How can luxury set the tone for a sustainable economy?

Back in the nineties, Tiffany’s was one of the first major luxury retailers to issue a policy on sustainability as it responded to public concern over the sourcing of African diamonds. Acting promptly with an awareness campaign and a commitment to ethical purchases, the brand successfully deflected criticism and won over a loyal audience.

Demand for sustainability has been catching up with us since the 1980s, with companies increasingly pressed to bring together ethics and aesthetics into something altogether more ‘complete’. To understand this, we can look at what separates luxury from other markets.

Implied in luxury is a sense of a world beyond necessity – something beautiful or rich in spite of its immediate utility. In economics, luxury is defined by its price elasticity: the more money you make, the more likely you are to shop high-end.

And between these two positions, the industry for luxury produce affords itself the time and talent to respond to these initially niche consumer demands. Not so long ago, conscious consumers turned away from meat and dairy, prompting the market to respond with a string of vegan alternatives on Islington high streets and the aisles of Waitrose.

Over time, these first few steps drive awareness and push down costs, prompting others to keep up with ethical trends. Today, sustainable food alternatives have become far more accessible thanks to the innovation of those first pioneers.

The market for sustainable luxury is no different. Tesla’s investment in high-end tech has made possible a new industry of more affordable makes and models. If brands truly care about the causes they purport to – fair working conditions, waste minimisation, responsible material sourcing – the precedent is there to be set. Perhaps, in fact, luxury has the rare opportunity to show us what really is necessary. Voltaire reminds us that scissors seemed at first an unnecessary luxury; how different the world would be had somebody not sat down to innovate.

Luxury is uniquely positioned to devote the time and craftsmanship necessary to develop an industry without taking moral shortcuts. Where commoditised markets may fall back on cheap alternatives, luxury has the option to invest in change without sacrificing customers or quality. Luxury – and perhaps only luxury at this stage – has the tools to build its empire on sustainability.

The demand is already there. Between them, Millennials and Generation Z are already behind 85% of luxury sales growth. Gen Z – born after 1995 – make up 40% of all sales. These groups are most concerned with buying into business that reflects the way they view the world. 73% say they would be willing to spend more on a socially conscious brand and younger consumers are increasingly likely to boycott those acting unethically.

The transition will not be easy. Producers will be expected both to keep up with the times and to define them. Hypocrisy will quickly be called out. But whether we accept these new demands or not, those seen getting it wrong stand to lose very much in the digital age. As we work through teething problems as an industry, sustainability, ethics and transparency must all be guided by cooperation.

I think there is space here for brands to work together, to share insights and to collectively reap the benefits of a job well done. My company, KAPDAA – which makes luxury items out of material offcuts – has collaborated with over 300 brands to teach and learn from the practices of others. I am confident that it is as a result of working together that we are able to see best practice develop at such an extraordinary rate.

For luxury, there is not only a moral duty to drive the transition to sustainable manufacturing; there is also an existential threat for brands that fail to adapt to the new challenges ahead. The new market of consumers sees not the products it buys, but the products it buys into. Luxury names like Louis Vuitton have managed the pandemic well and now stand to gain from a consumer base with money to spend. The challenge will now be to ensure that ethical priorities align.

As we move into the 2020s, I hope brands can see the value of evolving together – and not in isolation – as we start to question the role and definition of sustainable luxury.

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