On the surface, sustainability and designer fashion don’t necessarily seem to go hand in hand. After all, designers are well-known for their penchant to toss real fur into a fashion show, or to pursue a particular type of fabric despite the source plant’s impact on the environment. However, things are changing. Luxury brands today are evolving to become more sustainable and more eco-conscious in myriad ways.
The Slow Change
While the designer fashion industry has been slow to change, it hasn’t been completely immobile. In fact, almost five years ago, The New York Times published an article highlighting the shifting sentiments within the industry. Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability office for the Kering luxury group, was interviewed for the piece and explained, “The luxury industry has a particular responsibility because it sets trends and is open to innovation. Sustainability should be at our core”.
In the years since that article was published, many fashion houses have taken steps to green up their manufacturing, their material choices, and their image. Chanel is taking steps to remove harmful chemicals from the fragrance industry’s supply chain, for instance. The L’Oréal Group, which owns names like Armani and Lancôme, to name just two, has actually earned recognition outside the luxury segment for its efforts in finding ways to combat climate change, foster improved water security, and protecting forests.
It wasn’t always this way, though. In fact, less than 10 years ago, the idea of luxury was not all that synonymous with sustainability. In 2013, a study published in the book Advances in Luxury Brand Management, written by Jean-Noel Kapferer and Anne Michaut, pointed out, “The luxury sector thus far has received scant attention from sustainable development activists and watchgroups. Yet, this focus in changing. Even if other sectors may be more relevant to the cause of sustainability, luxury brands that have gained intact reputations for sustainability must take care to maintain it … Luxury buyers have ambivalent attitudes, such that they consider luxury and sustainability somewhat contradictory, especially with regard to the social and economic harmony facet of sustainable development.”
So, what changed? Consumer opinions have evolved, just as a sense of corporate responsibility grew within the leadership of established luxury houses. For instance, a Nielsen survey found that 73% of Millennials were willing to spend more on a product that was produced with sustainability in mind, or was produced by a company seen as being sustainable or socially conscious. Note that this goes deeper than simply buying products “rubber stamped” with a sustainable label – consumers are paying attention to things like material choice and sourcing, manufacturing methods, chemicals used, and even what goes into product packaging.
This also coincided with a surge in new luxury fashion companies being born, founded by individuals with a deep concern for the planet and the creatures with which humans share it.
One example of this is Gabriel Hearst – her namesake brand takes the long view when it comes to fashion design and development, focusing on hand-made products infused with purpose, not just beauty or chasing the latest trends. That view is apparent in everything the company manufactures, from womenswear to shoes to handbags.
The Future for Luxury Brands
While change has been slow to come to the luxury industry, it has come. The pace of sustainable practice adoption is also increasing, as more brands take a stand and recognise their responsibility not just to their shareholders, but to the planet itself. That culminated in 2019 when 32 fashion companies announced the signing of the Fashion Pact, which would guide their efforts in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and emphasise sustainability. While the future may not be certain, it is certainly brighter thanks to that ongoing commitment.