Just showing off isn’t enough. Forum for the Future’s Deputy Chief Executive has new hopes for the world of high-end goods and experiences.
Can luxury be sustainable? Surely it’s an irrelevant question, given another record leap in levels of global carbon dioxide?
Think again. One of the biggest drivers of carbon emissions is consumption, and a key driver of consumption is the desire for social status. Right now, owning luxury products equals status for many people across the globe. And as entire economies lift themselves out of poverty and aspire to the lifestyles of the West, the demand for luxury goods and services is rocketing. Luxury may not make us healthier or happier, but at least we can show off.
Back to the question then. On the face of it, there’s nothing very sustainable about luxury. From cars (think urban 4x4s), to handbags (crocodile skin, anyone?), to spa experiences (high on energy and water), luxury can often be shorthand for excessive consumption.
On the other hand, luxury products are often built to last. That designer handbag can have a long and fulfilling life, often adorning the arm of multiple owners. Many luxury brands, from Burberry to Jaguar, have been around for decades, and have helped sustain local economies and local jobs over that time. What’s left of the UK’s real economy actually has a big luxury flavour to it.
But, on balance, luxury isn’t very sustainable – yet. It could be, with values such as sound provenance, longevity, low-impact use and recyclability at its heart – as well as desirability. Imagine the beautiful garment, made from synthetic materials with zero embedded carbon and water; using state of the art zeroemissions technology, brought to market using smart logistics. It’s cherished for more than a season, then either freecycled or recycled… Or a sleek car, more like a Tesla than a humble Nissan Leaf (which boasts equally low emissions, but has zero sex appeal…).
The luxury sector, on the whole, has been immune to sustainability for too long. While it has been busy growing in emerging markets in particular, it has taken its eye off the big environmental and social trends that many other brands have taken on board. It’s high time for luxury brands to inject their high-growth business models with some of the best sustainability thinking from the fast-moving consumer goods world – the pioneering practice of retailers such as Marks & Spencer and manufacturers such as Unilever.
This would be a great step forward. But, if luxury goods and services are to have a role in a sustainable future, they have to deliver a wider social value. Simply perpetuating our wish to show off isn’t a long-term solution.
Sally Uren is Deputy Chief Executive at Forum for the Future.
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