CHARITY CHIC

Joshua Blackburn, published in The Guardian, March 2005

We can thank Lance Armstrong – cancer survivor, cycling demi-god and originator of the charity wristband – for making charity the hot look for 2005. Bracelets with the slogan “Livestrong” have turned a worthy cause into an aspirational lifestyle concept that Nike would be proud to own, making his charity the essential accessory of footballers and fashionistas alike.

The freeloaders, however, haven’t been far behind. A mail order jewellery company in America now offers the concerned but confused a ‘silicone wristband combination pack’ for $27 – pink for breast cancer, yellow to support the troops, red for AIDS or heart disease (you decide) and a white tsunami support band. Also on sale, although not included in the gift pack, are bracelets for leukemia, ovarian cancer and domestic violence, each debossed with the encouraging message “hope, faith, courage, strength”. Meanwhile, ebay sellers in this country are promoting the Beat Bullying wristband with all the enthusiasm of Heat magazine: “These are becoming one of the must have fashion items of 2005”, says one, “Wear what all the celebrities are wearing!”

Of course it won’t be long before schoolkids get bored swapping “global poverty” for “leukaemia” and rediscover their yo-yos. But we are witnessing something more than just a playground craze; here is the evolution of charity into fashion icon and consumer brand.
Karen Chung, a founding editor of Wallpaper* now looking to launch a magazine that will fuse charity with glamour, recognises this trend. “Charities are having to get cooler”, she says, “because people aren’t being moved by shock images and want something that they can buy into.” Doing good now means feeling good and, increasingly, looking good too.

The evidence is all around us. Vogue has declared the summer ‘must-have’ to be Bella Freud’s t-shirt for the breast cancer charity, the Lavender Trust. Meanwhile, Oxfam has recently launched Generation Why, an über-cool micro-site that sells music downloads and hip t’s designed by Henrik Engdahl from POKE. A quick click onto Action Aid’s youth site, Space, shows skateboards with Bollocks to Poverty stickers and a design sensibility that is more Wallpaper and less worthy. Fashion Targets Breast Cancer has been at it a bit longer, and now sports eminently desirable threads from Paul Smith to Marks and Spencer.

Charities are no strangers to fashion and celebrity. But whereas before they would seek the reflected cool of footballers and popstars, now they consciously generate that buzz themselves. Charities are becoming a part of our consumer wardrobe… Greenpeace ‘activist chic’… Breakthrough Breast Cancer’s ‘sassy self confidence’… Oxfam’s ‘cool with a conscience’…

Charity old schoolers might be tempted to sneer, but they do so at their peril. With a few notable exceptions, the charity sector is hardly regarded as the most creative or innovative space, and can often come over as somewhat pious. The idea that charity might be a source of cool is, for Matthew Sweetapple, originator of The Prostate Cancer Charity’s imaginative ‘Peeball’, an exciting possibility. “A lot of charity stuff has been quite po-faced”, Sweetapple says, “but if it becomes cooler and more acceptable then that’s got to be a good thing.”

Cynics might fret that this is a dangerous path for charities to take. Fashions come and fashions go – that’s fine if you’re hawking trainers but a cure for AIDS should not be subject to the vagaries of consumer faddism. Do we want to see the long term integrity of our charities sold out by marketeers offering consumers a quick caring fix? Do we demean our principles by putting them on a t-shirt?

Such concerns are understandable but miss out on a more significant point. We face a remarkable opportunity to transform how we think about charities and to embed compassion firmly within the mainstream. If that means utilising design, striving for innovation, creating charity brands that consumers seek out… then so much the better. Sweetapple rightly warns of charities becoming obsessed by their own self image at the cost of their core work, but is happy to see a more fashion-oriented approach. “We’ve got to get people to like the charity not just for their cause but for their personality”, he says.

The real danger is for those charities whose work is more challenging. Global poverty, child protection and cancer are now comfortably “in”, but those charities working on less glamorous issues will have to work double hard and be even more creative to cut through the noise and capture the imagination.

But whatever issue they are concerned with, charities that seek to cash in on their cache will need to keep their eyes firmly on the ball. The marketing savvy that is making charity so desirable is only of value if it is clearly a means to an end, but when fashion becomes an end in itself, when charities become consumed by vanity, and when the profiteers enter the fray, then we risk a backlash that could have enduring consequences. The opportunity is to ensure that style goes hand-in-hand with substance. Make it mainstream and give it sex appeal – but let us never forget that charities are about belief, conviction and change and it is that, above all else, that consumers value.