To many people, “sustainable luxury” is a term that might best be found in the dictionary under the entry for oxymoron, right alongside “postal service” and “military intelligence.”
After all, luxury often carries with it connotations of excess and waste, and it is associated with fashion, an industry prone to fads that change at least as quickly as the seasons.
But leading industry executives say that they are trying to change the image of the luxury goods business by embracing new environmental and labor standards.
The motivation for this shift is not entirely altruistic.
Increasingly, consumers are demanding that the goods they buy be made in ways that do not harm the environment or the workers who make them. They are often willing to pay more for “green” products or “fair trade” goods. And in the current economic downturn, luxury brands are searching for new reasons to persuade consumers to pay for their high-priced products.
In essence, the sales pitch has gone from “treat yourself; you can afford it,” to “the planet can’t afford for you to spend less.”
“Today, more than ever, people want a return to genuine values, such as timelessness, sincerity and exemplary standards,” Francois-Henri Pinault, chairman and chief executive of the French luxury giant PPR, said this week at an industry conference sponsored by the International Herald Tribune. “And these are all qualities which — as we have seen — are inherent in sustainable luxury.”
PPR has instituted a host of practices to make its brands more socially responsible. It is working across its brands — which range from Gucci to Puma — to reduce energy consumption as well as to redesign packaging to be more environmentally friendly. It has also instituted measures to ensure that its suppliers and their subcontractors employ fair labor practices.
Jem Bendell, a consultant who has written on the need for luxury to be redefined in a more socially conscious way, told the conference Thursday that the industry, because it was so profitable, had a special obligation to change its business practices. “Luxury brands have the margin and the mandate to create the most environmentally responsible products,” he said.
Many in the industry now speak of the need to go from a world that had embraced a concept of “fast fashion” — where dresses or handbags are designed and produced quickly to meet the latest fad and then thrown away the next season — to one that embraces “slow fashion,” where goods are made by hand and meant to endure for decades.
This nascent “slow fashion” movement has taken its cues from the now-popular “slow food” movement, which — besides emphasizing slow cooking methods — has also made efforts to support small, local farmers and to promote the use of local, seasonal produce.
Anna Zegna, the image director of the Ermenegildo Zegna Group, the Italian men’s wear producer, which has taken an interest in “slow fashion,” spoke about the amount of skilled labor it took to create a single suit, from the time the wool is sheared to the time the finished product is placed on the rack.
Those skills are handed down from generation to generation within families, she said.
The fashion business had an obligation to sustain those skills and the lives of those workers, she said.
Her company has, for instance, built water wells in Mongolia and Peru, where the company obtains its cashmere and vicuña wool. Those wells have improved the reliability of the water supply in increasingly drought-struck regions, which has helped the local farmers.
But the better water supply has not only resulted in a more reliable wool supply, it has also raised the quality of the wool.
One of the most important aspects to building “sustainable luxury,” according to Stephen Lussier, executive director at the diamond company De Beers, was that it required businesses to take on complex global problems that historically had been the domain of governments or of charitable organizations.
“You have to fundamentally take responsibility even for things you yourself can’t solve,” he said Thursday. He cited the example of De Beers working with the United Nations and nongovernmental groups to eliminate so-called conflict diamonds, which were used to fund wars in Africa.
Mr. Lussier said that the jewelry business was probably ahead of the fashion world and many other luxury businesses in moving from a model in which individual companies instituted their own plans for social responsibility to creating an industrywide framework.
Many top-end jewelry brands are now part of an organization called the Responsible Jewelry Association, which is trying to guarantee labor and environmental standards across the whole market segment.
Mr. Pinault of PPR said at the conference that while the luxury business had been late in adopting socially responsible business practices, it could have a large impact precisely because of its role as a trendsetter.
“It may not have been a precursor in this domain, but effectively, it could show us the way forward,” he said.
But the Dutch designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren sounded a note of caution in a videotaped interview that was played for the conference audience on Wednesday.
They said there was a danger of “sustainable luxury” becoming just another fad.
“Green and fashion runs the risk of becoming a trend, and trends pass,” Mr. Snoeren said.
By Jeremy Kahn, The New York Times, March 26, 2009.