Could Sustainability be the Future of Luxury?

07 Dec 2011|Added Value

Luxury and sustainability: two opposing concepts? At first glance, perhaps. After all, the word luxury derives from the Latin word “luxus” and conjures up images of ‘pomp, excess and debauchery’. Whereas sustainability, by definition, invites us to ‘meet the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs’.

The two sound paradoxical indeed. And consumers seem to agree. In a recent survey by Salon 1.618, consumers put the luxury industry last in a ranking of industries associated with sustainable commitments; ranking lower than the financial and petrol sectors.

So should the luxury industry admit defeat and never embrace sustainability? We think not. For several reasons:

1. It’s a business tablestake
The growing impact sustainability is having on the industry cannot be ignored.

The globalisation of luxury has led to greater environmental and biodiversity impacts
Outsourcing to developing countries has brought to light abusive employment policies and working conditions
The health impact of toxic residues present in many textiles, foods and cosmetics are increasingly an issue of concern for consumers

And in certain markets, luxury is perceived as a threat to social cohesion … the Chinese government restricts communication around certain luxury brands as they are seen as “a provocation” to the poor.


2. It’s part of the Luxury DNA
We recently ran a qualitative study across 3 continents   to uncover the 7 fundamental values of luxury. Of these, 3 values overlap with sustainable principles:

Timelessness :  Luxury isn’t trendy. It is, by its very nature, durable and long lasting.
Uniqueness:  One of a kind, tailor-made products that allow the owner to resemble no one else and show an appreciation and respect for craftsmanship.
Soul:  Luxury is a vector for emotion; products are charged with meaning, heritage and a story.

Jean Noel Kapferer, renowned French marketing professor, observed the relationship as “luxury is at its essence very close to sustainable preoccupations because it is nourished by rarity and beauty and thus has an interest in preserving them.”


3. It’s a differentiator
By reinforcing the fundamental values of luxury, sustainability can help to clearly distinguish its difference vs more “common” premium brands.  Not compelled to promote consumption for the sake of consumption, sustainable luxury rejects frivolous spending and shows a rich comprehension of the fragile nature of things. And as a result, deep luxury defends the price of rarity, of craftsmen’s talent and noble materials.


4.  It’s an innovation opportunity
A new generation of designers is enthusiastically redefining the soul of luxury. Katharine Hammet, Stella McCartney and Linda Loudermilk are just as intransigent about the values of justice and responsibility as they are about quality and aesthetics. It is important to note that for them, sustainable luxury should be written with a small s and a capital L.  Stella McCartney explains this prioritisation clearly when she refuses to be defined as an ‘eco-designer seeking to make chic clothes’. Instead, she considers herself to be ‘a luxury clothing designer with sustainable convictions’.


Luxury and Sustainability: A happy synergy
The world of beautiful, creative and deep luxury also opens new horizons for sustainability, liberating it from its wholesome, boring strait-jacket and allowing for more aspirational expression and innovation.  This new spirit of luxury is starting to creep in across categories and geographies:

Yves Saint Laurent’s New Vintage III range: a contemporary, fashionable form of up-cycling   that re-exploits unused fabrics from past seasons, employing them to reinvent the emblematic silhouettes of the designer.  Hence, the range reinterprets the brand while maintaining its authenticity.

Hermès creation of Shang Xia, a new Chinese luxury brand of graceful, contemporary handcrafted decorative objects.  By supporting local artisans in China, Hermès offers a modern and localized adaptation of authentic savoir-faire.

The new concept of “glamping” (glamourous camping) proposed by brands like Luxethika ou Edenismes where the travel experience is designed to reconcile reduction of environmental impacts with adventure and comfort. (Note: they haven’t got it quite right yet as transfers to the sites are apparently made in 4×4’s or even helicopters!).

BMW’s Efficient Dynamics technology was created to deliver reduced emissions and fuel consumption with no sacrifices made to driving pleasure.

The opportunities for sustainable innovation in luxury abound.  But the impetus must come, not from consumers, but from pioneering brands. Pioneering luxury brands who will:

Encourage repairability, upcycling and longevity of their products,
Promote the principles of ‘buy less and pay more’,
De-materialise and reinvent the luxury experience,
Promote respect for and appropriate compensation of craftsmanship at home and abroad,
Serve as sustainable trendsetters

As  François-Henri Pinault says:

“If we wait for consumers to insist upon sustainability as a condition for purchasing, nothing will happen. It is up to us to see to it that the environmental products become the new norm.”

Written by Leslie PascaudDirector Sustainable Marketing & Innovation Practice, Added Value Paris

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