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Ethical luxury?

Updated Tuesday, 22nd October 2013

Can you live a life of luxury - and still claim to be living an ethical life?

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The Max Mara store in Hong Kong Creative commons image Icon Versesalmio under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license Can you balance an ethical life with a taste for the high life? Ethical consumption is becoming an ever more important consideration for people in modern societies. Awareness of the environmental impact of mass consumerism, the throwaway society, and demands for constantly changing fashions has increased considerably in recent years.

Much of the academic research in relation to ethical consumption has focused on what are termed 'Fast Moving Consumer Goods' or FMCGs. This research has found that consumers can behave ethically when consuming such products, but there is a significant gap between people's favourable attitudes towards ethical consumption, and their actual behaviours.

Whilst for some people, clothing does not constitute FMCGs, the availability of mass produced and very affordable clothing in the marketplace certainly suggests that some clothing lines could be considered as such.

However, recent research on ethical consumption has branched out into considering other forms of products and services, and this blog focuses on one area that has generated considerably attention recently, ethical luxury.

Despite the on going economic slowdown, the market for luxury goods is growing, reaching in excess of $237billion per year (Bain and Company, 2011).

Luxury goods refers to a wide range of products such as haute couture clothing, as well as accessories like perfume, jewellery, and watches; and also items like cars, champagne, and crystal.

Such luxury goods offer prestige and emotional value, rather than functional utility (Dubois and Duquesne, 1993). Research on ethical consumption of luxury goods has identified that although consumers generally have a positive attitudes towards ethics, they do not necessarily translate this into action.

This phenomenon is known as the attitude-behaviour gap (Carrington et al. 2010). Interestingly, research has also shown that the influence of attitudes, and personal values has a weaker effect on consumption behaviour in relation to luxury goods (Davies et al. 2012). Therefore, this attitude-behaviour gap in relation to ethical consumption is higher for luxury goods.

This suggests that when it comes to consuming luxury goods, people discard concerns about ethics and indulge themselves in the prestige, social status, and emotional pleasure and rewards afforded by such items.

This raises an ethical dilemma – is it acceptable to discard concerns about ethics if the emotional and status rewards for consuming luxury goods such as a fur coat are high?

Whilst research in this area is only recently emerging, studies have also suggested that consumers in higher income brackets are more accepting of unethical consumption (Eide, under review). This suggests that as people improve their financial standing, their desire for status symbols and indulgent emotional satisfaction offered by luxury goods like high end fashion items increases, and overrides altruistic and ethical concerns.

This suggests that there is a need to engage consumers in ethical and sustainable luxury – yet sustainable luxury is a concept that has only recently emerged (Gonzalez, 2009).

Moreover, perhaps the onus is on producers of luxury goods to ensure they engage in more ethical production and marketing activities given the propensity for people to discard concerns about ethics when buying luxury products.

Sources and further reading

Spring 2011 Update: Luxury products Worldwide Market Study
Published by Bain & Company, 2011

Why Ethical Consumers Don’t Walk Their Talk: Towards a Framework for Understanding the Gap Between the Ethical Purchase Intentions and Actual Buying Behaviour for Ethically Minded Consumers
MJ Carrington, BA Neville and GJ Whitwell in Journal of Business Ethics, volume 97(1), pages 139-158

Do Consumers Care About Ethical-Luxury?
by IA Davies, Z Lee and I Ahonkhai, in Journal of Business Ethics, volume 106(1), pages 37-51

The Market for Luxury Goods: Income versus Culture
by B Dubois and P Duquesne, in European Journal of Marketing, volume 27(1), pages 34-44

Ethical Consumerism: The nexus of consumers’ values, attitudes and behavioural intentions in relation to consumption of FMCGs and luxury goods
by A Eide, R Gordon, N Zainuddin and V Talwar, currently under reveiw for the Journal of Consumer Behaviour

Sustainability and the Luxury Industry: Luxury Society





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