The Trough Makes Pigs of Us All

Posted in Business by Arasmus on May 8, 2009

This morning I read a report of the BMW Design Talk at Concorso d`Eleganza, an annual vintage car-show in Italy. Set in the context of the current deep global recession, the participants talked about a redefinition of the concept of luxury and luxury goods. Photographer Thomas Demand described his view that luxury must now be more inwardly focused rather than outwardly expressed. I was heartened to see this self-reflection by the luxury goods community because for several years I have had a difficult relationship with the industry. I now want to take this opportunity to note my current thinking.
Why is the luxury goods industry relevant? The luxury goods industry is relevant because luxury goods are tools and they can be used as such to improve society. There are two currencies in society; money and status. The two do not always co-exist. You can make a lot of money in the pornography business but most people don’t want to do it, and for some the reason is that they perceive a consequent loss of status in the eyes of their society. Accordingly, they willingly fore-go/exchange money for status. On the other hand high political office often carries a great deal of status but a relatively low amount of money. For example, Vice-President Joe Biden could make more money as a mid-level law firm associate than he did as a U.S. Senator. As a state, we manipulate money to create what we feel is a better outcome for society as a whole. We place a tax on earnings and convert those taxes towards a legal-system, infrastructure or better schools. But whereas, we intentionally decide how much money to spend on bridges etc. we don’t employ the same degree of consciousness to how we assign status. I think we should.

There are precedents for the use of luxury goods to transform society. Throughout the 1970s and 80s PETA fought to make the wearing of animal fur socially unacceptable. They succeeded. Luxury goods companies themselves have used their products to effect social change. One of my heroes, Anita Roddick used her company’s marketing to raise awareness and reverse a proposed European Union Directive that initially required animal testing of all cosmetics into a final Directive that banned animal testing throughout the Union. I remember during the height of what the diamond industry privately called “the blood diamond crisis,” numerous commentators within the industry pointed to the PETA fur campaign and said that unless the industry responded by developing a diamond origin-tracing system, there was a danger that diamonds could be stigmatized out of the market. Today we are in the middle of another example. BMW Design Director Adrian van Hooydonk argued at Concorso d’Eleganza that the next major design movement, ”Sustaethics,” will grow out of a foundation of sustainable thinking. Time will tell whether this is fad or fulcrum. But these examples do support the thesis that status is a creature of social consensus and an intentional, directed and well-executed campaign can change that social-consensus, leverage consumption, and change society.

So what’s my beef? The problem I have with the luxury goods industry is that the traditional “Madison Avenue luxury goods industry” uses its power to divide people, from each other (rich versus poor, cool versus non-cool) and from themselves (by encouraging greed, vanity, vapidity and superficiality). I feel the world has changed and this traditional approach is outrageously out-of-touch with the way we live now. A thought-experiment. Imagine if you will a small group of very rich people, say 3 or 4 households. They are a very tightly-knit group and they often have wonderful dinners together. They have been life-long friends through ups and downs. They live very well in a very wealthy neighborhood. Imagine that one of the couples is celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and they commemorate it with a beautiful ruby set elegantly in a pendulum setting. Aesthetically, that’s a beautiful picture. Now let’s pull back the camera. Instead of this tight-little group of 3-4 houses, let us imagine these diamond-dames clinking their glasses at a restaurant overlooking the favelas of Rio or the slums of New Delhi. Set aside the security issue for a moment and imagine if they went for a walk through those impoverished neighborhoods. What would that be like – to see such abject poverty and then feel that ruby around your neck? Is it still a thing of beauty in that context? The effect of modern media and the internet is equivalent to that pulling-back of the camera-frame. In a world where we are increasingly intimately connected to the rest of the human family, favelas and slums no longer surround foreign cities – they circle our collective consciousness.  Of course we can reject that new reality but we do so at the cost of dying as humans, both to others and to ourselves. At the deepest level, there is an unavoidable truth; it is impossible to love yourself and not others.

But there is a place for luxury goods. Their role and mission should be to preserve, protect and advance human culture and encourage humanism through aesthetics. Now that was phrased in such lofty terms that everyone can agree on it but none of us may share the same understanding. Let me illustrate by an example of something I recently observed. Three generations ago, there was a strong local tradition in Ireland of making a type of sausage known as “black-pudding” from pig-blood and pearl rice (my apologies to vegetarians but it is delicious). This example could just as well be about handmade pasta in Italy, an almond liqueur in Romania or Pu-erh tea (some of which is more expensive per gram than solid gold) in China. Two generations ago the tradition of blood-sausage began to die out in Ireland. It was considered crude and not at all as fashionable as continental gnocchi or espresso etc. It seemed that the local traditions had to die; a necessary sacrifice to progress in a globalized world economy. But then a movement began to bubble to the surface. It began in 1986 when McDonalds tried to open a restaurant at the Spanish steps in Rome. An Italian, Carlo Petrini, established the organization, Agricola to oppose the opening of the fast-food restaurant. Agricola quickly grew into the Slow Food movement. Today the Slow Food organization has 83,000 members and 450 regional chapters in over 122 countries, all aimed at preserving local food traditions. The consequence of this social movement in Ireland is an increased respect for local Irish food traditions. I witnessed the third-generation interviewing grand-parents, documenting their recipes and contributing these efforts to a national online database. There are now several brands of black-pudding for sale in Ireland and throughout the world, eg Clonakilty Black Pudding. And for all the hand-wringing and fashionable despair in previous decades, it was the conscious decision by the Irish to assign a higher status to their local cuisine, that lead to the change in social behavior, the emergence of companies and brands, and the preservation of this cultural artifact.

There is so much beauty in the world that its hard to sit still. The luxury goods industry should aim to provide viable business models to protect that authenticity. The French have been the masters at this process for centuries and much can be learned from observing how they achieved their success. From the development of the Appellation d’origine contrôlée in the 15th century to the successful legal defence of that system in the courts and in the legislature of the European Union in the 21st, they have successfully defended their culture through the deliberate cultivation of status. It is a lesson for all peoples everywhere.

So what is my definition of luxury? For me, now, luxury is an homage. It is a conversation I have with the creator of the product. It seems impossible to me, to progress as a human being or as a society and maintain the definition of luxury as something I have and you do not, as something that makes me in some way better than you, or as something that affirms either heaven or society’s approval of my position in society and their indifference to yours. That concept of luxury disgusts and depresses me. It preserves people at a school-yard level of maturity, nobility and enlightenment. But rejecting that ugliness does not mean that we must reject luxury.  I believe, paradoxically, that the appreciation of luxury should be bathed in humility. Humility on behalf of the recipient at their good fortune in being the object of such generosity. Humility on behalf of the producer that their hard work is being appreciated, their ideals understood and rewarded. We don’t always walk around with this humility, because it requires concentration (at least for me) and life is busy and full of stress and distraction. But luxury goods should take us to that mindset as might say a Japanese tea-ceremony. Beauty should excite our higher self, not our greed. A Ferrari should not be marketed as a bauble of the idle rich but as the child of an artisan, a shared love of beauty brought to an uncommon fruition. If this then becomes our new definition of luxury, we will sow seeds of humility, egalitarianism and humanity in the mind of the global consumer. We will turn the torrent of global consumption in a more noble direction. We will lift our eyes towards heaven. The trough makes pigs of us all.