Harvard Business Review
By: Andrew Winston
February 8, 2016
If I asked you to picture the consumer luxury market, you might imagine jewels, sports cars, watches, premium drinks, high-end shoes and apparel, and so on. A combination of high quality, glamour, celebrity, and attitude. With a few exceptions, it’s been an industry not traditionally associated with concerns about environmental impacts, human rights, and wellness, even while those trends have been sweeping through the mainstream consumer products sector. But according to a new report, 2016 Predictions for the Luxury Industry: Sustainability and Innovation, that sustainability gap is closing fast.
Two organizations that work closely with high-end product companies, the Luxury Institute and Positive Luxury, produced the study (disclosure: I’m on the latter’s informal advisory board, but I had no involvement in the research). Diana Verde Nieto, the founder of Positive Luxury and main author of the study, makes a compelling case that sustainability and social responsibility are no longer nice-to-have for luxury brands — they are now requirements.
The report lays out a few key pressures.
First, the direct pressure: the laws are changing. The report points to the passage of the Modern Slavery Act in the U.K. in 2015, which requires larger companies doing business in Britain to publish a board-approved, public annual slavery and human trafficking statement. This kind of law clearly drives much more transparency and tracking up the supply chain. And it’s a good thing, as 71% of U.K. retailers and suppliers think it’s likely there are slaves in their supply chain.
Second, the indirect and more powerful pressure: social norms are changing, starting with high-profile tastemakers. Celebrities are more invested than ever in sustainability. Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo have produced movies and started organizations to tackle climate change and promote renewable energy. Harry Potter star Emma Watson is a vocal advocate on gender equality while also appearing regularly in fashion magazines. These names and others are lending their clout to the social and environmental agenda. Given their prominence in the fashion and luxury worlds, their beliefs, statements, and demands on companies matter.
On a larger scale, the expectations of companies are changing generationally — Millennials have different views on how companies should act. The report cites research showing that “88% of UK and US Millennials and Generation Xers believe brands need to do more good, not just ‘less bad.’” This generation is questioning consumption in general – a majority say they are spending more on experiences (meaning, less emphasis on stuff), which is a threat to the luxury world. And they are driving a “clean label” trend, where companies feel pressure to explain what’s in everything and where it came from.
Third, the report highlights the fact that the investment community is waking up to the value to consumer brands of managing environmental and social issues well. There are some early shoots of evidence to back this idea up: in 2015, a Morgan Stanley analyst raised the price target on some mainstream apparel players like Nike based on their sustainability performance. The report sees this pressure coming to luxury companies soon.
Finally, there’s the harsh reality of biophysical limits seriously compromising these companies’ ability to source their products. Luxury goods require digging up, growing, and processing materials throughout the value chain, and that’s all getting tougher. According to Verde Nieto, these are not just ethereal brand risks about labor or image, but actual business continuity risks. Climate change is changing water availability and crop production around the world. That affects cotton-based products and, as Verde Nieto says, cashmere and angora, for example, require a great deal of water to process.
For gems and minerals, Verde Nieto sees a range of challenges from the energy required in production to general availability. With slight hyperbole, she says, “we’re out of gold basically (almost all the gold we use is recycled), various substances and ingredients in skin care are threatening the environment, diamonds are scarce, and exotic skins are in trouble…basically — and this is the big ‘a-ha’ — some of the raw materials, crucial to the luxury industry, are under threat.”
The leading companies in this space have been acting on many of these pressures for years. Both Tiffany and Forevermark, a Debeers company, have certified their diamonds using the independent Kimberley Process as “conflict free.” L’Oreal has quietly been making itself one of the global leaders on climate change and renewable energy. The company has already cut greenhouse gases by 50% and has new targets to be carbon neutral (without buying renewable energy credits) by 2020.
Now all the big brands are jumping in. One of the report supporters, French luxury conglomerate LVMH, has been, according to Verde Nieto, conducting extensive lifecycle analyses of their business lines. Others like Veuve Cliquot Champagne are looking hard at packaging now. They’re all figuring out where their biggest risks and opportunities lie. The report has some additional good case studies in the watch, leather, diamond, and eco-tourism realms.
None of this is easy or obvious. This industry has some tough history to reconcile. “Blood diamonds” were not just a campaigners evocative phrase, but based on real money flows to brutal dictators. Slavery is still a problem. Mines are immense operations that can impoverish people and land — or create jobs and build the economy.
But in our transparent world, the risk of not tackling sustainability is extremely high for this sector. As CSR and sustainability evangelist John Elkington told the report writers. “The implicit promise [in luxury] is that the consumer need not worry about anything. Everything is taken care of… Until it isn’t, at which point the whole impression of invulnerability and perfection can deflate.”
An unsustainable piece of clothing or jewel is, in the end, anything but flawless. As we all wake up to that reality, the luxury companies have no choice but to act.