Accessorizing Values: Symbols of Wealth and Philanthropy

Tyler Sack
April 4, 2019

When I was in high school Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong was in. I remember hearing people question the sincerity of those wearing the bright yellow bracelets, wondering aloud whether the wearer actually cared about the charity or did they buy the bracelet because of a trend? At the time it really made me question whether altruism is entirely selfless, or if there is ever a case when mutually beneficial acts are considered as noble.

About a month after writing my blog post on conspicuous consumption, “Spending Power”, Tanya sent me this article on fashion, discreet wealth, and belonging to a community. The highlight for me was the focus on the unique purse straps that were made by a local business. The accessory straps are unique, more expensive than average, have an established social media presence, are in demand due to the limited inventory, and in this case a marker of status and belonging to a certain wealth bracket and therefore class.

As the article explains, purse straps are not as obvious as driving a luxury car, but are a discreet signifier that you belong to a certain wealth bracket where you can afford a particular lifestyle and may even communicate that you are from a specific neighbourhood. It is a status symbol, perhaps not on its own, but when part of a specific outfit, or uniform, then it becomes clear that you have the social and economic capital that communicates that you belong to distinct categories.

But what really got my attention was a quote that said wearing the straps was not just about appearance, but that it was important to the consumer that they were supporting a local mom-owned business, it communicates to the world that the wearer cares about a social cause, that they are conscious consumers.

Similar to conspicuous consumption, conspicuous compassion is a theory that some wealthy people will make large donations to charities in order to enhance their status, demonstrating that they not only have the means to donate, but are socially conscious and support a cause, that they are doing good in the world.

Consumers have more awareness today than ever. People are questioning and evaluating each brand’s impact in the world and choosing to support those who have similar values to them in areas of social, economic, or environmental causes.

At the same time social media has changed how we construct our identities, we are able to curate what aspects of our lives we want to share and part of that is how we project status.

That means that our status is not only based on our perceived wealth, likely determined by what purchases we make, but also how socially conscious we are as well. The article suggests that these aspects of status can converge in a single accessory and can be a key signifier in determining what neighbourhood or class you belong to as well as what causes you care about or support.

Like the Livestrong bracelets in high school, when it comes to fashion and discreet wealth, it is unclear whether those who are buying a product for its appearance or to support a cause given there is some self-interest in wearing a symbol to enhance their status or both. However, regardless of motive, it is the effect that really matters, it really isn’t important whether a person has some self-interest in supporting a cause as long as their generosity is contributing toward progress. Based on this trend, it may be time that retail brands reconsider what their values are and how people perceive their products based on what good they are doing in the world. What we wear says a lot about us as people, and adding to the complexity of our identity is the awareness that what we consume will have an impact on society and the environment.