Luxury: the new epitome of green values?

Sensemaking / Luxury: the new epitome of green values?

Anna Simpson explores how emerging trends in luxury markets are beginning to look a lot like sustainable consumption, where we splurge on quality, time and experience.

29 Mar 2012

Anna Simpson explores how emerging trends in luxury markets are beginning to look a lot like sustainable consumption, where we splurge on quality, time and experience.

“Luxury should be synonymous with sustainability”, says James Lawson of the international market research firm Ledbury, which specialises in the spending habits of high net worth individuals.

It’s a radical statement. Much of what we associate with luxury – indulgence, extravagance, sheer look-at-me bling – is the antithesis of responsibility. ‘Isn’t that the whole point?’ you might ask. We seek out treats to help us escape the many ‘shoulds’ of daily life. How unpleasant, then, if their exquisite façade turns on us and asks us to remember our values…

But is luxury necessarily a guilty pleasure? No, says Lawson – or at least, not any more. Increasingly, he explains, “the main reason that people buy luxury is the story behind the product and the brand. Maybe 20 years ago when you bought your diamond ring you didn’t care. Now, you want to hear where it came from and understand the artisanship. There’s a shift from the desire to tell the world ‘I have more’, to a more discerning message: ‘I know more’.”

Lawson’s insights are based on interviews with those who know – Gaetano Cavalieri, President of the World Jewellery Confederation, for one, who confirms that the luxury market is increasingly driven by trust and legitimacy. Uche Okonkwo, Executive Director of the consultancy Luxe Corp (which counts Gucci and Christian Dior among its clients), also agrees. She expects the internet and digital communications to play a significant role in changing the expectations of luxury shoppers.

Indeed, if consumers at the top are developing a real interest in their purchases – from how they are sourced and the materials used, to the craft and culture of those who make them – luxury brands could become a real force for change. The global industry for luxury goods is estimated to be worth $200-220 billion a year – a value all too rarely reflected in the social and environmental costs. You needn’t dig far past the gold and diamonds to find horror stories of displaced communities and contaminated drinking water…

Now, start-ups with better stories to tell are stealing a trick at the 1.618 Sustainable Luxury Fair – a major annual event in Paris, which screens all would-be exhibitors, and invites only the leading examples of responsible practice to shine. Among them is honestby, the creation of Belgian designer Bruno Pieters, who used to work for Hugo Boss. This online luxury fashion retailer has made transparency its USP. If you’d like to know more about a beautiful charcoal cotton jersey (the one with the hand-woven harris tweed sleeve) before you reach for your credit card, honestby will tell you where the cotton came from, whether it’s organic and vegan, where it was grown, how much was used, how it was dyed, who spun it, who cut it, and how much they were paid. Any more questions, just ask. If knowing more is the future of luxury consumption, then this is the avant garde.

Sustainable sourcing is popping up in more mainstream salons, too. “There are two major luxury fashion events in Florence and Milan”, says Livia Piermattei, who advises high-end brands as Managing Partner at the change consultancy Methodos. “This year, for the first time, they each featured ‘Green Box’ – an initiative dedicated to sustainability."

Of course, Paris and Milan are no longer the heart of the luxury world, as new markets expand across Asia and the Middle East. China is set to be the world’s largest luxury consumer market in the next 3-6 years – and a similar trend has been spotted there. Back in 2007, Angelica Cheung, Editor of Vogue China, was already reporting “growing sales of luxury goods that do not flaunt their logos” in the WWF report Deeper Luxury. She referred to “a new class of Chinese consumers ready to spend money on quality and style without showing it on their sleeves”.

So the big spenders have a new-found love of stories. But lots of great buys now have tales to tell, from fairly traded foods to recycled rubber shoes. Why should the luxury market have the edge as sustainability’s natural ally?

I put the question to Barbara Coignet, Founder of the 1.618 Sustainable Luxury Fair. For her, “It’s about the emotional charge of something that is going to last: its quality, the time it has taken to make, the know-how of those who made it…”

‘What is going to last’ is the essence of sustainability, and it’s a recurrent theme amongst luxury brands. “You never actually own a Patek Philippe”, reads the slogan for a high-end Swiss watch maker. “You merely look after it for the next generation…” Cringe if you like, but this is quite an offer. It recognises our immense capacity to invest objects with memories and hopes, and make them a sign of our experiences and the people we have loved. But, the slogan suggests, the real value here is not about hanging onto the past through possessions: it’s about building a future that you already care about.

We shouldn’t underestimate the comfort material goods can offer. The Chinese contemporary artist Song Dong recognises this in his installation ‘Waste Not’, in which he displays over 10,000 possessions (including more than 20 watches) – the entire content of his mother’s apartment. “Saving familiar items from the past”, he says, “helped a whole generation to cope with the social and political turmoil [of Mao’s Cultural Revolution].”

Still, hoarding cheap belongings is not the way forward for sustainable consumption. Indeed, the most exciting trends are towards shared ownership, with quality goods flowing back and forth between peers and around communities, meeting needs as they arise [see 'Green gamechangers grasp 'give and take'].

But how does the world of luxury tie in with this shift? Isn’t it all about possession – of a rather exclusive sort? Not for Orsola de Castro, the founder of fashion label From Somewhere, which makes clothes out of recycled offcuts of luxury materials. “My ambition”, she says, “is that we will stop looking at luxury as something that belongs to just a few, and understand that the greatest meaning of the term ‘luxury’ is not just having it but, equally, giving it.” Think of classy swishing soirées, first launched by sustainable communications company Futerra. There, sucking on strawberries and sipping champagne, you swap your silk scarfs for someone else’s high heels.

You could say these trendy parties are all part of a shift in how we think about luxury. Discerning or not, what the luxury consumer wants isn’t so much Ali Baba’s cave as the sense of starring in a magical tale. In Coignet’s words, “it’s a moment, an encounter, a discovery...” It’s a promising trend, from a sustainability point of view. It means conspicuous consumption no longer has to be centre stage.

So, what will luxury brands actually offer in the future? How will they package up quality and timelessness? Can they create rich experiences, without compromising natural resources? And how will they make them feel unique – that rare treat to tempt a purse from a pocket?

Luxury Considered, a report by Ledbury Research and the diamond company De Beers, marks out personalisation as a major trend for the future. Iconic designs are replaced by the tailor’s craft: whether it’s a coat stitched to fit your hips or a holiday shaped to suit both your passion for Renaissance art and your desire for a detox. Increasingly, luxury hotels invite their guests to indulge their muscles and minds in spas – which can be more or less energy and water intensive depending on the facilities and design.

This is exactly what Hong Kong-based hotel group Shangri-La (a name to evoke serenity, inspired by the legendary land in James Hilton’s 1930s novel Lost Horizon ) is planning for its London flagship. The hotel will take up the top 18 storeys of the capital’s much anticipated skyscraper The Shard, and the entire top floor will be a spa. Its branding draws on the Chinese notion of ‘Chi’ – “the universal life force that governs wellbeing and personal vitality” – and personalised service will be de rigueur. As you swan about in soft white robes, you can pick your treatment oils to suit your ‘personal element’…

How sustainable the spa, and the hotel itself, will be remains to be seen. The Shangri-La Group is just beginning to address some of the issues, such as food sourcing (its restaurants no longer serve shark fin soup). But it is serving up ‘ways to help you feel good’ as a luxury – and this is a trend to watch.

As the market moves from superficial shimmer towards inner peace, a big question rears its head. Is luxury really reserved for the rich, or is it something we can all find if we look for it? Is it as simple as quality time with the people we care about? Or a breath of really fresh air? Sadly, for many, these treats are rare indeed. Has the time come to recognise their true value?

Anna Simpson is Managing Editor, Green Futures.

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