Sustainability and Luxury Fashion: Can the Gold and the Green mix?

Defining sustainability within the context of the luxury fashion industry can perhaps be best understood by breaking it down to the general definition of sustainability, which according to World Commission on Environment and Development, is “a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations”. In a broad sense, it is an ecological system that is built to preserve its natural balance and renewal. The term in itself is constantly evolving and taking on new meanings, and even when applied to the industry of fashion, there is no standard definition. The past years in particular, have seen a lack of environmental requirements and transparency, which further perpetuates confusion around the concept. Today however, sustainable fashion is increasingly becoming a part of design philosophy, with brands trying to build or reform their overall business models to be environmentally and socially responsible, as well as self-sustaining.

While the two concepts of sustainability and luxury may at first seem to conflict, because at its core, luxury is unnecessary and excessively indulgent, there stands a strong argument that actually the two can be united by the notion of timelessness. Jean-Noël Kapferer, a leading expert on luxury strategy and brand management adds that “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”.

Why is Sustainable Fashion Important?

Incorporating sustainability within luxury fashion has become increasingly important because the fashion industry as a whole is recognized as one of the most polluting in the world, ranking second behind the oil industry (Danish Fashion Institute 2013). The fashion industry, a $2.5 trillion sector, employs more than forty million people internationally, making it one of the largest and most profitable sectors in the world. Rapid globalization has paved the way for the industry to continuously expand and outsource, however, these actions come at the cost of detrimental environmental impacts and a lack of transparency that can lead to the negligence of social and ethical standards. For consumers today, there is a growing demand for transparency in the products and services they purchase, and a genuine desire for sustainability in these respects.

The following case studies feature an analysis of different brands within the luxury fashion industry, specifically looking at environmental or social campaigns they have done, the brands’ communication, and the overall societal response towards their sustainability initiatives. It should be noted that the analysis took into consideration private brands (Vivienne Westwood, Ermenegildo Zegna, Giorgio Armani), public brands (Ralph Lauren, Hugo Boss, Burberry) and eco brands (Edun, Eden Diodati, Maiyet). The level of sustainability for each brand was measured according to eight different sustainability components including:

  • Philanthropy: An idea, event, or action that is done to better humanity and usually involves some sacrifice as opposed to being done for a profit motive. For example, Ralph Lauren participates in numerous walks for charities such as Race to Deliver, Light the Night, AIDS Walk NYC, and contributes to relief efforts following major tragedies worldwide (Hurricane Sandy, Haiti Relief, Hurricane Katrina).
  • Animal-friendly: Brands who are concerned with animal rights believe very strongly that animals should not be exploited or harmed by humans. A recent case among luxury brands has been Hugo Boss who announced their choice to go fur-free from 2016 onwards.
  • Production/Manufacturing: The creation of manufactured products that uses processes that are non-polluting, conserve energy and natural resources, and are economically sound and safe for employees, communities, and consumers. Most notably, Burberry pledged to rid their clothes and manufacturing process of any toxic chemicals after Greenpeace released a report stating that their childrenswear was found to contain hazardous substances.
  • Product Transparency: When a brand provides a complete picture of the total environmental impact of a product throughout its lifecycle. For most luxury brands, this is a fairly new practice and is still not all too common for them to be completely transparent about their products and processes. However, Edun, a brand that has embraced sustainability as a core part of their brand DNA and business model, has affirmed on numerous occasions that transparency is an important element they want to express to their consumers, informing them of the entire development process.
  • Packaging: The development and use of packaging which results in improved sustainability. This is perhaps one of the most feasible components for luxury brands to achieve. Brands such as Burberry, Hugo Boss, and Ralph Lauren are using an increased amount of recycled material in their packaging ranges.

  • Sustainable Raw Materials Sourcing: A sourcing exercise which goes beyond economic considerations and takes into account environmental, social and ethical factors as well. In particular, Ermenegildo Zegna emphasizes the importance of selecting the best natural fibers directly from the markets of origin such as fine Australian wools.
  • Fair Labor Conditions: When companies establish minimum wage, overtime pay, record-keeping, and child labor standards affecting full-time and part-time workers in the private sector and in Federal, State, and local governments. This also includes the use of locally sourced or artisan skills. As this issue has increasingly gained attention, more brands today are becoming vocal about their initiatives that respect fair labor conditions and setting higher social standards. One brand in particular that excels in this category is Eden Diodati, which manufactures ethically in social cooperatives in Italy and Rwanda providing sustainable employment to formerly marginalized women.
  • Reuse/Recycle: Reusing or reprocessing used clothing, fibrous material and clothing scraps from the manufacturing process. A primary case is Vivienne Westwood, who opened a special boutique that promotes timeless fashion, recycling and uses left-over fabrics.

The societal response to these brands initiatives was measured by information from online articles, interviews, and forums that range in date from 2010 and up until September 2015. The brands vary in the sense that some have embraced sustainability as a core part of their DNA and been very vocal on social media, while others are introducing initiatives more quietly behind the scenes and not so outwardly informing consumers.

For example, Ralph Lauren is a brand that actively participates in philanthropic work and has launched campaigns including the Pink Pony Fund to help raise money for cancer research and The Dog Walk to promote the adoption of shelter dogs and raise awareness for animal welfare. While they also announce a mid to high number of sustainable actions such as recycling, creating a Supplier Transparency Initiative Program, and being animal-friendly, they still received a rather negative societal response. Although the brand has published reports outlining their efforts to improve environmental and ethical practices and have a concise statement for each of the outlined sustainability features in this report, this can often appear to society as simply just that: a statement with no qualified action to back it. Thus, according to the brand’s actions and communication it appears that they are doing the most, but in reality, they stir up the most controversy from society.

Vivienne Westwood receives similar backlash, with critics stating that her campaigns such as Save the Arctic, which aims stop Shell from drilling for oil in the Arctic, are merely a photo opportunity for celebrities and not correctly highlighting the issue on the table.

On the other hand, Ermenegildo Zegna is perhaps the best in communicating their stance on sustainability and receiving the most positive feedback from society, with virtually no societal backlash. Their new Fall-Winter 2015/2016 Collection delves into the theme of an “Eco-leader”, and promotes the concept of sustainability in their collection, fashion show, and new campaign. In turn, the brand has been well received by consumers and commended for their efforts.

To conclude, after analyzing the brand sustainability actions compared to their communication through social media to consumers and the societal feedback the brands receive, there is an apparent link between all these components.

To know more on the subject and hidden brand strategies on eco-friendly aspects in their business, DOWNLOAD Fashionbi's Sustainable Fashion Research.

To access all such data and insights unlimitedly, become a member, today.