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Is green the new black? Are luxury brands becoming truly sustainable?

Posted by: Ottavia Pelloni on June 11, 2013

SVILU

With the opening of the 2013 EcoChic Design Award, a sustainable fashion design competition, talent from Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Singapore, UK, France, Belgium and Germany will be “cutting the waste out of fashion.” Spotlighting sustainable sourcing, the competition is open until August 15.

Prizes include an educational trip to jewelry brand John Hardy in Bali, the opportunity to show original collections at Hong Kong Fashion Week and have work featured in a global traveling showcase.

At this year’s Fashion Week previews of Autumn 2013 collections in London and New York, designers such as Britain’s Louis Gray played with repurposed materials in a collection referred to in the press as “derelict chic.” Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart’s emerging label, Vaute, became the first all vegan fashion label to show during New York Fashion Week.

With global attention on sustainable luxury and fashion, we take a look at luxury brands and how committed to sustainability, as a key component of corporate citizenship, they are today. When it comes to corporate citizenship, many luxury brands are seeing the necessity – and opportunity – to be socially responsible.

Starting in 2011, for example, a number of Italian high-end fashion brands have invigorated efforts to restore Italy’s cultural landmarks. Designer Kenneth Cole is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Reserch and sits on the board of HELP USA, dedicated to helping the homeless. Donna Karan created the Urban Zen Foundation, partnering with New York’s Beth Israel, supporting the Department of Integrative Medicine and Medical Center’s Continuum Center for Health and Healing to change the environment of the oncology unit, introduce yoga therapy and conduct research.

While there is much activity among luxury brands and designers in corporate citizenship, and it is becoming well understood that it’s a vital part of the life of brands today, environmental sustainability remains a painful issue in the luxury space. Because of the scarcity of raw materials and the special production techniques required to create luxury products, for example leather, the production lines of luxury brands strongly impact the environment.

When it comes to environmental sustainability, today the world of luxury can in some ways be divided into “Davids” and Goliaths.” The “Davids” are new upcoming brands that have sustainability at the core of their vision and mission, and that cannot comprise on it.

Monique Pean AHE Collection

Monique Péan is well-known for its sustainable jewelry. ECOALF develops their own textiles from the innumerable discarded plastic bottles fishing nets, and even coffee grinds, repurposing them into soft wearable fabric and it has recently been included into Barneys’ assortment.

Svilu, founded in 2012 by Britt Cosgrove and Marina Polo, seeks to revisit the fundamentals of a woman’s wardrobe by offering timeless staples that are mindfully sourced and locally produced. These are great examples of sustainable luxury.

For the global, long-heritage luxury brands that populate everyone’s imagination, or the “Goliaths,” taking their commitment to becoming eco-friendly from intent to process throughout their supply chains has been slow and difficult.

In 2012 the luxury brands group PPR, for example, announced a series of environmental targets to reduce its footprint. The five-year plan, which covers all the company's brands, includes reductions of CO2 and waste production, controlled water and hazardous chemicals usage, as well as regulated sourcing of raw materials and precious materials.

Despite efforts of these global brands, GREENPEACE asked them to provide detailed information about their sustainability practices and many have been reluctant to do so. Why with so much conversation about the importance of sustainability and the threat of a shame campaign would some big brands not respond and in some cases continue to perpetuate unsustainable practices?

Greenpeace

The answer may lie not solely in the cost and logistics of changing supply chains and manufacturing practices, but in what brands observe in consumer behavior. While consumers list the environment as a priority, purchases point to contradictory choices.

An article published in 2012 on Fashion Theory shows that even consumers that say they care about sustainability engage in behaviors that are not sustainable when it comes to choosing what to wear. Style is mandatory for many and may override other priorities.

Brands that once shied away from the ethical and sustainability problems of fur are coming back to it, while at the same time designing eco-friendly products within their collections. This dissonance reflects the real challenges consumers themselves experience in choosing between what seems luxurious and being fully sustainable.

For luxury brands to be authentically committed to sustainability, environmental campaigns threatening them with negative PR and lost customers does not seem a powerful way to go. What will likely motivate brands is seeing the success of those that are seriously acting on sustainability.

GREENPEACE has ranked Valentino top eco-friendly luxury brand. In the luxury world, Tiffany has taken sustainability very seriously and is committed to obtaining precious metals and gemstones in ways that are socially and environmentally responsible. Tiffany & Co. not only ranked in the top 100 brands in Interbrand’s Best Global Brands 2012 report, it saw a 15 percent increase in brand value from the 2011 report.

Threatening doesn’t work; we need positive, fiscally sound arguments to convince luxury brands. As brand consultants, it is our job to build a strong case for the ROI of sustainability and corporate citizenship as a whole.

To push luxury brands to take sustainability more seriously, we should help them to see the value that can come from being an authentically sustainable brand. Once we bring luxury brands on board, they can shape the idea of “coolness” and style for consumers.

Ottavia Pelloni is a Senior Consultant for Interbrand.




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