What do Rolexes & diamonds have in common with bear bile?

Question: What do Rolexes & diamonds have in common with bear bile?  

Answer: They are all expensive, luxury status symbols bought by those who have the wealth and power to show off.  

But that's not where their similarities end: they all have cheap imitations too.

Wander round any downtown market and you'll likely find fake designer watches, imitation precious stones and rip-off Chanel handbags.  What you won't find here are the rich people that are looking to buy the real thing.  These "fallen off the back of a lorry" goods are not designed for the rich and famous to save a few pennies for their next Porsche purchase.  They are targeted towards people who are at the opposite end of the economic scale - those who dream to be the Kim Kardashians but with disposable incomes of Oliver Twist.

So what does this have to do with bear bile?

Bear bile is a traditional Chinese medicine commonly used by its consumers as a tonic to liver disease.  However, it is also marketed for its supposed anti-inflammatory effects, and can even be found in shampoos and teas.  Like a Rolex, it doesn't come cheap: in Japan, for instance, one gram of processed bear bile can cost over $100.
A Sun bear cub rescued from the illegal wildlife trade now resides in a sanctuary in Cambodia
Previous research has suggested that consumers of wild meats in one part of Asia tend to be rich and powerful, and are buying these products to convey their social status.  It is likely that those that are buying bear bile are doing this for similar reasons, given that there are cheaper options out there, like bile from livestock or synthetic alternatives.

So how do you convince an oil tycoon to buy a fake Rolex - or indeed fake bear bile?  If these people are purchasing high-value products not just because of their utilitarian use (i.e. to tell the time or to reduce liver inflammation) then they wouldn't need convincing to buy a cheaper alternative.  So clearly there are other reasons influencing their decisions.

Producing "fake" products alone will not urge these wealthy elites to change their behaviour.  Some of the more ethically conscious millionaires may be swayed by moral arguments by being educated on the negative animal, environmental or social welfare implications of producing these products.  But these will be the minority.  Most rich people don't like being told what to do (in fact, most people in general don't, either) so convincing a powerful oligarch to buy a cheaper alternative will not cut it.

Imagine, for instance, if Prince William had proposed to Kate with a fake diamond ring.

We all know the environmental, social and ethical horrors associated with the production of most diamonds (if you don't, the film Blood Diamond might make for good viewing).  And yet most women still demand real diamonds for their engagement rings. Despite the clear moral reasons to buy fake alternatives, the real McCoy often prevails.

We must therefore start to understand the underlying reasons associated with why people are purchasing these high-value goods and begin to offer alternatives that match these desires if we really want to change the game.  A Chinese businessman won't be wooed by a plastic ivory statue just as an American stockbroker won't be charmed with a knock-off Montblanc pen.

If we really want people to stop buying bear bile, we need to understand why they are using it in the first place - and not just assuming it is for the medicinal value alone.    And it is here where I believe we have a lot to learn from anthropologists and social scientists that are trying to dig deeper into these issues to learn about underlying drivers. Only once we understand the complexity of an issue can we truly solve it indefinitely.


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