Excess and philanthropy: The charitable luxury world

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In a society and culture built on extremes such as ours, ranging dramatically from the very rich to the very poor, luxury brands have been directed slowly but surely towards a sense of social responsibility and civic involvement that might go unnoticed under the lavish image of excess and opulence their products promote.

Thus, in recent years there have been an increased interest in some of the most prestigious of brands to align themselves to various causes by either partnering with already existing associations or establishing their own. Giving back to society has a very gratifying charm to it, not to mention a profitable side ( companies not only raise awareness regarding the cause in question, but also add value to their brands and solidify their own status in the general mindset). However, marketing strategies aside, this tendency is a very healthy one.

And I am not referring strictly to one-off charity events, as they are a very common-place activity, but mainly consider the ongoing programmes that have become part of these brands’ legacy. Here is an overview of the most notable ones, categorised in their respective fields:

THE ARTS
Much like wealthy philanthropists, prestigious corporations can easily become patrons of the arts, and I find there is a quite natural affinity between these high end manufacturers and the artistic scene.

– Cartier for instance, has been financially supporting contemporary artists for the last 30 years through Fondation Cartier.
– Rolex has set up an mentoring scheme in the art field too, and since 2002 the Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative has grown to include important names.
– LVMH has historically been involved in this area as well, and has recently announced the launch of Foundation Louis Vuitton, which will offer support and a state-of-the art exhibition space to contemporary artists starting from October 2014. Also, the luxury group has made a point of helping enlarge the collections of certain museums like the Grand Palais(Paris), Palazzo Farnese and Villa Medici (Rome).
– Gucci dedicates several projects to the arts: a music preservation programme in association with the Grammy Awards, the Tribeca Documentary Fund and the Gucci Music Fund. Since 2006, it has also been in partnership with the Film Foundation, helping restore classic cinematic masterpieces of the 20th century.

THE ENVIRONMENT
From climate change to the preservation of habitats, environmental issues are high on the list of charitable actions.
– Each purchase of an Audemars Piguet watch translates into a donation to the Audemars Fondation, which contributes to the conservation of forests and their biodiversity in 80 countries around the world.
– IWC is a patron of the Galapagos Islands, through its partnership with The Charles Darwin Foundation since 2009
– Furthermore, several companies in the Richmond luxury group, such as Officine Panerai or Jaeger LeCoultre, prove their interest in protecting the environment by setting up “green” office buildings or boutiques.
– Tag Heuer is dedicated to raising awareness regarding environmental issues, through its partnership with Green Cross since 2009. Additionally, it is said that in 2011 the company has implemented radical changes to its headquarters and factory, in order to reduce its carbon footprint and to improve renewable energy levels.

The healthcare
Luxury brands associate themselves with health-related causes by supporting various medical research associations worldwide.

– According to its corporate website, LVMH shows its support in a wide array of causes, from cancer and AIDS to Parkinson’s disease and mental health.
– Nomos Glashutte has set up a partnership with Medicinis Sans Frontiere, helping raise funds through the sale of a limited edition watch collection.
– Ralph Lauren has made significant efforts supporting the fight against cancer: from establishing the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention some 10 years ago,to creating the Pink Pony Fund. Each year, 25% of the retail price of all the Pink Pony items sold is transferred to an array of local charitable organizations around the world.

The social support
– In 2009, the Kering luxury group (then called PPR), launched the Kering Fondation, its mission being to fight for women’s dignity and rights on a global scale, and to promote their empowerment.
– Since 2005, Gucci has been in close partnership with Unicef, donating funds towards African communities in need of education and health support.
– Cartier Charitable Foundation aims at supporting women and children and providing a safer environment to live in some 22 developing countries, such as Myanmar, Haiti or Rwanda.
– The Facet Foundation, created by Graff Diamonds in 2008 is aiming to support the communities in Sub-Saharan Africa (where most of their stones are mined) through educational and healthcare programmes.
– According to the Financial Times, Bulgari has raised in excess of $25 million for Save the Children since 2009.

The cultural heritage
Interestingly, more and more companies in the luxury sector are financially helping maintain or repair historic and cultural landmarks around Europe.

– LVMH for instance has been involved in several such projects in the last 20 years or so, including renovations to the Paris Opera House, the Pavlovsk Castle in Russia, the Palais Royale in France or the Correr Museum in Venice.
– Fendi donated $2.7 million last year for the restoration of the Trevi Fountain in Rome
– Tod’s recently gained notoriety (and some controversy) due to an unprecedented $34 million project intended to restore the Coliseum.

Seeing all if the above in perspective, one might feel that luxury companies are the champions of ethical behaviour. I wouldn’t assume that; after all, you could say that some of these brands are simply mirroring their targeted clientele: think of the ultra rich ladies who spend their time organising charity events.

There are people who take this point further, criticising such companies for using charitable actions to simply promote their own business. That is certainly one way of looking at things. I for one prefer to be more practical: I think large conglomerates and reputable luxury brands can afford and should be expected to be charitable.

There are several reasons why: on one hand, they are able to influence a web of wealthy individuals to participate, by either donating or spreading the message (just take a look at the charitable galas and auctions throughout the year); secondly, they can attract celebrity endorsements which in turn can increase the visibility of a particular cause, by appealing to the wider population (see the Valentino “Cash & Rocket” event for instance, or Gucci’s Chime for Change project).

And yes, some companies should definitely focus more internally by establishing solid human rights regulations and eco-friendly work environments – both within their headquarters and throughout the supply chain and partnership network. However the external efforts are always welcome as well.

At the end of the day, some CSR is better than no CSR at all.

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