The Green Eyed Monster: Environmental Criticisms in the Luxury Industry

On February 23rd this year, in the middle of Fashion Week, Maurizio Cattelan’s famous ‘Middle Finger’ statue - located at the Piazza Affari in Milan - was covered in a large green glove by activists from Greenpeace Italy. The message? ‘Fashion sells dreams that could become nightmares for the planet.’

GreenpeaceWith all the negative environmental connotations imprinted on the fashion industry, particularly in the luxury sector - it is a big wonder whether any of these accusations hold true. Is the luxury fashion industry really so heavily liable for environmental ruin? According Jean-Noël Kapferer, luxury expert who wrote the article ‘All That Glitters Is Not Green: The Challenge of Sustainable Luxury’ there are three reasons why the luxury industry is constantly on the receiving end of environmental criticism.

Luxury purchases are by definition irrational.‘ Luxury encourages people to make extreme purchases, despite a more affordable and rational substitute.  Along with this reasoning comes the generalization that people who make irrational purchases, do not care about overconsumption and how this affects everyone else on a global scale. Same with people who prioritize fashion trends over animal rights (with regards to the use of fur and different types of leather). How can a woman wearing a mink coat or a man driving a gas guzzling Bugatti Veyron, care about the environment? And while the luxury market is very small in comparison with the less expensive markets, its nature is to promote irrational spending not just amongst the rich, but also the aspiring regular consumers.

Secondly, luxury means excess: it comes from its latin word luxus. In luxury everything is in excess.’  Luxury brands are known Environment
to spoil. Thus promoting a direction towards overindulgence, which goes against the grain of the sustainable development concept that  promotes cutting down on excessive usage to save the following generations.

‘Thirdly, luxury signals inequality.’ With all this money going around, the rich can purchase as much rare diamonds, skins, leather, and pearls as they can muster. Some of which take a dip into the collective capital - resources that can no longer be naturally replaced - like diamonds.

 “Luxury is criticized by sustainable development advocates not so much because of its objective impact on the planet resources but because of its high visibility, and its considerable symbolic power, much higher than its real economic weight.”

In Defense of the Luxury Industry

However, in defense of the luxury industry, blaming luxury brands and companies for their negative effects on the environment is far from being fair.

Logically speaking, the principles of luxury branding in itself requires companies to be more environmentally sustainable. For one thing, luxury focuses on the sale of rare items in high quality, with a high price. While rare items could refer to fur, diamonds, leather, and other controversial materials, its high pricing strategy limits the purchase and usage of such items. The US alone is said to use about 1500 bottles of plastic every second - a dangerous number that is causing serious damage in terms of waste management. How many diamonds are sold by Harry Winston in a year? Even in terms of packaging, luxury brands are now moving towards the more recycle-able goods. Not to mention, luxury goods, due to its high quality, are particularly known for durability. Providing a long lasting service encouraging consumers to get more mileage on their products via lifetime warranties and services.

TiffanyApart from this, there are many issues surrounding the use of non-replaceable natural resources. However, basic common sense dictates that building your business on a collective capital requires you to take care of it - not just for the sake of the environment but for the future of your business as well. In fact, Tiffany & Co. and Co. claims, ‘sustainability is our main design; nature is our best designer.’ On this note, the company takes very good care of their working relationships. ‘One cannot buy gems and not care about mining conditions,’ says Kapferer. Not only does this ensure the future resources of Tiffany and Co., but it also protects its long standing reputation.

Another particular aspect practiced by most luxury companies is the production of goods at a premium location. Generating profit from a ‘Made in Italy’ or ‘Made in France’ heritage, these companies are not willing to sacrifice its high-quality reputation for lesser expenses. In this process, luxury fashion houses have less carbon imprint compared to other companies that have their products made in different locations all over the world.

Many luxury groups have already established clear-cut strategies focusing on sustainable development - this is Valentinonothing new in the industry and has been present for more than a decade, yet brands don’t necessarily feel the need to advertise this development. For instance, fashion house Gucci was able to acquire an ISO 14001 environmental certification, with a shift of direction towards a more environmental campaign led by CSR Manager Rosella Ravagli, who gave a talk last year on Sustainable Luxury at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. In a similar way, The Valentino Fashion Group, early this year, was rated by Greenpeace Italy as number one in terms of dedication to the environment. The fashion group plans to cut down on the use of dangerous chemicals, as well as deforestation. Even Bernard Arnault himself, states on behalf of LVMH, ‘environmental protection is not merely an issue of generosity or philanthropy. It is critical to our future.’  LVMH began its environmental charter in 2001, reinforced in 2003 with the United Nations Global Impact, and has staunchly implemented sustainable development since.

While the luxury industry still has many ways to improve on sustainability and promoting awareness, a lot of developments have already come to play with regards to the environment. With a little more push in the right direction, it will only take a little more time before luxury’s harshest environmental critics will have nothing more to say on the matter.