Professor Jem Bendell

notes from a strategist and educator on social and organisational change

Fashionably Hated: on social change, media and the self

Posted by jembendell on August 6, 2011

I thought my mum and dad, and my colleagues’ family and friends, might be proud. It would be the 2nd time a report I co-wrote appeared in the Financial Times. The last one was Deeper Luxury, which 3 years ago helped kick off more engagement in CSR by some luxury brands. The new report is on jewellery, and the result of 18 months work, mostly pro bono by myself and my dedicated and inspirational colleague Ian Doyle. But I haven’t sent my relatives the FT link. The article patronised us, with arguments that our co-publishers Fair Jewelry Action have debunked point by point. Fortunately the report has been well-received in the industry press, with Diamonds.net doing a succinct overview.

When I read the FT article I was surprised. Surprised at how much I laughed! I thought I cared about being respected. We all do a bit, don’t we? But reading it seemed cathartic. For some years now, with my colleagues at Lifeworth Consulting, we have been trying to persuade some in the industry to be more ambitious in their responsible enterprise goals. We have got somewhere with some brands, but mostly its the start ups who get it and they don’t have funds to pay for our help. Managers from the big brands, however, often depress me with their fancy lunches, seminars and excuses. We offered this study for free to help those in larger firms who really want to lead, and we got trashed.

I recall the enlightened perspective of Chris Marsden when he worked at BP in the 1990s: “if Greenpeace didn’t exist Id have to invent it.” Not that we are Greenpeace – our report is far too boring, as its for industry and focuses on giving specific advice on business strategy. I suppose for every Chris Marsden there are a thousand corporate cogs. There are many proud cowards in luxury brand management.

A lesson I see for myself and anyone who works in social change within a professional context is to never confuse being respectful with being respected. To respect others and hear them out, understand their situation, is key, but to worry about being respected is imprisoning. We need more people in social change who don’t give a xxxx about being disliked and will risk their own situations to seek and then live by their unfolding truths. Its this sense of liberation that made we want to share experience here. Its important because there are now so many events of the eco-chattering classes about how to achieve systemic change, from Tallberg to Davos and beyond. By giving the mic to those with status they perpetuate the idea that those having a high status role have an insight rather than an affliction, and that calling for bigger changes is a means of change rather a way to let off steam by blaming others and situations before returning to normal life. Instead, we have to risk our acceptability, our respectability, our livelihoods, and the expectations of our families, in our daily lives at work, if we are to really explore how we can create systemic change.

But the FT article also made me realise something about journalism today. Real investigative journalism is disappearing from the mainstream press. I don’t mean the kind of illegal snooping on people to get gossip to print in tabloids, that has caused a lot of trouble in the UK just recently. I mean proper investigative journalism where issues of public importance are looked at in detail. Nick Davies did that at the Guardian to expose the phone hacking scandal, so it still exists, but is rare. The system of mainstream journalism, where owners want profits, desire happy (luxury brand) advertisers, and journalists need access to brands, and to pump out stories quickly to develop their online traffic for new ad revenue, means that the time and resources for investigative reporting have been crushed. Research has even found that many (mostly freelance) fashion journalists are also on the payrolls of PR firms and individual brands.

In that context its tough for a fashion journalist like Vanessa Friedman to write about our 58 page study one minute, and speculate on the Duchess of Cambridge’s dresses the next. The absence of investigative journalism is so accepted now that journalists can even complain about others not investigating enough, such as Vanessa complaining we didnt investigate further about Burmese rubies, without spotting the irony. Why don’t the journalists look into it?

INSEAD Professor Mark Lee Hunter told me the other day that investigative journalism is so undermined by the economics of media right now that non-traditional journalists, from bloggers and NGOs, will have to develop the skills of investigative reporting if we are to maintain some effective public discourse. He has produced a handbook with UNESCO to help. Perhaps hybrid models of media, where mainstream publications work with investigative bloggers, helping to guide and ensure their approach and credibility, will be one way of coping. What Jo Confino and colleagues are doing at Guardian Sustainable Business could be one indicator of such a situation. Other publishers may prefer to pretend they have it all under control and can produce credible articles without resources. Such pride will eventually turn them into PR agents’ megaphones.

These changes are bigger than any one person. Some may get all self-righteous about individuals at News of the World. But rather than single out individuals, we need to push for reforms in media ownership rules, so that there is diversity of owners as well as organisational types, with not-for-profit and community media having important roles to play.

We all get influenced by our colleagues and the day to day work. For instance, at Lifeworth Consulting, our desire to be helpful to people leading change in the industry may have blinded us somewhat. Rather than further investigating the issue of Burmese rubies, which was not our aim, or within our capability, when we found evidence that the EU embargo might be being broken, we should have referred this particular matter to law enforcement. Therefore I have started making the relevant enquiries about which parts of law enforcement should be informed.

So on reflection it is good that Vanessa Friedman paid the report some attention, despite the flaws we see in her article. I’m told the key thing in fashion journalism is you must not be ignored. In the rough and tumble of somewhat gossipy and cutting reporting: what doesn’t kill you… makes you more fashionable. So my real regret is that Vanessa didn’t speculate on what suit I might be wearing at my next speech.

If you are in the industry, or write about it, please read our report ‘Uplifting The Earth: The Ethical Performance of Luxury Jewellery Brands’

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