November 27, 2012 1 Comment
By Chris Waller
When I saw an advert for the ‘Fashion Targets Breast Cancer’ campaign on a station platform the other day it didn’t take long to feel a surge of indignation.
FTBC is a range of clothing created by a globally recognised designer and sold in a selection of high-street clothing shops. A percentage of the income from this range of clothing will go to breast cancer research in women under 40. I don’t know how much money is being raised, or the exact percentages in question but I don’t think it really matters. The true value of the campaign is in terms of ideology rather than capital.
It seems to me that the high-street fashion industry, being the clearest representative of personal identification and creative self expression, has had to approach the problem of mass producing clothes while retaining their status and distinction. Essentially, the more popular a piece of clothing is the less valuable as an identifier it becomes. As a result the fashion industry has always relied on the symbolic prestige of high fashion and branding to create this value in their products. The current favour by certain groups (predominantly women under 40) for vintage clothing shows that people are beginning to place more value in a unique artefact rather than the industry’s mass produced currency and branding. In response to their slipping status the fashion industry is now turning to a new set of social stimuli to add value to their products; guilt and insecurity.
Broadly speaking I don’t have a problem with charitable organisations, though we should certainly take each one by merit. I also think research into breast cancer cures and prevention is certainly positive and confronts a very present disease. The problem, however, with using charity to market products is that it is simply exploitative.
A shared vulnerability in modern society is our feeling of guilt. This is to say that almost every action we make we understand as having a moral repercussion whether in relation to a developing nation or to the person behind us in a queue. We are no longer playing a zero sum game. Our supposed entitlement to convenience and comfort clashes head to head with the saturating rhetoric of global tragedy and environmentalism. With this paradoxical problem well entrenched in our consciousness our ability to validate ourselves as fair and morally responsible individuals is beset by the clawing subtext of western guilt. The role of charity has shifted from having a religious or humanist rationale to constituting its own karmic system through which to balance our negative impact on the world.
This dynamic has been evident for some time in ideology, and if one looks to the Catholic Church for example the exchange of prayer or monetary donations for forgiveness is a similar mechanism. Despite the cynicism of this transaction, the individual in this case can at least buy into a wider moral framework as a result of their sacrifice. The act of confession and repentance acts as a way of acknowledging ones behaviour and can provoke reflection. What strikes me about ‘Fashion Targets Breast Cancer’ and large charity organisations in general is that the element of personal, moral involvement with a cause has been replaced by the need to mediate our feelings of guilt.
Supporting a cause today is as simple as setting up a direct debit, clicking a link, or buying clothes. These activities are nothing that we don’t already do as part of our daily life. The integration of charitable causes into economic and social life sets a new bar as to what constitutes charitable behaviour. The paradox is that in order for a charity to claim any global importance it must appeal to our most apathetic instincts. We can’t bear to feel guilty for behaving as good units of the economy, for having everything that our consumer culture says we are entitled to and so our way around this dilemma is to make consumption an act of charity itself.
Perhaps it’s not fair to single out one organisation profiting from our guilt but I feel this trend in marketing, by targeting the very value of morality, is amongst the most distracting and socially pathological phenomenon.
To those who say that participating in this sort of scheme is better than doing nothing I would reply that at least in doing nothing we are able to feel our guilt as a productive force. By buying into this system we are enforcing the idea that we can behave however we like and ignore the real consequences of our actions. If we in the West feel guilty about the impact of our economy, policy, or culture then let’s not resort to social equivalent of eating a two litre tub of ice cream in order to make us feel better.