Sustainability: New norm for Luxury Fashion Industry

June 28, 2019

Sustainability: New norm for Luxury Fashion Industry

By Sheetal Jain

 Recently, a paradigm shift has been witnessed in luxury domain.  There has been increased pressure on luxury companies to adhere to sustainability from not only government, media, NGO’s but also from the growing number of ethical luxury buyers. As the number of well-educated, socially responsible, affluent, global elite is rapidly rising, the concept of sustainability is becoming top priority for luxury brands. Today, global luxury consumers, especially millennials, expect companies to act responsibly. According to a 2018 study performed by McKinsey & Company in association with Business of Fashion found that 66% of millennials are willing to spend more on brands that focus on sustainability initiatives.

In the past few years, sustainability value has derived importance in buyers’ purchase decision.  Luxury buyers want the brands they use to reflect their concerns and aspirations for a better world. There has been a transformation from ‘conspicuous’ to ‘considered’ consumption, from ‘what you wear’ to ‘who you are’, within conscious luxury consumers, leading to rising consumer demands for product traceability, supply chain standards, product authenticity and quality. They want luxury brands to focus on moral issues related to luxury products and have convincing answers to questions of environmental and social responsibility. Therefore, many luxury fashion brands are working towards redefining their business models with the focus on reducing social and environmental problems through the use of progressive production methods and innovative textile inventions. They are using environment-friendly raw materials, like organic cotton and natural dyes, for instance, the leather of a Dior handbag is attained from Italian bio farms. Many organizations are also using recyclable packaging to ensure circular luxury processes.

Few luxury fashion retailers including Prada and Armani are retaliating to the rising consumer demand for making the value chain transparent and sustainable.  Eileen Fisher, an American clothing designer is disrupting the linear production model of take-make-use and dispose. She uses recycled fabrics and give new life to old textiles and discarded garments. Fisher has collaborated with numerous environmental conservation organizations and local artisans with a motive to support planet and people.

A recent study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation reported that 73% of 53 million tons of garments produced every year ends up in landfill or incinerated. Sustainable consumption act as stimuli among luxury buyerswhowant to feel good and not guilty, when they are purchasing a certain luxury brand. Luxury warrants a psychological cost categorized as ‘guilty pleasures’ which might lead to negative emotions after the purchase. Therefore, growing number of consumers are buying sustainable luxury products to experience ‘guilt-free’ enjoyment. Millennial aspire to rationalize their luxury buying by contributing to social ‘well-being’.

It is a known fact that luxury industry is lagging behind other industries in creating and fostering sustainability. The Danish Fashion Institute (DFI) has pointed out fashion as the second most polluting economic sector after oil business.  Considering the gravity of the situation, luxury industry is progressing towards sustainability as luxury consumers seek for superior quality products which provide no harm to environment. Few luxury fashion brands like Burberry, Gucci and Stella McCartney have set examples for others.

The British heritage label, Burberry, last year took a pledge to stop destroying unsold clothes, which it previously did as a way to preserve its exclusivity. Burberry has partnered with sustainable luxury company Elvis & Kresse to convert 120 tons of leather offcuts into new items. It is also working to drive industry wide change to move towards zero discharge of hazardous chemicals (ZDHC) in the textile supply chain.

Similarly, Gucci, in its effort towards sustainable development, has recently launched Gucci Equilibrium, an online platform designed to connect people, planet and purpose. In October 2017, it made announcement that no fur will be used in any of its collections. It is also working towards creation of new natural materials.

Another example is Stella McCartney who is known for eschewing leather, fur and feathers in her collection. She has created an alternative to leather, made from mycelium- the root structure of mushroom. McCartney is continuously working on redefining fashion through the use of cutting edge technologies and sustainable materials like reengineered cashmere, ethically sourced wool, organic cotton and recycled textiles. She has aligned with various NGO’s such as Parley for the Oceansand Fashion Positive, to bring awareness among the people about how our clothing choices impact the world in which we live.

As we look forward, it is evident that there is a considerable risk to luxury brands that are resistant to invest in people and planet. Therefore, luxury companies should work on reshaping their business models to make it more ethical. Embracing sustainability will provide them with opportunity to enhance their brand image and reputation and possibly create additional value and gain competitive advantage over the other brands.

Though luxury and sustainability appear to be antithetical to each other, but luxury fashion brands must put efforts to reposition themselves as ‘the care taker of mother earth’ to establish a positive brand image among the new luxury buyers.  By 2050, the global economy is predicted to use three planets worth of resources annually. To change that trajectory luxury brands must commit to use less water, leave less fabric waste and emit less carbon. They must invest in renewable energy, innovative technologies, alternative ethical materials and empowering communities.

(This article has also been published in Textile Times in the month of May, 2019).

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