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Values of Integrity- Modern Fashion Ethics

Mary Smith is a take-charge, spur-of-the-moment leader with little time for uncertainty and no time for excuses. As the Chief Executive Officer of Amandine Renee, she relies upon her employees’ knowledge of different perspectives and upon her own common sense and gut reaction. Providing alternatives in an accessible way and making a simple recommendation are the duties of the Director of Ethics and Compliance. Mary does not want to hear what she already knows; she wants to hear a reason why this new job is necessary, why its existence is going to make her life- and the company’s operations- smoother. In each scenario, the ethics are underwritten by unexpected dilemmas: body image, right to privacy, possible questions of legality, and profit at others’ expense, but an answer is given to each.

Scenario 1: Representing or Restricting?

In this scenario, one employee suggests updating the dress code to be simple- with short hair, no make-up, and black-and-silver clothing and jewelry. The following arguments sum up the ethical views which come primarily from philosophy and sociological research.

Self-image is frequently tied to the literal appearance, so dress code changes have potential benefits and drawbacks for morale. This is especially true for women, who are socialized to highly value beauty and to express their individual viewpoint through their wardrobe. For women, fashion has been considered in three ways: a) fashion is a locus of pleasure which uses the body and mind as simple mannequins, b) fashion is a gender-specific cultural norm, and c) fashion is an opportunity to affect change in a congenial manner (Radner, 1998).

If fashion is indeed the conduit between the social self and the inner self, then the enforcement of a dress code can create an interruption in this translation. Thus, aesthetics are firmly grounded in ethics. Television places the realm of fashion on an unattainable pedestal, but the proposed dress code would create a wearable look for the everyday woman- but at the cost of the personal independence associated with these decisions. TV programs often depict a higher standard of self-care as mere frivolity and detract from the empowerment which a woman can feel when she is able to harness her ideal of beauty.

I recommend that the dress code changes be limited to the colors of clothing and jewelry, the visibility of tattoos and piercings, and the length and tightness of the garments. Considering Amandine Renee’s status as a small apparel retail chain, it seems a tremendous oversight to say nothing of the requirements for the clothes themselves. The VP of Human Resources should not suggest changes which seek to redesign the woman herself- not the company’s image of which she is a part, nor can any company in America forbid their employees from enjoying the personal freedoms of hair and make-up. Dress codes should be more like guidelines.

Scenario 2: Samples or Swag?

In this scenario, Mary is challenged about the ethical responsibility of accepting multiple samples- or “swag”- from a potential client. These samples are consistent with the company’s consideration of potential offerings, but the question regards her offhand acceptance of multiple samples and if these gifts produce a negative effect on objective decision-making.

There is a fine line between sampling a potential investment and engaging in bribery; the fashion industry is no stranger to scandals of this sort. Famed designer Marc Jacobs recently spent one million dollars to remove his company from a pending investigation. To secure the most prestigious catwalks to showcase his designs, Jacobs’ company had a regular, standing bribe of money and gifts for the venue’s owner (Pilkington, 2008). Marc Jacobs’ company will also be externally regulated for no less than two years. The bribery consisted of about $35,000 over a 5-year period of time, and the spot itself cost $6,000 per use. Using an average to provide a functional estimate, Jacobs’ company spent nearly as much on the bribe as they would have if they had simply purchased the spot without money and goods. In such a situation, the amount of the bribe typically escalates and requires more and more money for the silence of the accepting party, yet their risk is greater. With less money, the accepter of the bribe awaits court and a possible 15-year prison sentence; Jacobs’ company paid a large sum of money to New York state and went on like nothing happened (Pilkington, 2008). In this case, Amandine Renee is the little guy sitting in prison still.

If one employee has already noticed it and made a comment, then it is already drawing the kind of negative attention that a blossoming chain must avoid to survive. In addition, there are the legal barriers of defining what exactly comprises bribery. In the Jacobs case, the designer provided money, and the accepting party faced a possible sentence of 15 years in prison (Pilkington, 2008). It is simply not worth the risk. Samples must be accepted only as necessary for making educated decisions on product acquisition and placement and must be objectively considered. Private use of these samples is inadvisable.

Scenario 3: Infringement or Investment?

In this scenario, a buyer’s dresses look remarkably like that of a rising designer, Armando Felini. Knowing that the designer depends upon the profits of the dress line to expand, Mary is conflicted. Because the scenario does not describe how similar these items are, the two alternatives will be described below.

Designers as artists enjoy a liberal amount of freedom. However, that freedom can only be minimally protected by trademark and intellectual and artistic property laws because fashion may recombine popular elements in a way that makes them appear entirely new. This month, a New York trial pitted prominent shoe designer Christian Louboutin against Yves Saint Laurent for the exclusive rights to use the bright red soles which have long been a recognizable feature of Louboutin’s high heels. The judge ruled against the idea of the red sole as a trademark, remarking that “colour serves ornamental and aesthetic functions vital to robust competition” (Milligan, 2011). If the issues is one of color, there is no issue at all, and the other minutia of the fashion industry, such as fit and cut, would be equally hard to justify.

If the design, cut, and color choice are eerily similar, many boutiques and smaller clothing outlets simply choose to style the clothing in a different way. The courts will only intervene when certain, specific standards of infringement are present. If the design is not considered as useful in everyday life- or utilitarian- then the original designer (in this case Fellini) has a claim if the design is intended for masquerades or as an artistic piece, for example (Tu, 2010). Although this is common practice and is rarely enforced by legal judgments, it is not ethically sound. Louis Vitton’s world-famous handbags have been stylistically mirrored in such retail successes as Burlington Coat Factory and Dooney & Bourke, yet Vitton’s trademark styles were not upheld (421-422). Nonetheless, if the similarity is so striking that one brand is often mistaken for another, this may create a case for “trade dress” infringement which alludes to a single source designer (434).

Before the internet pervaded fashion merchandising and sales, the knockoffs’ cheapening of a design took years; with today’s technology, a design can be produced to mass markets in weeks. Furthermore, the designers invest their own money in the process of showcasing their intellectual work, so the “knockoff” infringement is fiscally damaging in two ways: cheapening design and eluding investment (423). Mary is already aware that the designer has invested his life savings into this dress collection. If she preempts the release of the collection at his boutique, she is ensuring the failure of the original designer’s collection. For these reasons, many of the fashion industry’s insiders support the designers’ fight against infringement. It is my recommendation that- if there is a marked similarity- Amandine Renee should not associate itself with such a lack of innovation and should either report or resell them- at Mary’s discretion.

Scenario 4: Disoriented or Orientated?

In this scenario, Mary is looking to “cash in” on some new talent who will be receiving little money for their tremendous sales numbers, and the VP of Human Resources asks for advice regarding orientation. The company will be hire new recruits, expecting them to produce six-figure sales for a fairly meager, standard salary.

If this question arises at orientation, handling the situation is key to the commitment of these recruits. Instead of handling the situation, it should be altogether preempted. While settling for a standard payrate may appear unsavory during the high points of the year, there will likely be a string of months in which sales are meager. During these times, a salesperson could hardly subsist off of commissions. They will hardly be thrilled at the prospect, but it is stable employment with reliable pay in an up-and-coming company. Their sacrifices build the organization as a whole and are an investment in the opportunity to advance which exists in such small, successful companies. Orientation should focus on these premises then: stability of pay and future prospects. Is it unethical for a company to turn a profit? It is not- if that profit is done legally and in accordance with others’ rights. The company itself also assumes more costs and risks. These employees are not likely to reinvest commissioned profits into the company, and- early on- a company cannot afford to offer large incentives; they need too many things and to pay too many bills.

Of the scenarios, most of the dilemmas are unethical or inadvisable. Because so much of a small company’s success is dependent upon the good will of the public and of its employees, uncertainty is a luxury which the executives cannot afford. A good rule of thumb may be to point out that if an act is in question, then the question itself is reason enough to avoid confusion. This rule will guide Mary and her new Director of Ethics and Compliance. The openness of “Mondays with Mary” is a good start, highlighting issues which normally do not come up in routine staff and board meetings. The relaxed nature is conducive to progress. Mary is an intimidating woman, so she may be unaccustomed to having anyone question her practices. All the more reason to present the scenarios in ways which translate into tried values of integrity.