Monday, January 25, 2021

Fashion-forward but at what cost?

Do consumers let company values cramp their style?

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Early this month, a popular clothing retail chain set up a corner in one of its stores in Kuala Lumpur stocked with clothes – donated by customers for the use of others.

Its target demographic: the homeless.

The story of Uniqlo Malaysia’s initiative quickly spread, drawing doubt and praise alike.

“A great effort…was skeptical initially when we donated it but seeing is believing. Way to go,” Facebook user Kumarappan Alagappan said.

Others were more pessimistic.

“Being a Malaysian, more likely undeserving people will take the clothes than the homeless,” Afnan Amirruddin said.

A homeless man lies on a mat and some newspapers on a walkway in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, Kuala Lumpur.

The conversation surrounding the issue gives rise to a number of questions, including how effective such well-intentioned initiatives are in the long run and whether they have any influence on purchasing decisions.

After all, initiatives which fall under the umbrella of corporate social responsibility, while aimed at helping others, also contribute to a brand’s reputation.

For venture capitalist firm boss Elias Abdullah, 46, the most important factor for consideration is product quality.

A positive and sincere social responsibility or sustainability campaign would be an added bonus, but any cost premium must be reasonable.

In other words, there is only so much he would pay for doing good.

‘Instant gratification’

Marketing manager Chung Yow Keong is even more frank about his views.

“Personally, it doesn’t work for me as it’s all about what’s in it for me at the end of the day,” Chung, 37, told MalaysiaNow.

“If it doesn’t give me the instant gratification, then I’m out.”

Chung, who works with a technology giant, gave the following example.

“Say a clothing brand gives a 10% discount to those who donate used clothes and they claim to turn these into recycled cotton for their clothing line.

“The truth is, I don’t care about their mission but I get the 10% discount.”

His case in point illustrates a bedrock principle in the business world: it’s all about getting consumers to part with their money.

“If it doesn’t give me the instant gratification, then I’m out.”

If consumers are willing to make purchases as part of a do-good campaign, the fact still remains that they are buying.

Marketing executive Michaela Siew would shop at such brands, especially if they allow her to contribute a percentage of what she spends to charity.

But, she adds, “as long as it is within my budget”.

Ultimately, price and preference will still win out.

‘Not hard to produce an ethical product’

For Bella Rahim, though, altruism is her guiding star.

“When I buy something, I must always know what the company values are,” she told MalaysiaNow.

“For example, I stopped buying from this Canadian cosmetics brand because I know they test on animals. I have stopped buying from a lot of brands because their values do not coincide with mine.

“I don’t think it’s that hard to produce an ethical product.”

But no matter how well-intentioned such campaigns are, there is always room for abuse, as noted by Facebook user Afnan regarding the Uniqlo initiative.

Elias agreed, saying he lauds genuine acts of charity. “But I am concerned about their implementation,” he added.

“A free-for-all like this tends to bring out the worst in people, and knowing the level of moral hazard among Malaysians, especially, how do we know that the free clothes are going to rightfully deserving recipients?”

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