Unfashionable: intellectual property risk

Listen to the think piece

Ethics are and remain rather unfashionable, it seems. Keen to compete and keen to impress, fashion firm KTZ – les enfants terribles behind UK fashion label Kokon to Zai – committed something much more serious than a fashion faux pas.  The global fashion market is approaching USD 2 trillion (Factsheet Feb2015) with severe income inequality knitted into many garment pieces consumers pick and wear.  The UK (Figures 2014) being a key player in this race for fashion hegemony and design dominance.  From a risk perspective, KTZ probably did weigh their chances but failed to consider the role of social media, or maybe they just hoped globalized media sharing wouldn’t really reach that far.  Now litigation and reputational risk are looming large, and subsequent losses have been stamped on the brand. Any press is good press? Not so fast with the marketing myths.

Fashion brands, in fact, the fashion and clothing industry itself, have been plagued for years by its unethical stance and practices. Whether

  • human rights violations and child labor,
  • the range of body image controversies due to anorexic underage models in advertisements and on runways,
  • environmental issues, or in fact,
  • cultural appropriation,

have made the headlines.  Blood diamonds, fur, sweat shops and the rampant – euphemistically framed “borrowing” from indigenous cultures, but also from sub-cultures and powerless individual artists, represent a persistent and severe problem.

As long as celebrities, royals and even the nouveau riche de la politique across the nations, don’t seem to mind, these unethical products find their followers.  They promise that brief moment of fame, the glamor shot, the much desired high, resulting from flattering Likes on traditional and social media, and that little bit of attention in a world that spins around short attention spans.  Short-lived, just like the fashion, handed over to to the charity shop down the road, label still intact, when it’s deemed so last season.

Avoiding plagiarism and being aware of ethical production and consumption standards should by now belong to every consumer’s and citizen’s (or student’s) basic knowledge. The risk to be branded an intellectual property thief, ignorant capitalist or quite generally, belonging to the exploiting (rather than inspiring) brand of entrepreneurs, is simply too high and too expensive to be neglected.  The fashion industry is not entirely unaware of these issues, and in fact, has been attempting to tackle the issues and improve the business and its image for a while (c.f. Ethical Fashion Forum). Sustainability is high on the agenda, governance policies have been drafted – but their enforcement remains unclear.  Counter-plagiarism and ethics enforcement, in particular with respect to intellectual property rights, are not embedded.

KTZ faced a storm of criticism and were fairly quick in issuing what felt like a lukewarm apology. Copying Inuit sacred symbols surely caused an icy blast – apparently relying on a notion that those remote few, discovered only by anthropologists long before the label was even founded, would not find out.

But will it last, or is the brand going to hunt down the next indigenous piece of design, hoping this time to get away with it?  Or worse, will they resort to appropriating symbols whose meaning they may not even grasp but, deciphered by insiders, may stir much worse than a painful offense and hurt to the peaceful Inuit? Copying someone else’s intellectual property and representing it as your own work counts as plagiarism, depending on your perspective you could argue forgery. Luckily, social media sharing facilities mean such kind of attempted fraud incidents stands a good chance of becoming widely visible.

Whether avantgarde fashion or budget micro label, it’s vital to address the lack of speed regarding the legal options in such moments, gaining redress takes time and resources.  Either tend to be scarce goods. However, with increasing technological facilities on social media and image recognition softwar,  the future is promising to hold more power for those whose rights have been infringed.

In the meanwhile, socially and environmentally educated and aware consumers, are making more demands and hope is growing that these crowds will step up and express their critical thinking when making purchases based on informed decisions.

As to KTZ, it remains to be hoped, that their “raw energy and contemporary urban edge” which they are so proud of, finds less disturbing channels.  Perhaps they could bring these characteristics to their much needed reputation and litigation risk management and toy with the idea of going beyond monetary compensation?

This idea is by no means as far-fetched as it may sound.  Up near the Arctic Circle the Alaskan Native people, a group of about 13,500 Inuit have been living for many thousands of years across a vast territory.  Seeing their traditional lifestyle severely threatened by the increasing impacts of climate change, the Alaskan Iñupiat collaborated with video game designers and developed  Never Alone. Their educational video game features documentary-style videos and inter-generational storytelling, making it part of a growing number of indigenous video games that feature atmospheric, story rich and beautiful ways of conveying the narratives, habits, practices and beliefs.  First released in late 2014, KTZ remained unaware of this though, while the Inuit reached out to the wider world to share, KTZ seemed to deem the Inuits in their case too far away to be taken seriously and consult with.

Here is the story of the Shaman whose daughter received KTZ’s apology.

Ethics training doesn’t have to be uncool and it certainly does not have to be boring. Creatively linking the requirement for respect of human rights, the environment and property rights on a global scale is what can set the ethically sound and successful leaders in any sector truly and sustainably apart from the rest of the short-term goal-chasers.

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