Diwali in the UK: how commodifying minority religions can risk cultural appropriation

The Conversation

The commercial potential of Diwali is capturing the attention of the high street. Big brand retailers are cashing in by adapting existing products to promote sales of Diwali-themed goods. But little, if any, mention is being made of the festival’s religious nature, and that’s a problem.

There might be no single narrative story about Diwali, which falls on October 24 this year, but there is a shared meaning. This most widely celebrated festival in the Hindu calendar represents the victory of light over darkness, of good over evil.

Many Hindus associate Diwali with Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. Lakshmi puja (with puja being the act or ritual of worship used) is one of the rituals which marks the start of the new year. People prepare for the arrival of the goddess by cleaning their homes and donning new clothes. They gather together with family, light diyas (small oil lamps made from clay), exchange gifts, eat Indian sweets and have firework displays.

Businesses, of course, are geared towards grabbing attention. Marketing departments exist precisely to boost sales. And the sharing of minority cultures through food, dress, and music does contribute to consumer tastes diversifying. However, my research suggests that using symbols and motifs without sufficient contextualisation runs the risk of cultural appropriation.

In addition, it does not necessarily tackle deeper socio-economic issues – from inequality to structural racism – and can exacerbate them.

Cashing in on religious festivals

Diwali is important economically, both within both the Indian subcontinent and Hindu diaspora communities. In the UK, retailers from south Asian backgrounds who work in the food, fashion and accessories industries, as well as the corner shop owners who stock fireworks, see increased trade in the run-up to the festival.

High streets in predominantly south Asian communities, including Belgrave Road in Leicester, transform into a visual spectacle. Shops are decked with colourful lights. People crowd in to buy Indian sweets including barfi, gulab jamun and jalebi. Restaurants are packed with festival goers eating out.

Retailers more broadly are increasingly looking to capitalise on this commercial potential. Some simply repackage existing products. Jo Malone foregrounds its fragranced candles and other products for the Diwali market by decorating giftboxes with rangoli motifs (elaborate designs made of coloured rice, sand and flower petals). Ikea promotes its decorative lighting and soft furnishings with similar “ethnic” touches.

Other retailers bring out Diwali-themed, limited-edition product ranges. In the cosmetics sphere, in 2022, these have included MAC’s Diwali Light Festival collection and Bobby Brown’s Aarti P. Diwali Edit 2022 makeup range, a collaboration with the multi-award winning British hair and makeup artist of south Asian descent. Soapmaker Lush, meanwhile, has advertised its Diwali range as curated by its employees “who celebrate Diwali”, as the marketing materials put it.

What these various campaigns have in common are similar marketing strategies that home in on the bright colours of the fireworks and the spirit of togetherness Diwali fosters. Commercial collaborations are presented as commitments to principles of inclusivity and diversity, both vital for global organisations.

The absence of religious context

There is something genuinely appealing about seeing the festivals and traditions of minority religions explored by retailers in creative and innovative ways. High street retailers have seized on the fun and celebratory aspects of this festival, the dressing up, the sharing of food, the illuminations.

But there is a marked absence of any mention of the religious context of the festival. Diwali is mentioned in terms of its “celebrations”. Lush highlights “those who celebrate it”. MAC describes it as a “joyous holiday”. Hinduism or Hindus are not mentioned.

Eid, the Islamic festival symbolising the breaking of the fast at the end of Ramadan, received the same treatment from Lush earlier in 2022. There was no mention of Islam or Muslims except in the description of the “Light the Night” bath bomb, the designs of which were inspired by the colours of Islamic art.

The politicisation of minority groups means that their religious identities also become political. In avoiding mention of the religion, retailers focus only on the commercial aspects of the festival, the surface qualities of the outward and social rituals of celebration.

Cultural appropriation occurs when the culture of minority groups fall into the hands of the majority and dominant culture. The parading of cultural goods by their surface qualities can be seen, in this context, as distorting the deeper symbolism of Diwali. It can also be seen as commercially exploitative.

If retailers want to engage with the traditions of minority religions, they need to do this authentically and wholeheartedly rather than skirt around the religious core of these festivals. Partnering with members from these religions is an important step in the right direction.

However, this needs to be underpinned by a commitment to explicitly identify the religion and the contextual narratives of the festival rather than watering it down to the lowest common denominator of aspects, like joy and celebration, that are found in pretty much all festivals.

Rina Arya does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.