are limited from the start. That’s not my idea; see the Frankfurt school theorists Adorno and Horkheimer if you want to know more. Or for an updated take on what choice means to American consumers, check out Barry Schwartz’ book, The Paradox of Choice.

All that said, Alex and Ani has some very cool company goals and policies. (http://www.alexandani.com/our-story) They make their jewelry in the U. S., they hope to improve local economies by adding to vibrant downtowns, and it celebrates female individuality.

So, here we have a fascinating blend of ideologies and artifacts: appeals to a type of essential femininity, a quasi-feminist celebration of personal identity, a reiteration of traditional femininity expressed through jewelry, an appeal to national loyalty, a social consciousness (community, making and buying American. All of this deep meaning is available for a price.

And it’s not THAT expensive; you can buy a charm bangle for $28. But of course, one is not supposed to stop there; the store’s website suggests layering multiple bangles to make a unique look. One bangle is merely a gateway bangle to more.

So, is a company like this a way to change the world through stuff? Designers and sellers can create products, infuse them with meaning, offer that meaning to buyers, who then presumably sign on to the meaning in order to own the product?  And it’s not just talk; after all, women built and run this company, so there is real female empowerment going on here. Or is this merely a superficial way to acknowledge world and life issues of justice, the battle for individuality, and women’s social role? I’m thinking the latter, but I’m open to discussion. To really answer these questions, we’d need to know more about the buyers’ motivations and the role the jewelry plays in their lives. We’d also need to follow the company over time to see how much impact they are able to have on the charitable missions they support.

In Nairobi, Kenya, women make ceramic beads by hand, producing beautiful jewelry (Kazuri) that is marketed across the world. These women make money from this work and gain status in their community. The organization is part of the World Fair Trade Organization.

So, how is this different from what Alex and Ani is doing? In both, we’ve got beautiful jewelry, social consciousness, and a good story. I like the Kazuri jewelry better, but that’s not really the point. In Alex and Ani, empowering women seems to be a marketing tool; in Kazuri, it seems to be the real thing.

One news article describes Alex and Ani as a “lifestyle brand” ; perhaps that’s the difference.

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Feminist History for Sale

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Spotted in a Barnes & Noble women’s studies section: This new “keepsake journal” version of Gail Collins’ 2010 history of “American Women from 1960 to the Present.” This book also comes in a totally regular paperback edition (see below), but you’ll notice something is missing from the original version: a way to make the reader feel involved by contributing her (presumably her) own thoughts and experiences.

The new version nicely synthesizes trends in journaling and scrapbooking with reading. Really, this book is now a sort of DIY coffee table history. Why was this necessary? Do readers need to be guided to “preserve memories of the way things were?” Perhaps so; certainly, the “reading group guides” in the back of so many popular novels nowadays suggest that publishers believe readers need much guidance, indeed.

Here, again (not unlike in the WFM example, below), a particular irony emerges: this book is implicitly and sometimes explicitly a feminist history of a period when women made great advances, some of which centered on questioning dominant societal institutions. This keepsake version plays right into the dominant institutions of marketing and consumerism while reiterating the image of women as keepsake-makers.

It’d be interesting to know the rationale behind this edition. Certainly, this “ Keepsake Edition of the national bestseller, now with space to preserve and share personal memories of the way things were” (Amazon) retails for more ($20 as opposed to $16 for the paperback or 9.99 for the kindle), but it’s safe to assume that generating a wider audience was equally important.

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Organic Groceries with a Helping of Irony

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California 2013 127California 2013 125  California 2013 126Organic Groceries with a Helping of Irony

Here are some shots of the Whole Foods Market in Haight-Ashbury, on Haight Street right across from Golden Gate Park.

This decor is a great example of how consumer culture–retailers, advertisers, and the like–co-opt progressive movements to serve consumer ends. So here, we have the (somewhat) progressive, organic, chi-chi, and trendy Whole Foods Market (see Michael Pollan’s commentary on WFM for an explanation of the “somewhat”)embracing a kitschified hippie aesthetic. Note the flower power on the walls and dangling from the chandelier, along with the artsy “Peace Out” sign. The obvious irony here (perhaps so obvious I shouldn’t bother stating it) is that hippie, commune culture was really about the opposite of bougie-WFM consumerism.

See Thomas Frank’s great book, The Conquest of Cool, for how advertisers back in the 1960s themselves co-opted the discourse and imagery of the hippie movement to sell their products. Clearly, the same strategy is at work today.

Opened in 2011, this particular WFM was built partly from recycled materials.