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EFF SOURCE Fashion business success without compromise

17 September 2012

Sustainable luxury fashion – is it possible?

Contributor Nicola Jenkin

Nicola Jenkin, Senior Consultant at Best Foot Forward, considers how the luxury fashion sector can be more environmentally and socially sustainable. She looks at the ways sustainable and luxury production can be harmonious, highlighting examples from brands such as Etrala London, honest by and Thierry Mugler.

Can luxury fashion be sustainable? To answer this question, let’s start by exploring what is meant by sustainability and luxury:

What is striking is the similarity between the two. It would be easy to suggest that sustainability and luxury are harmonious bedfellows. Sadly, this would be somewhat naïve. The planet is suffering as the population grows and an expanding middle class seeks products to illustrate new-found wealth.

If everyone on the planet lived the life of an average European, we’d need 3 planets. Does luxury fashion play a role in this? Most certainly, as luxury products are often considered to have larger environmental footprints than their contemporaries. However, I think this is a misnomer, as there is some commonality between sustainability and luxury.

Charles Leadbeater – a leading authority on innovation and creativity – argues that as our world becomes more complex we’ll seek out and value simplicity and authenticity, which will lead to a ‘less is more’ attitude and desire to experience products that claim to ‘take us back to nature’ and to know where products come from. As a result, consumers want to show that they not only enjoy good quality but that they also care for the environment.

This is picked up by a number of luxury brands who are responding to this demand in a variety of ways, whether through improved ethical practices such as using fairly-mined minerals, reducing the use of endangered and exotic species, reducing water pollution by using dyes listed by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), improving traceability by using Historic Futures’ String platform or measuring environmental impact using a variety of tools such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index.

However, those who are doing something ‘sustainable’ are in the minority, and very few have adopted a more holistic approach. There appears to be a reluctance to change, and if there is, it often occurs in reaction to being named and shamed by NGOs (e.g. in Greenpeace’s Dirty Laundry reports).

As the luxury fashion industry relies so heavily on natural raw materials for most of its products it would make sense to think beyond one-dimensional issues (as important as they are) and try to become more proactive by building a sound reputation and environmental ethos which is core to the brand. In an interview with Stella McCartney she suggests that you can’t do everything at once and that ‘we do things on an achievable level in order to make it happen’.

Many of the attributes of luxury align comfortably with the concept of sustainability – Nicola Jenkin

So then, where do you start? From our experience working with small to large brands it is important to focus on areas that result in both reduced environmental impact and cost. This can be achieved by identifying where your environmental hotspots (areas of biggest impact) are in your supply chain. This exercise can be done in a cost effective way, and does not require expensive life-cycle assessments. A baseline environmental impact – whether carbon, waste or water – can be developed at various levels of detail to provide an indicator of impact, and therefore area(s) to focus.

Results arising from our work with apparel brands (including luxury) would suggest that the main environmental impacts are:

  • Raw materials – cotton, leather, wool, polyester and PVC,
  • Manufacturing of finished materials,
  • Transport – air, rail and vehicle,
  • Operations and retail, and
  • Water consumption and pollution (toxicity).

In particular, any measures to reduce the volume or impact of raw materials and the manufacturing of finished materials should have the greatest effect. As a small or medium brand this may not be easy, as you have less control over specifications. However, by improving engagement with vendors this can go a long way to engendering a relationship which can not only provide improved knowledge of your products and their origins, but they are also more likely to work with you to reduce their, and subsequently your environmental impact.

There are some wonderful examples of smaller luxury brands being proactive in reducing their environmental impact, and in many instances ensuring that sustainability is central to the ethos of their business. I’ve highlighted a few brands below as examples of good practice who’ve moved beyond ‘turning off lightbulbs’:

1. Pachacuti are a Panama hat brand who ensure sustainability is integrated throughout the entire product supply chain, by investing in sustainable production processes and sourcing, reducing and preventing pollution, Fair Trade and local communities.

2. Viridus Luxe have recognised the impact associated with the production of cotton and have sort to use a mix of alternative fibres with a lower environmental impact, such as hemp.

3. Etrala London reduces the amount of waste arising in its supply chain by only producing what is required, whilst brands such as From Somewhere use off-cuts from luxury brands to produce clothing and accessories.

4. Thiery Mugler – Whilst not a small brand, I was intrigued by Thierry Mugler’s Womanity fragrance bottles, which are refillable. Certainly a concept which could be adopted by smaller brands to reduce packaging waste.

5. honest by have started to communicate the transport carbon footprint of each garment sold online, with the intention of ultimately calculating and reporting a garment’s total carbon footprint (as has been adopted by the likes of M&S, PPR and other larger brands).

Many of the attributes of luxury align comfortably with the concept of sustainability. The few examples provided of luxury brands who are starting to make inroads into reducing their environmental impact illustrate that luxury clothing can have sustainable convictions and operate commercially. In the long-term, the fashion industry will have to become sustainable in order to remain profitable.

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