The Common Future of Luxury and Sustainability

The idea of sustainability hinges on meeting our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. Luxury seems an ideal industry to adopt sustainable measures; since quality, craftsmanship and durability are among its cornerstones. However, that doesn’t always translate into reality – this article explores why that is and what steps can be taken to change this.

Although corporate social responsibility (CSR) has always been important for businesses, it has now become a key factor in driving purchases. With increased accessibility to information due to digital developments, consumers can more easily make purchasing decisions that reflect their ethics and values. Research has shown that 87% of Americans are more likely to purchase a product when a company advocates for an issue they care about. As the alignment of values between a brand and consumers becomes increasingly important drivers in purchasing decisions and brand loyalty, companies wishing to retain their luxury status must adapt to concerns of ethical, sustainable and responsible practices.

Another study conducted in 2015 showed that almost 75% of Millennial respondents were willing to spend more on products that come from a sustainable or conscious brand. Despite this percentage being lower amongst older consumers, it increased from 55% in 2014 to 72% in 2015 for the Gen Z cohort. This indicates that establishing a brand as sustainable not only impacts the current main segment of the market, but also acts in cementing loyalty amongst upcoming generations as they grow into purchasing power.

The same study outlines that 81% of Millennials expect brands they patronise to have transparent marketing campaigns and to be transparent about their impact. Sustainable practices are important, but authenticity is even more so: greenwashing (when a company gives consumers the impression that it is more environmentally friendly than it actually is) runs rampant and can strongly harm consumer trust, which has been outlined as a key purchasing driver in the study. As a matter of fact, brand trust/reputation topped the list of sustainability purchasing drivers, being important for 62% of consumers globally.

The best way to reach consumers and minimise environmental impact is to leverage the common elements between luxury and sustainability. But how can brands do that without harming brand image and retaining authenticity?

Fashion & Leather Goods

The fashion industry was valued at US$1.5 trillion in 2021, making it one of the most profitable in the world. It also ranks very high in terms of pollution, due to carbon emissions, microplastic pollution and the use of toxic chemicals for manufacturing. There is a general assumption that the brunt of this damage is caused by the fast fashion industry, but higher price points and margins don’t always correlate with sustainable practices: in 2019, a workshop employing undocumented workers with a large immigrant population was discovered in Naples. It produced bags and shoes for brands including luxury powerhouses Armani, Saint Laurent and Fendi, who denied having any relationship with the workshop.

Chanel’s Fashion President Bruno Pavlovsky has stated the importance of products’ provenance, traceability and production conditions in the changing industry. Acknowledged by one of the leaders in an industry historically reliant on mystique, the importance of responsible practices for the future is undeniable. Here are some ways in which the luxury fashion & leather goods industries can leverage sustainability to continue growing:

  • Responsible manufacturing and worker welfare: Chanel recently opened 19M, a craftsmanship hub gathering 11 of their subsidiaries under one roof, including shoemakers from Massaro, feather and flower creator Maison Lemarié, embroidery specialists Lesage, and even the Maison Michel milliners. This move is important not only in terms of strategy, as the house acquires more control of its supply chain, but also in helping celebrate craftsmanship and its creators.
  • Natural, high-quality materials: High-quality materials not only make garments last longer, but the use of natural fibres avoids the release of microplastics into the environment. A shining example is Brunello Cucinelli, who has been travelling personally to Mongolia for around 30 years to source cashmere directly from nomadic goatherds.
  • Post-purchase care and repair: another common point between luxury and sustainability. The services offered by brands such as prestigious shoemaker & menswear brand Berluti, which recommends customers bring their shoes twice a year for general maintenance, helps products last longer.
  • Eco-friendly packaging: An especially important point for a part of the process which is used once and discarded. Burberry has created FSC-certified paper packaging which uses recycled coffee cups from landfills, without losing an expensive feel.

Watches & Jewellery

The jewellery sector has not suffered the same level of scrutiny regarding its significant impact. This is in spite of it being heavily associated with human rights violations, as well as water and air pollution. The matter of conflict diamonds is also very important: these gems are illegally traded to fund conflict in war-torn areas. Despite there being certifications for “conflict-free” gems, it has been stated that the only way to actually guarantee a diamond is conflict-free is by buying a lab-created gem.

This industry still has potential, however: unlike paper, plastic and other fibres; precious metals don’t lose quality when recycled. Brazilian jewellery giant Vivara has created an initiative called Golden Week, allowing consumers to exchange gold jewellery for new items in a move to foster circularity and conscious consumerism.

Companies can also ensure they are sourcing responsibly and engaging in important causes. Tiffany & Co., for example, dedicates sections of their website outlining their sustainability and responsible sourcing efforts, in addition to running a foundation dedicated to preserving the world’s seascapes and landscapes through responsible mining and coral conservation programs.

“I just ask myself, if I had to pull back the curtain on our factories, would I want our customers to see what’s there?“

Andy Hart, Head of diamond supply for Tiffany & Co.

Luxury watchmaking leader Rolex has been supporting sustainable developments and improvements for the planet for over four decades through its Award for Enterprise. The initiative awards a cash prize to winners who present a project that brings positive social or environmental changes. Five new laureates were chosen in 2021: their projects involve tackling malnutrition, preventing conflicts, protecting ecosystems, studying climate change in the Arctic and conserving coral reefs.

In addition, Italian luxury watchmaker Panerai released the limited edition Submersible eLAB-ID PAM01225, made up of 98.6% high recycled content materials (including PET bottles and aerospace-grade scrap titanium alloy). The brand has also released other watches using recycled materials, such as recycled steel alloy and reprocessed silicon.

Cosmetics & Perfumes

Shiseido strives to be “the most trusted beauty company in the world”, having several initiatives touching on the three pillars of sustainability: people, profit and planet. It was one of the first luxury cosmetics brands to offer refillable products, starting with a powder compact in 1926 and now including a range of skincare, makeup and hair care products. This has evolved into a commitment to having 100% sustainable packaging by 2025 (from 57% in 2020), meaning either all packaging will be reusable, recyclable, or biodegradable. Even La Prairie, which ranks high amongst the most luxurious skincare brands in the world, offers product refills.

In addition to packaging, Shiseido is also focused on ethical, transparent formulas with consideration for the environment. Chanel has recently launched its first sustainable beauty range, No.1 de Chanel, with a circular focus in mind. The brand claims the range’s entire production process is eco-friendly, with 97% natural ingredients and 80% recyclable glass packaging and refills.

Despite not positioning themselves as a sustainable brand, La Mer is involved in awareness-raising and marine preservation initiatives through the La Mer Blue Heart foundation. In addition, the main ingredient of their products is the Miracle Broth™: an elixir made with hand-harvested sea kelp.

With all of these examples, it’s clear that a holistic approach needs to be taken to promote positive change to the three pillars of sustainability. The evolution of consumer habits has made clear that sustainability is no longer a choice or merely a positioning decision, but a key driver for business in the years to come. Market leaders can deploy their significant capital and influence to pave the way for a more circular and sustainable approach to shopping. They can do this by finding elements which highlight their strengths and show concern for the future, making sure not to lose authenticity along the way.

By Sabrina Yang

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