Can Luxury Ever Truly Be Sustainable?


Limei Hoang | November 30, 2020

A beneficiary of the Burberry Foundation's cashmere programme in Afghanistan weighing cashmere fibre.Credit: Photo: Courtesy of Burberry

An increasing number of brands are looking to sustainability as the next big thing in luxury, but can the industry make good on its promises to improve its efforts and practices? We speak to a number of those in the industry including Yoox Net-a-Porter Chairman and CEO Federico Marchetti and Diana Verde Nieto , co-founder of Positive Luxury for their thoughts.

In the past few years, the luxury industry has been flooded with pledges made by brands and companies announcing their green credentials, from recycling cashmere and more eco-friendly packaging to sustainability bonds and environmental pacts. Now, more than ever, sustainability appears to be a favourite buzzword that companies like to use in an attempt to connect with younger, more eco-conscious consumers.

They’re not wrong in wanting to do so. According to a survey on consumer sentiment conducted by McKinsey, European consumers have become even more engaged with sustainability. The survey, which took place in April, polled more than 2,000 people in Germany and the UK, found that two-thirds of surveyed consumers stated that it has become even more important to limit impacts on climate change.

And those same consumers stated that they have already begun to change their behaviours accordingly. Of those surveyed, 57 percent said they had made significant changes to their lifestyles to lessen their environmental impact, and more than 60 percent reported going out of their way to recycle and purchase products in environmentally friendly packaging.

More importantly, 67 percent consider the use to sustainable materials to be an important purchasing factor, and 63 percent consider a brand’s promotion of sustainability in the same way. So, it comes as little surprise that fashion and luxury brands are exploring numerous and different ways to be more sustainable.

In the few past weeks alone, companies like Burberry and Yoox Net-a-Porter announced different objectives that placed sustainability at the heart of their projects. Burberry revealed that its foundation was working towards building a more inclusive and sustainable cashmere industry in Afghanistan by entering into a five-year partnership to work “holistically to drive lasting social and environmental change”.

“The positive impact of the programme on the whole industry, from herders’ livelihoods and gender equality through to land management and policy engagement, is testament to the power of collaboration in its ability to create tangible system change from the inside out,” said Pam Batty, Secretary to The Burberry Foundation and VP of Corporate Responsibility at Burberry in a statement.

The Modern Artisan Project by HRH The Prince of Wales and Yoox-Net-a-Porter.

Mindful purchasing

Yoox Net-a-Porter launched a capsule collection in collaboration with The Prince’s Foundation in Britain, focused on merging traditional craftsmanship with digital tools like the use of data insights to create a new form of luxury with sustainability at its heart. The ‘Modern Artisan’ project used cashmere and wool sourced from Scottish textiles firm Johnstons of Elgin, meanwhile organic eco silk that is fully traceable was sourced from Centro Seta in Italy.

“I see a future for the luxury and fashion industry with fewer collections that last for longer, meaning less production, less waste, more creativity and more sensitivity,” Federico Marchetti, Chairman and CEO of Yoox Net-a-Porter Group, told Luxury Society.

“This requires more mindful purchasing which is enhanced by technology; buying quality products that last. Pieces of high quality that can be cherished for a lifetime and beyond. To me that is true luxury and it is increasingly important to our customers,” he added.

“As exemplified by The Modern Artisan project, we lead a huge amount of young talent programmes, to create a sustainable pipeline of future talent but also to ensure that sustainability, creativity and digital skills are front of mind for the next generation. It feeds into a belief embedded into the Group that considerations for people and planet go hand in hand for a sustainable future - and teaching the next generation the importance of this is essential for the future of luxury.”

But it is actually possible for brands to be sustainable or are their pledges and promises simply elaborate and sophisticated marketing ploys to capture consumer’s attention?

Lark & Berry x Diamond Foundry NecklaceCredit: Photo: Courtesy.

System change

“It is possible for brands to be sustainable, but this will take time and a system change - today I think most brands are on a journey to sustainability but I don't think brands can claim being truly sustainable today, said Diana Verde Nieto, co-founder of Positive Luxury, the company behind the Butterfly Mark; an award that identifies luxury brands that demonstrate a positive social and environmental impact.

“I don’t think we can put the entire luxury industry as a whole in one bucket,” she added. “For instance, the fashion industry has roughly understood their impacts and dependencies with the natural world and within their supply chains today, so they are innovating and reimagining what the fashion industry will need to look like in order to keep its relevancy.”

So how can luxury brands be more sustainable in a meaningful way?

For smaller brands like Lark & Berry, technology has helped play a big part in ensuring that their business models and practices are sustainable. Lark & Berry, which was founded two years ago by Laura Chavez, only uses lab-grown diamonds and stones in its jewellery. As mining causes an enormous amount of environmental damage, the possibility of sourcing a material that is sustainable played a huge part in shaping the ethos of the brand.

“The principles of the brand have been in place from the beginning and will never change: We will always only use cultured diamonds and stones for our jewellery,” said Chavez. “We’re constantly keeping abreast of the tech to do so, as it evolves, to get our jewellery made as safely for the planet as possible,” she added.

The company also tries to push sustainability through the rest of its business, with Chavez highlighting that for every item purchased, Lark & Berry plants fresh trees in the areas of the world where diamond mining has ravaged the surrounding environment. It also uses mostly recycled metals, ensures that its diamonds are made with only renewable energy and offsets its emissions through its eco-friendly shipping programme.

“One challenge is just getting as many people aware that cultured is an option now,” noted Chavez. “Another is the research and pursuit of new tech that can produce jewellery as sustainably as possible. Cultured diamond creating, and even sustainable delivery systems such as how our items may be packaged – this is all very fast-evolving tech and science. And we always want to stay on top of it in order to do better; to do things as sustainably as possible.”

Boltenstern's Embrace ringCredit: Photo: Courtesy.

First steps

Likewise, at Boltenstern - a fine-jewellery company based in Vienna - the use of technology and sustainability is interwoven into its DNA. Using recycled gold powder, Boltenstern 3D -prints its jewellery resulting in collections with very little to no waste of materials, on a commercial scale. “It was important to have a guaranteed sustainable sourcing for our raw materials,” said Marie Boltenstern, Managing Director and Head of Design at Boltenstern.

“These were the first steps and now we are elaborating a roadmap of how to really integrate not only sustainability in our product but also in the whole concept of how we live as company starting with; how we communicate very transparently with our customers, how the things are made, how they are designed, what do customers get when they buy our product,” she added.

It is important to note that being a smaller brand like Lark & Berry or Boltenstern, has meant that addressing issues like supply chain and production are a much easier task to tackle than say a company of Kering or LVMH’s size.

“With cultured diamonds, we are a bit luckier than sustainable clothing, which at times is currently priced higher than non-environmentally responsible ‘fast fashion’,” said Chavez. “That’s because it’s still expensive to get the sustainable materials. If more companies start doing things the right way for the planet, costs will lower for everyone in the fashion market chain. And this is true for both fashion and jewellery: more companies need to make moves to produce their products sustainably.”

At the start of this year, Kering published a sustainability progress report, three years after it embarked on a strategy to embed social and environmental sustainability at the heart of its business and meet a number of set targets by 2025. In its report, Kering said it had managed to reduce the group’s overall environmental impacts by 14 percent in its Environmental Profit & Loss intensity between 2015 and 2018, and was on a positive trajectory to reach its target of 40 percent reduction by 2025.

Remarkable for a luxury conglomerate of its size, but clearly there is still much to be done, with technology and innovation playing a big part in moving the needle forward.

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“We’re seeing more and more innovative uses of tech in fashion, particularly when it comes to enhancing creativity, further developing our customer understanding and driving sustainability. This is an important point. I absolutely believe that technology is our greatest tool in creating a more sustainable future,” said Marchetti.

“This is not to say that we must pursue technology over all else. As with most things, the key is balance, the combination of creativity and technology - especially within the luxury experience. Luxury is about emotion, imagination, beauty, while machine is about speed, information and power. Within this, craftsmanship, sensory experiences and natural materials are intrinsic to the luxury market now, and I believe will be forever,” he added.

“That said, our society’s future will be increasingly defined by artificial intelligence and other technological forces,” Marchetti noted. “We have to make conscious choices to find the perfect equilibrium. In The Modern Artisan project we have done just that - it was like seeing a collection come from the creative minds and the hands of the students, but also with the input of our four million plus customers.”

For certain, the company is putting sustainability at the front of its aims. Last week, it published its Infinity strategy for the next 10 years, pledging 12 measurable commitments that connect to the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.

“The awareness is there,” noted Verde Nieto. “The companies that take a holistic business approach to sustainability will build the successful businesses of tomorrow and win the war for talent. This means that sustainability practices must be embedded into everyone's role and their key performance indicators. This cannot wait. The time for action is now.”

“In order to hasten the pace of change needed to attract and retain the best talent, companies must be transparent about their sustainability ambitions and clearly communicate the role they are playing in society,” she added. “This transparency is the key to motivate employees to champion the brand across all geographies, functions and levels of the business. One of the biggest challenges that businesses are facing is delivering the leadership of tomorrow. Nearly all businesses are falling short of the sustainability talent and knowledge they need across all disciplines and levels in their organisations.”

Bath full of holes

Clearly there is still much more to be done on many different levels, from rethinking the circularity of a product, single use plastics, product packaging and the impact on biodiversity, however the efforts from fashion and luxury brands over the past year alone have dramatically increased compared to previous years.

“Every facet of fashion just needs to get on board with supporting sustainable choices,” said Chavez. “The biggest brands need to change their ways, and customers should do research and purchase from sustainable brands whenever possible.”

“There needs to be a core rethinking of how everything is done,” added Boltenstern. “I feel like there is a lot of communication around the term sustainability, but to be truly sustainable is a long path. There is much more to it than just a marketing tool, or the use of sustainable materials and everyone needs contribute in their own way.”

However, it is not just up to luxury companies to make sustainable efforts. Legislation, and governments-incentives are not there, to give an extra push and accelerate the changes that need to happen, said Verde Nieto.

“It is like having a bath full of holes and instead of thinking of changing the bath, people are trying to work out how many plasters we need in order to stop the water coming out. We can’t carry on doing that,” added Verde Nieto. “We need to think about system changing and when we start thinking about business transformation , we will have different solutions for a lot of the problems that we have now.”

Cover Image: A beneficiary of The Burberry Foundation's cashmere programme in Afghanistan. Photo: Courtesy of Burberry.

Consumers | Luxury | Sustainability