Could sustainability be the future of luxury?

The future of luxury?
Market Leader March 2012

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 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, consumers put the luxury industry last in a ranking of industries associated with sustainable commitments; the industry scored lower than the financial and petrol sectors.

So should the luxury industry admit defeat and ignore sustainability? We think not. For several reasons, including:

  • 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 is 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.

"By reinforcing the fundamental values of luxury, sustainability can distinguish its difference vs more ‘common’ premium brands"

Overlapping DNA

We recently ran a qualitative study across three continents to uncover the seven fundamental values of luxury. Of these, three values overlap with sustainable principles:

  • Timelessness: luxury isn’t trendy. It is, by its nature, durable and long lasting.
  • Uniqueness: the ultimate luxury is one of a kind, tailormade 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, describes the two concepts as linked in the following way: ‘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.’

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 understanding of the fragile nature of things. And, as a result, genuine luxury defends the price of rarity, of craftsmen’s talent and noble materials.

A happy synergy

A new generation of designers is enthusiastically redefining the soul of luxury. Katharine Hammet, Stella McCartney and Linda Loudermilk are just as committed to 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’.

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 extend across categories and geographies:

  • Yves Saint Laurent’s New Vintage III range: a contemporary, fashionable form of up-cycling that reexploits 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 localised adaptation of authentic savoir-faire.
  • The new concept of ‘glamping’ (glamorous 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 4x4s or even helicopters.)
  • BMW’s Efficient Dynamics technology was created to deliver reduced emissions and fuel consumption with no sacrifices made to driving pleasure.

"A generation of designers is enthusiastically redefining the soul of luxury"

Innovate sustainably

The opportunities for sustainable innovation in luxury abound. But the impetus must come from pioneering luxury brands that will:

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

As chairman and CEO of PPR, 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 environmental products become the new norm.’

Leslie Pascaud is director of sustainable marketing and innovation, Added Value Paris

[email protected]


Featured Image: The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milano, Italy, is now synonymous with luxury goods


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