Charity in the Lap of Luxury

with contributions from CJ Ghanny

The LUX Fashion Show plays on numerous hypocrisies at the intersection of justice and narcissism. The promotion and presentation of the fashion show clearly emphasizes self-promotion over genuine philanthropy. Moreover, LUX promotes sweatshop clothing, the production of which is intricately linked to systemic poverty in China. This poverty is a root cause inequity in health care access, the problem that LUX’s fundraising then seeks to alleviate.

Let me make it absolutely clear that I do not mean to mount a personal attack on any member of LUX or the Tufts community; rather, I seek to highlight the problem of insincere charity crafted around the giver rather than the receiver of the aid, a harmful phenomenon that is endemic to the largely privileged community of Tufts. It is a trend that can be seen across the global upper echelon in glamorous Hollywood fundraisers, egoistic philanthropy organizations, and white savior complex activism. I focus on LUX to highlight the careful skepticism we should all practice within our communities.

Crafting charitable actions around the emotional needs of the providers, rather than the real needs of the recipients, is not only morally questionable, but also inevitably challenges the effectiveness of the organization. Sarah Neville, the co-President of China Care and director of the LUX fashion show, says that, “usually the draw for the models is the idea of being in a fashion show.” This focus becomes painfully clear after examining the promotional material for the show. Creative director Michael Kareff cast the show’s image as a decidedly philanthropic one, saying, “Through ads and other promotional activities we share our passion for helping these kids with the Tufts community.” These words stand in contrast to the promotional video for the 2012 show, which was composed of three minutes of glamorous model shots with only one fleeting and vague reference to philanthropic intention, with the word ‘charity’ appearing in the last three seconds of the video.

This problematic approach has not gone unnoticed; Senior Madeline Hall, described the crux of the issue eloquently, “The most effective forms of philanthropy are not always the ones that generate the greatest revenue, or the greatest audience—they are the ones that originate from a real understanding of a deplorable social condition, and reflect those realities in their philanthropic endeavors. The work of the LUX fashion show seems hollow and shallow when juxtaposed with the existences of the children it aims to serve.” Certainly some creators behind the event care first to provide medical care to these children; Neville, for example, showed a deep passion for the cause while also admitting she was disinterested in the fashion and ran the show only because it existed before her time. However, for many, LUX creates the pedestal to project their own egoism, while justifying their ostentatious show with only a footnote of paternalistic “save the children” rhetoric.

Beyond the ethical implications of the show’s approach lies the broader issue that it also feeds the very same fire that it claims to rescue these Chinese orphans from. Nicholas Kristof, founder of the Half the Sky movement, which fights to end female oppression, said, “The simplest way to help the poorest Asians would be to buy more from sweatshops, not less” in his article Two Cheers for Sweatshops. While it’s true that sweatshops provide employment opportunities in developing countries, the question must be begged: who really profits? Too often the answer is simply “the poor.” In fact, it is the multinational corporations who seek to exploit one populace to provide quality goods at low cost for another populace, and equally complicit are the traffickers in host countries who are selling other people into labor or host government officials whom are bribed to turn a blind eye.

That Tufts China Care has chosen the fashion industry, which has fueled much of the sweatshop phenomenon in China, to raise awareness for its own issue of poverty is curious. In fact, some of the brands featured in LUX’s shows have faced direct criticism for their labor practices in recent years. J. Crew, featured in LUX’s 2010 show, has been the defendant of multiple suits involving their contingent factories’ union busting and unsatisfactory wages. Calvin Klein, also featured in 2010, has used sweatshop labor from factories in Indonesia and the Philippines. And Marc Jacobs, featured in multiple past LUX shows, faced public criticism last year for, of all things, not paying their runway models. It makes sense that the issue of Chinese orphans must be made accessible for the shallow, attention-deficit college crowd. But does the glorification of one form of injustice justify the amelioration of another?

While I absolutely commend the efforts of hundreds of student to look outward from Tufts to cause change, it is equally important to question the practices of our own institution. The institution often seeks to ignore vital issues including the unacceptable prevalence of sexual assault and the institutionalization of islamophobia and racism, forcing an important burden of skepticism onto our shoulders. As Tufts students, we are all complicit in the actions of our institution, yet should first act as responsible, analytical citizens, spreading justice within our college community, and ultimately affecting change within our world’s neighborhood.

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