L / Lifestyle / Random Thoughts

The Seven Rules of Sustainable Luxury

Ok, we’ve finished the hors-d’oeuvres and the entrée, and we’re sinking our teeth into the main course! When I started this blog on green-to-glam ideas from A to Z, I never thought I would get beyond A, B and C. But here we are, half-way through the alphabet and onto letter “L”, which deals with sustainable luxury.

For some, luxury and sustainability go together like ice-cream and caviar. However for a small, yet growing, number of thought leaders and game changers within and outside the industry, sustainable luxury is THE opportunity.

For this post, I tried to summarize the latest trends and big ideas expressed in various publications, research papers, articles and blogs. So here they are. The quotes belong to the sustainable luxury gurus; the mistakes are, undeniably, author’s own.

Wind turbines at the 2012 Chanel show

Wind turbines at the 2012 Chanel show

1. Learning each other’s language

The first thing to do when moving to a foreign country is to learn its language and customs. The same rules applies to luxury and sustainability. Having spent more than 10 years working in the environment field, I hear words like “ecosystems”, “biodiversity”, and “carbon sequestration” on a daily basis. However, when businesses talk about “ROI”, “supply chain” and “externalities”, I used to draw a blank. Hence the first rule for sustainable luxury.  To achieve a step change, industry and sustainability professionals must learn from each other – and keep an open mind!

“Until sustainable designers learn to think about business in the same way their non-sustainable competitors do, they’ll lose, even to inferior products,” writes Carmel Hagan in Co.Exist blog

2. Innovation is key

Many designers and luxury companies that want to do the right thing cite the availability of sustainable alternatives, at a scale that is required for the global market, as a major obstacle. This is where innovation – in terms of materials, technologies and business models – can really do wonders.

Just like the jersey fabric and nylon stockings have revolutionized the 20th century fashion, today’s innovations will define tomorrow’s luxury industry. For example, the World Economic Forum has identified self-healing materials among the top 10 emerging technologies for 2013, stating that they “could give manufactured goods longer lifetimes and reduce the demand for raw materials…”.

3. CSR is dead? Long live the CSR!

Whether you are in the “CSR is dead” camp, or believe that a CSR report is the crowning glory of your sustainability strategy, luxury brands should not underestimate the power of doing good.

Perhaps due to the ‘recession blues’, 2012 saw some rather pessimistic surveys by McKinsey, which argued that “CSR backfires for luxury brands”, and by the Luxury Institute showing that fewer wealthy consumers were prepared to spend more on ethical luxury. At the same time, one could argue that what we are witnessing is not death, but rather reincarnation of CSR: a move from pure philanthropy to meaningful partnerships.

Luxury Institute CEO Milton Pedraza concedes: “Nevertheless, we see that luxury and premium brands that are socially responsible do better even during recessions because doing well by doing good is a universal and timeless concept.”

4. Leading by example

The big breakthroughs have often happened thanks to the leaders in the fashion and luxury industry. Following the trailblazers such as Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood, the industry giant that has been making waves is the second-largest luxury group PPR, which announced its PPR HOME initiative back in 2011.

Here is how PPR CEO, François-Henri Pinault, described the philosophy behind the group’s push towards sustainability: “The deep conviction that Sustainability creates value is part of my strategic vision for PPR. Sustainability can – and must – give rise to new, highly ambitious business models and become a lever of competitiveness for our brands. PPR HOME will provide us with novel, more sustainable approaches to contribute to a better world for the long run“.

Let’s hope it will be a home run for luxury and sustainability!

5. A little shake-up doesn’t hurt

Aggressive consumer campaigns may not be my favourite tactic, but I must admit they do seem to work. For example, since the start of Greenpeace’s Detox campaign in 2011, 15 major fashion brands have already committed to eliminating all releases of hazardous chemicals along their supply chain and products. Valentino is the latest luxury brand addition to the list, which already includes high-street giants like H&M, Benetton and Zara.

The main reason is that luxury brands are particularly averse to bad publicity. In an industry where discretion and perfection are must-haves, images of social and environmental destruction associated with the brand are a big no-no.

As writes sustainable luxury expert Jem Bendell, “Two managers at luxury companies have told me that they would not have a job in corporate responsibility if it was not for WWF’s Deeper Luxury report, but every time it comes up in conversation in the company, there is a collective intake of breath, a sense of insult.”

6. Customer is still king (or queen)!

The next big trend to watch is the changing face of luxury consumers. They are getting younger, more equally split between men and women, and are more likely to come from the emerging markets: China, Russia, India, Brazil, and the Middle East. A recent survey of today’s luxury consumers found that one in four of them is Chinese.

These new luxury consumers also belong to the Facebook generation, which expects luxury brands to sell their products online (and they increasingly do!). The upside for those concerned with sustainability is that social media become the primary resource of information about the ethical and environmental performance of the luxury industry.

As states the Four Seasons’ 2012 report “The Luxury Consumer in the New Digital World: Then & Now”, “Social networking has completely redefined how consumers engage with a brand. Now, it matters less what a brand says about itself; what matters is what people say about a brand. Companies that do not cultivate a transparent, authentic conversation with their customers will perish. There’s no room for smoke and mirrors in today’s socially networked world.”

7. Selling the (sustainable) dream

Ultimately, what brings together luxury and sustainability is that they both sell the dream – whether one of exclusivity or one of harmony. By offering a positive vision that marries the two, luxury brands can help customers in their pursuit of happiness.

A host of recent articles highlighted other similarities between luxury and sustainability, with the main message being that in both cases, consumers are encouraged to buy less, and buy better. According to Jean-Noël Kapferer, Professor at HEC Paris and academic expert on luxury, “Luxury and Sustainable Development converge: both focus on rarity and beauty.”

While there will always be those who would argue that luxury does not need sustainability. However, few would disagree that a world where clean air and water, decent work and education – in other words, sustainability – is a luxury is hardly one worth living in.

Do you agree with these rules? Are there others that you would like to add? Join the conversation!

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4 thoughts on “The Seven Rules of Sustainable Luxury

  1. Hi Xenya, this is a great post and I agree with these rules. On number 4 linked to number 6 I would also add VIPs such as top-models, actors/actresses, singers, even sportsmen or sportswomen (i.e. American surfer Kelly Slater) who are role models for luxury customers.

    On a separate matter, the recent documentary film “The True Cost” could really fit the title of number 5: “little shake-up doesn’t hurt”…

    Thanks for this wonderful blog! sustainable fashion is key in my lifestyle and your blog boosts my motivation on this matter for which I’m also passionate about. Merci, Pilar

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