With charity-supporting collections on the rise, are brands beginning to take a genuine interest in issues beyond profit? Calum Gordon examines exactly how altruistic these releases really are.

These days, there’s nothing more fashionable than showing you care. Yet mixing fashion and social activism is a delicate task. Brands – by their simple, profit-led nature – leave themselves open to criticism by those who view their charitable support as self-serving and tokenistic. This has been magnified in the digital age, with brands on constant lookout for new ways to remain relevant and set apart from their competitors.

But to say that all brands engaging in matters beyond their own tiny bubble are simply in it for their own ends would be overly cynical. Surely, for some, it is a matter of principle over profit?

In the past week, sportswear’s two giants – Nike and adidas – have both lent their support to the LGBT cause in the form of special edition collections of sneakers and apparel, all splashed in the rainbow colors of the pride flag. adidas’ “Pride Pack” was designed to celebrate “the diversity of the LGBT community,” while Nike riffed on similar ideas in their #BeTrue collection, which was described as a “call-to-action for all athletes to be their most authentic selves.”

Naturally, for both these releases, a question of authenticity arises. Do the brands really care about supporting gay rights, or is this little more than a pertinent marketing ploy designed to capitalize on an increasingly prominent social issue? Nike’s BE TRUE campaign actually dates back to 1985, although back then it had nothing to do with gay rights at all, and was originally a Dunk campaign aimed at allowing kids to rep their school’s team colors. It only made the transition over to the LGBT camp in 2012. For adidas, meanwhile, this was their first year championing the issue. So why exactly are these two companies suddenly so interested in supporting something as age-old as sexual equality?

The subject of LGBT rights is one which has been increasingly relevant of late, with states across the U.S. coalescing in support of equal marriage rights, and the Republic of Ireland holding the world's first public referendum on gay marriage just last month in which a clear majority voted in favor. Furthermore, this week’s widely-reported Vanity Fair cover story showing Caitlyn Jenner for the first time since her gender reassignment surgery has pushed the subject of trans-rights further into the mainstream than ever before. With such popular support, especially among the open and socially-engaged youth of the 21st century, there are few subjects more relevant than LGBT rights at this time for brands looking to indulge in a bit of hashtag-activism.

Keen to deflect any accusations of empty gestures, both Nike and adidas have put their money where their mouths are, so to speak. adidas have said that a “portion” of the profits from their “Pride Pack” will go to Portland-based charity New Avenues for Youth – a group that helps homeless LGBT youth to build life skills – and have agreed to sponsor Portland Monthly’s annual Pride event. These are both admirable causes indeed, but nowhere does it say exactly what the percentage that “portion” will be. Nike, however, have disclosed that their donation will be $500,000 from the #BeTrue collection’s profits, which will go to the LGBT Sports Coalition to help tackle discrimination in sport. Yet, if they can give away half a million from the profit of the venture and still not have the amount described as the “entirety,” you can only imagine how successful the release must be for them.

The two sportswear behemoths will likely argue that their reach and influence on such a matters far outweighs any financial contribution they could make. And, perhaps, they have a point, when you consider the sports arena they operate in and the staggeringly low number of openly homosexual athletes. At the time of writing there is not a single openly gay football (soccer) player playing in any of Europe’s top leagues. Similarly, NBA star Jason Collins made headlines in 2013 for becoming the first active male athlete in any of the four major North American sports to come out as gay. Clearly, many athletes in the sporting world do not feel comfortable publicly admitting that they are homosexual – a fact likely attributable to prevailing prejudices within their respective sports. For that reason alone, there is a positive aspect to Nike and adidas promoting LGBT rights, but is that enough to gain a reprieve for profiting from this cause? For, surely, that is what each company is doing.

Nike have past form tailoring product to appeal to specific social causes. In 2015, the company celebrated 10 years of their annual Black History Month collections – a release that has gotten bigger every year for the past decade – and announced that it was donating over $1 million to groups helping underprivileged black youth this year. Once again, that’s undoubtedly a welcome gesture, but when the company recorded operating profits just shy of $1 billion in 2014, its scale becomes a little clearer. adidas, meanwhile, only joined proceedings this year, leading to speculation that the celebration has simply become another mandatory milestone on the annual release calendar – another tool for companies to market a product with well-established popularity among people of color.

So what would be the better scenario? Should brands steer clear of these topics altogether? Certainly not. Companies of this nature have the ability to communicate to today’s youth far better than most politicians, yet the caveat of making profit does diminish the impact of that statement somewhat. Perhaps they should take a leaf out of Alex Olson’s book and his Bianca Chandon label which donated every penny of profits from its inaugural Paradise Garage collection to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis charity. Similarly, Union Los Angeles’ recent capsule collection highlighting police brutality in America was careful to ensure no profit was made from the suffering of others.

And that is arguably the most galling aspect of brands profiting from work that purports to combat social injustices – at the end of the day, while they take a hit on the profit margin, every penny they do make is off the back of someone else’s pain or discrimination. Yet, in today’s world of e-petitions, occupy movements and easy-access activism, brands seem increasingly keen to release these products, knowing full well they will chime with a consumer who is, in some way, looking to support an admirable cause. While brands have an incredible power to influence – and their support of something like LGBT rights or black culture is commendable – they must do so with a conscience and sense of responsibility for the gesture to be worth anything at all. Otherwise it becomes something all the more sinister entirely.

Written by Calum Gordon for Highsnobiety.com

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