What Women Signal with Designer Handbags and How Can We Make It More Sustainable?

designer handbagJerry Seinfeld once said: “One of the great mysteries to me is the fact that a woman can pour hot wax on her legs, rip the hair out by the root and still be afraid of a spider.” I have a feeling a new study on what purchasing designer handbags and shoes means for women will only add to this mystery.

The study, which will be published on the February 2014 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, suggests some women also seek these luxury items to prevent other women from stealing their man. The researchers found that “women’s luxury products often function as a signaling system directed at other women who pose a threat to their romantic relationships.”

I have to admit these results seemed a bit weird to me at first, but maybe this was only because I’m a man and never really understood why anyone would be interested in buying a $38,000 handbag. Still I was intrigued by the study and what its findings mean for the future of sustainable consumption. After all, if we want to reach a more sustainable future, we need to do a better job understanding the way all consumers think.

Conducted by University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management Professor Vladas Griskevicius and PhD student Yajin Wang, the research included a series of five experiments featuring 649 women of varying ages and relationship statuses. First, reported CBS News, the participants were given a scenario of seeing a woman at a party with their date. Then they were asked what they thought about that woman’s relationship solely based on the quality of her belongings. “We found that a woman who is wearing luxury items and designer brands is perceived to have a more devoted partner and as a result other women are less likely to flirt with him,” says Wang.

In another experiment the researchers made research participants feel jealous by having them imagine that another woman was flirting with their man. Shortly afterward, participants were asked to complete a seemingly unrelated task in which they drew a luxury brand logo on a handbag. The result was that when women felt jealous, they drew designer logos that were twice the size of those in the other conditions. “The feeling that a relationship is being threatened by another woman automatically triggers women to want to flash Gucci, Chanel, and Fendi to other women,” explains Wang.

Interestingly, it didn’t really matter if the women were single or in relationship. The study found that feelings of jealousy triggered a desire for luxury products in both situations. Even more interesting is the fact that women still assume men are paying for these luxury items. As reported in the Atlantic, unless participants were explicitly told otherwise, they “spontaneously” assumed that, on average, a man had paid for nearly 60 percent of a woman’s luxury possessions.

The bottom line of this study seems to be clear – “When a woman is flaunting designer products, it says to other women ‘back off my man,’” says Griskevicius. And what about men? Two years ago a study conducted by Griskevicius and other researchers found that men’s conspicuous spending is driven by the desire to have uncommitted romantic flings. In other words men use luxury products to hunt (women), while women use them to protect the nest.

The interest in understanding the link between social physiology and our attraction to material things dates all the way to 18th century philosopher and economist Adam Smith. Back in his days it was the linen shirt, as you can read in his 1776 iconic book “The Wealth of Nations“:

“A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life…But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty.”

So almost 250 years later, the principal hasn’t changed that much – we still use material objects to overcome social anxiety. Back then workers signaled they were not poor by wearing a linen shirt, and now women signal “my man is loyal so don’t even think about it” to other women by carrying a Gucci handbag.

Yet, the problem is that nowadays this behavior feeds an unsustainable consumer society, where as economist Prof. Tim Jackson described it, “We are encouraged to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to create impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about.”

The question is, how we can change this phenomenon, given that the planet will not support limitless consumption. I believe there are two ways to approach it. The first is based on the idea that the appetite for novelty is part of our DNA and that’s the way it is, so instead of fighting this urge we should make peace with it and just work on developing more eco-friendly lines of luxury handbags for women and green luxury cars for men.

The problem with this approach is that eventually scale will outweigh efficiency, so it won’t take you too far. This is why it might be a good idea to consider a second approach, which is more challenging but also more promising.

This approach aspires to change the cultural DNA of our society and is based on creating a new myth. As Free Range Studios CEO/co-founder Jonah Sachs explains myths tell us what’s important, what we value and how we should behave, and the world changes when our myths change. So how will this new myth look? No one knows for sure, but it might be one where women will come to a party with super-cool accessories signaling to other women – my man cares and he got it on Yerdle or even better he made it by himself, so back off!

[Image credit: Maria Morri, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

2 responses

  1. Honestly the conclusions in this study just seem way out of wack with the actual findings. The first study with the pics of women doesn’t in any way indicate that women buy products to make other women jealous (a negative emotion). All the respondents seemed to view the products as a positive indicator of someone being well taken care of. There’s a big difference between being well-provided-for (and we already know that name brands are a status indicator) and using them to “ward off other women.” The second study’s conclusions also seem like a massive reach – first, drawing is a lot different from actually buying a product with a big fat logo on it. Second, they really should have tested their hypothesis with drawing something else besides logos. What if people just like to draw bigger when they are feeling negative emotions? Your comments about the implications for sustainable consumption are still good though :)

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