Style and Substance: Going the Distance with Sustainable Luxury – Part I

While luxury consumption is traditionally associated with ostentation and extravagance, the rise of eco-consciousness is reshaping the expectations of today’s luxury consumer, and indeed redefining the luxury market as a whole. According to the Sustainable Fashion Blueprint 2018 report, about 57 per cent of consumers cited sustainability—along with fit, price and style—as one of their key considerations when buying fashion items. Similarly, while “luxury” is typically understood to mean “something adding to pleasure or comfort but not absolutely necessary, the same customer with access to life’s greater refinements is also mindful of environmental impact, and in favour of a more evolved and sustainable brand of luxury.

Sustainable luxury—which also goes by honest luxury, smart luxury, new luxury, or green luxury—embodies the eco-friendly and socially responsible business behaviours that the modern or millennial customer base expects. In fact, the 2018 Predictions Report by Positive Luxury showed that younger people want to understand the production process of an item, and its social, economic and environmental impact, before committing to a purchase or supporting a brand. But more than just a response to evolving consumer mindsets, I believe that the sustainable luxury movement is led by a desire for change from within the industry. As a regular attendee of The Financial Times Business of Luxury Summit—an annual conference involving senior executives, professors, consultants and influencers in the global luxury sector—I have observed that sustainability and social responsibility are prominently discussed issues, and believe the brands themselves are eager to improve processes and set the standards for sustainable and ethical practices. In the following sections, I will highlight the efforts of a few luxury brands and establishments that, in my view, are trailblazers in the sustainable luxury movement.

Conscious Change from the Top

François-Henri Pinault, Chairman and CEO of Kering —the conglomerate that owns Gucci, Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Boucheron, and other luxury brands—is one such champion for ethical, eco-friendly luxury.

Believing that Luxury and sustainability are one and the same, Pinault created the position of Chief Sustainability Officer and Head of International Institutional Affairs—a job that went to Marie-Claire Daveu, formerly Chief of Staff at France’s Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy. At the 2018 FT Business of Luxury Summit, Daveu highlighted Kering’s remarkable achievement of jumping from 43rd to second place in Corporate Knights’ 2019 Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World index—all within one year. She stressed the importance of sustainability-focused luxury in the face of climate change, loss in biodiversity and increasing resource scarcity. “You have to show everyone it is possible to lead and be successful in business and simultaneously be respectful to people and the planet we all live in,” she said. In Kering’s 2025 Sustainability Strategy, the adjectives “Care”, “Collaborate” and “Create” feature as central tenets. The group aims to reduce their environmental footprint by 40 per cent across all operations and supply chains (such as by cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent) and to pay closer attention to animal welfare; on the latter point, Gucci announced their decision to ban the use of animal fur in their products. Kering is additionally partnering with start-ups, design schools and universities to research and develop new sourcing solutions and innovative raw materials that will ultimately pave the way for more sustainable business models and supply chains. Their Materials Innovation Lab, for example, is developing environmentally-friendlier materials in fabrics and textiles.  

The Long View

Gabriela Hearst’s eponymous label is the antithesis to “fast fashion”. Through her brand, the Uruguay-born and New York-based designer wants to reflect the benefits of a slower pace and process: “where things are made with care and detail, where tradition is more important than trend, where there is a purpose to every piece”. Hearst has also taken over the operations of her family’s ranch back in Uruguay, where she grows grass-fed organic cattle (mainly merino sheep) that supply the natural fibres for the production of her fashion pieces. Her customers, she claims, appreciate knowing “where materials come from and who is making them”.

 

I had the privilege of meeting Gabriela Hearst at the 2018 FT Business of Luxury Summit, and having an interesting conversation with her. She shared her brand vision: to be a producer of “luxury with a conscience”, and to operate the business in a way that aligned with her strong family values. She acknowledged that eco-conscious businesses are more expensive to run since they demand stronger investments, less efficient processes and more expensive materials. (Take packaging, for instance: Hearst uses TIPA flexible, plastic-like packaging, an innovation from Israel. It is compostable in 24 weeks, as opposed to 500 years for standard plastic, but costs two and a half times the price of regular plastic packaging.) However, she considered such eco-conscious packaging a worthy investment, and aims to be a 100 per cent plastic-free label by this year. “The more brands use it, the cheaper it will become. You have to lead for others to follow,” she described, of her long-view approach. Hearst’s sustainability-focused brand of luxury has certainly resonated with customers. Despite being a niche label that manufactures pieces in limited quantities per collection, the brand has a fast following and even an iconic product—an origami-shaped satchel known as the “Nina” bag.  

End of Part I, PLEASE READ PART ii