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Is the Eco-Age the dawn or death of luxury?

The notion that luxury is anything near sustainable is far from consumers' minds. In fact, a recent survey found consumers put the luxury industry last in a ranking of industries associated with sustainable commitments, scoring lower than the financial and petrol sectors.

After all, when it comes to 'luxury' we tend to think of excessive consumerism, disposable income, and guilty pleasures. Despite this observation, an interesting thing is happening: Millennials and Generation Z consumers are driving 85% of global luxury sales growth.

As a millennial, and observer of market evolution, Millenials are more conscious of the environmental and social impacts of their purchase decisions and are more likely to buy from a brand that resonates with their own personal values. Rising interest in sustainability necessitates that luxury brands align with customer values.

Supporting studies show that 73% of Millennial respondents were willing to spend more on a product if it came from a sustainable or socially conscious brand. High-end brands that want to retain their status in the luxury market need to evolve to keep up with this growing trend towards ethical and sustainable luxury.

“We feel [sustainability] is imperative for the industry as a whole and something that all companies have a responsibility to address.”

Spring Place Beverly Hills

So, are luxury and sustainability two opposing concepts incapable of convergence?

At first glance, perhaps yes. After all, the word luxury derives from the Latin word ‘luxus’ and conjures up images of ‘pomp, excess and debauchery.” Whereas sustainability invites us to meet the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.

So should the luxury industry admit defeat and ignore sustainability? No: with a closer look, we see that luxury and sustainability are one and the same:

  • The growing impact sustainability is having on the industry cannot be ignored.

  • The globalization of luxury has led to greater environmental and biodiversity impacts.

  • Outsourcing to developing countries has brought to light abusive employment policies and working conditions.

  • The health impact of toxic residues present in many textiles, foods, and cosmetics is increasingly an issue of concern for consumers.

  • And in certain markets, luxury is perceived as a threat to social cohesion. The Chinese government restricts communication around certain luxury brands as they are seen as ‘a a provocation’ to the poor.

"By reinforcing the fundamental values of luxury, sustainability can distinguish its difference vs more ‘common’ premium brands"

Overlapping DNA

We recently ran a qualitative study across three continents to uncover the seven fundamental values of luxury. Of these, three values overlap with sustainable principles:

  • Timelessness: luxury isn’t trendy. It is, by its nature, durable and long-lasting.

  • Uniqueness: the ultimate luxury is one of a kind. Tailor-made products that allow the owner to resemble no one else and that show an appreciation and respect for craftsmanship.

  • Soul: luxury is a vector for emotion; products are charged with meaning, heritage, and story.

Luxury Fashion is sustainable

Jean-Noel Kapferer, renowned French marketing professor, describes the two concepts as linked in the following way: “Luxury is at its essence very close to sustainable preoccupations because it is nourished by rarity and beauty and thus has an interest in preserving them.”

By reinforcing the fundamental values of luxury, sustainability can help to clearly distinguish its difference vs more ‘common’ premium brands. Not compelled to promote consumption for the sake of consumption, sustainable luxury rejects frivolous spending and shows a rich understanding of the fragile nature of things. And, as a result, genuine luxury defends the price of rarity, of craftsmen’s talent, and high-quality materials.

"A generation of designers is enthusiastically redefining the soul of luxury"

A happy synergy

A new generation of designers are enthusiastically redefining the soul of luxury. Katharine Hammet, Stella McCartney, and Linda Loudermilk are just as committed to the values of justice and responsibility as they are about quality and aesthetics. It is important to note that for them, sustainable luxury should be written with a small s and a capital L.

Stella McCartney explains this prioritization clearly when she refuses to be defined as an “eco-designer seeking to make chic clothes.” Instead, she considers herself to be “a luxury clothing designer with sustainable conviction.”

The world of beautiful, creative, and deep luxury also opens new horizons for sustainability, liberating it from its wholesome, boring strait-jacket and allowing for more aspirational expression and innovation. This new spirit of luxury is starting to extend across categories and geographies:

  • Yves Saint Laurent’s New Vintage III range: a contemporary, fashionable form of up-cycling that re-exploits unused fabrics from past seasons, employing them to reinvent the emblematic silhouettes of the designer. Hence, the range reinterprets the brand while maintaining its authenticity.

  • Hermès’ creation of Shang Xia, a new Chinese luxury brand of graceful, contemporary handcrafted decorative objects. By supporting local artisans in China, Hermès offers a modern and localized adaptation of authentic savoir-faire.

  • The new concept of ‘glamping’ (glamorous camping) proposed by brands like Edenismes and Luxethika where the travel experience is designed to reconcile reduction of environmental impacts with adventure and comfort. (Note: they haven’t got it quite right yet as transfers to the sites are apparently made in 4x4s or even helicopters.)

  • BMW’s Efficient Dynamics technology was created to deliver reduced emissions and fuel consumption with no sacrifices made to driving pleasure.

Boyish Jeans, Sustainable manufacturing process

Innovate sustainably

The opportunities for sustainable innovation in luxury abound. But the impetus must come from pioneering luxury brands that will:

  • Encourage repairability, upcycling, and longevity of their products.

  • Promote the principles of ‘buy less and pay more’.

  • Dematerialize and reinvent the luxury experience.

  • Promote respect for and appropriate compensation of craftsmanship at home and abroad.

  • Serve as sustainable trendsetters.

As chairman and CEO of PPR, François-Henri Pinault says:

‘If we wait for consumers to insist upon sustainability as a condition for purchasing, nothing will happen … It is up to us to see to it that environmental products become the new norm.’

So to the question of whether or not the Eco-age is the death or rebirth of luxury? My answer: The rebirth. Luxury brands are now called to evolve into more customer-centric, conscious brands; for high-end brands that are willing to be forward-thinking a rebirth is at hand.

When it comes to luxury brands, most don’t offer the same personalized services in their digital shopping experiences as they do at their highest level human-to-human experiences. Instead, practically all e-commerce approaches developed today are transactional approaches, not individualized experiences on a digital platform. That, in my opinion, is a huge mistake, and a glaring opportunity for luxury brands looking to differentiate themselves from the rest.

At present, many luxury brands remained distant to digital sales, only feverishly trying to catch up over the past five years, accelerated even more by the pandemic. Yet, practically no brand developed the same personalized approach across their digital platforms as they provide in person.

Regardless of whether you're a luxury brand or not, there are some takeaways here. A common shortcoming I observe not just in the luxury market but in most brands is their inability to differentiate themselves properly. Brands neglect to align their values with the market in a way that is actually innovative and with respect to the needs and trajectory of the market.

Yes, sure, their branding may appear different, new, and edgy but at the core their USP falls short and clings to niche standards and keywords. I'm sorry to say that just isn't enough, consumers can smell bullsh*t from a mile away and will go elsewhere.

Take a look at your brand, and make sure the blood of your brand courses with the values to which you stand for and that brings life to all aspects of your experience. Think about how you can thread intrinsic level ethos through all sectors/platforms and especially your digital communication channels.

Don’t just rely on feel-good messaging that greenwashes consumer values

Consumers know the difference. Pay attention to the market as a whole and find a way to adapt and pivot messaging to ensure your brands stand out with the utmost authenticity.

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