Less than a decade ago the word ‘sustainability’ not only brought with it a dullish air, it could stop a conversation in its tracks. The term ‘sustainable luxury’ was a curious oxymoron. But there’s a global shift afoot and it’s gaining momentum, fast. The fashion, tourism and consumer goods industries are not only embracing sustainability, they’re transforming it into a luxury value.
In August 2019, 32 corporations that own 150 global brands–from luxury fashion houses Prada, Chanel and Ralph Lauren to fast fashion giants Zara and the H&M Group–signed the Fashion Pact; a voluntary agreement that aims to eliminate single-use plastics, focus on renewable energy sources, combat greenhouse gas emissions and promote regenerative systems.
Keen to put sustainability on the political agenda, these companies demonstrated their collective clout by announcing the pact at the G7 summit in Paris. It was a clever move that not only showed solidarity in the fashion industry, but forced major players across other industries to evaluate their own stance on sustainability.
The Fashion Pact follows a slow but steady industry trend towards ethical production and sustainable practices, including an increase in organic textiles and decrease in animal products; the creation of circular economies that eliminate waste; and the introduction of environmentally responsible initiatives like H&M’s Garment Collecting Program.
In December 2015, the United Nations declared that 2017 was to be the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Three years on, sustainability in the tourism industry is transitioning from niche trend to mainstream experience. The small steps–paperless reservations, soap recycling programs and initiatives that encourage hotel guests to re-use their towels–have paved the way for more significant changes.
Coined by the tourism industry, the phrase ‘barefoot luxury’ is picking up steam. Contrary to assumption, barefoot luxury is not the exclusive domain of boutique resorts in remote jungles or on private islands. Hotel chains including the Park Hyatt, Six Senses and 1 Hotels are adopting the barefoot luxury ethos, with inner-city hotels boasting sustainable construction, Tesla charging garages, wind-powered electricity, reclaimed timber furnishings, organic cotton sheets and farm-to-table dining.
In 2013 luxury jewellery house Chopard announced its social corporate responsibility program, The Journey to Sustainable Luxury. The program focuses on the responsible sourcing of raw materials, primarily gold, diamonds and coloured gemstones. Chopard’s Ethical Gold Policy ensures that 100% of the gold it sources is verified as having met international best practice environmental and social standards. Similarly, the diamonds and gemstones it uses are governed by strict mining and supply chain regulations to ensure they are not the products of conflict regions or unethical mining.
In January 2019 Tiffany & Co. followed suit, promising to use its status to drive social and ethical change in the jewellery industry. Committed to operating under a policy of complete transparency, Tiffany announced it would disclose the exact origin of every diamond it sources over 0.18 carats. Further, the company pledged that from 2020 it will disclose its diamond supply chain–including cutting and polishing–in a move that aims to protect environmental and human rights interests.
From the days of privileged landowners to the migration of wealth into urban environments, luxury has historically been defined by the affluent. But at a time when environmentally and socially conscious millennials are gaining spending power, luxury brands are repositioning themselves and changing the way they do business.
The question of whether those changes are the result of a genuine desire to support sustainable and ethical practices or a response to consumer demand is probably moot. The bottom line is that brands that don’t begin to adopt sustainable practices won’t just start to lose market share; they will likely be driven out of the market altogether.