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HOW CAN SUSTAINABLE LUXURY BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY?

Luxury brands are urged to shift to sustainable luxury in order to adapt and survive. However, they struggle as consumers question their credibility to go green. How can sustainable luxury be taken seriously?

Words By Sophie Badaoui

01/06/2021

As consumers become more socially and environmentally conscious in their everyday choices, many luxury companies have shifted their marketing strategies to create a green identity. Despite the noble efforts, they keep struggling when it comes to convincing consumers of their genuinity as the concepts of luxury and sustainability do not seem to go hand in hand. Indeed, as the term “luxus” implies, luxury goods are commonly associated with the idea of excess of wealth, whereas one of the main goals of sustainability is to fight against excess and waste. “For luxury consumers, luxury goods are primarily about the delivery of satisfaction and pleasure rather than addressing social or environmental needs. This stems from the fact that luxury goods cost a great deal relative to their utility or economic potential. As a result, several people consider such goods to be superfluous, detached from real needs and characterized by vain superfluity”, suggests Sombart (2003). Therefore, when it comes to luxury companies, consumers tend to discredit their CSR strategies as they simply regard it as an attempt to please a changing society for profit, without expressing a genuine care for the planet and the people. How can sustainable luxury be taken seriously?

Sustainable luxury is real, as Stella McCartney has paved the way for it since the foundation of her eponymous brand (Check this Staiy article for more info). But here’s the thing: The brand was born with the idea of sustainability, whereas most existing luxury companies have been portrayed to promote the contrary. And although they have made considerable efforts to reduce their social and environmental impact through sustainable materials choices in production and the setting of socially driven purposes, the struggle is still real. Yet, they remain determined to have their green identity taken seriously. For instance, Gucci has been investing in using more durable and eco-friendly materials in their production and packaging processes, Tod’s embodies non-profit initiatives and Bulgari focuses on building new, more respectable work environments. Moreover, they try to communicate their CSR commitment through diverse manners: for example, Prada Group shared their sustainable strategy on their website. Gucci launched Gucci Equilibrium, an online platform dedicated to their sustainability commitment. Tod’s comes up with cultural initiatives, and Bulgari tries to create a new image with ethical standards and certifications. We’ve got to admit it, the efforts are appreciated. However, most consumers think these luxury brands are trying too hard, as the concept of luxury goods is still deeply and intrinsically linked to the focus of profit, solely.

In order to make it work, luxury brands may have to reconsider their priorities: as John Elkington’s 1994 triple bottom line suggests, “extend the way we consider economic development and prosperity not only on the economic pillar, but also on the environmental and social ones, reconsidering the way in which we create value in terms of social justice and environmental impact”. Therefore, the 3Ps (Planet, People, Profit) must always be considered as equally valuable purposes. Luxury brands should probably communicate their social responsibility and sustainable standards as an integral part of their corporate policy, and not as a secondary activity performed to adapt to a “trend”. All stakeholders involved, internal or external, should be taken into consideration. 

Another point to raise is the notion of creation waste, which is different from production waste. Creation waste alludes to the luxury fashion culture of designing too many collections per year as it requires wasting thousands of dollars everyday for unnecessary means. In the context of luxury fashion, it may seem insufficient to use sustainable materials and get certifications if there is not a change in the culture of luxury fashion, to tackle creation waste as well as production waste.

“Sustainable luxury is a matter of deep conviction”

Francois-Henri Pinault

Last but not least, two years after their “Supreme Luxury” conference (2007), the International Herald Tribune hosted an urgent “Sustainable luxury” conference (2009). As a matter of fact, Francois-Henri Pinault, Chairman and CEO of multinational luxury group Kering, reflected in his speech the necessity to go beyond the “sustainable luxury” contradiction, as “growing concern for the planet and greater respect for the people all come together. Luxury and sustainable development share the same values and can support each other. There is no time for reflection or pessimism but for action. Let’s be ambitious and effective before it is too late. Luxury can and should raise awareness.” Ending on the note “Sustainable luxury is a matter of deep conviction”, Pinault’s speech seems genuine in wanting to inspire luxury brands to become sustainable. However, as he just pointed out, there is no need to waste further time for words and reflections, but for action. Consumers should therefore expect to evaluate the luxury industry’s performance in effectively reducing its environmental and social impact rather than reading sustainability reports.