Just a few years ago, the concept of Ethical Luxury was dismissed by major luxury brands. Products based on environmental concerns and fair trade principles were associated with hippies. Most fashion conscious cosmopolites wanted nothing to do with the Birkenstocks, baggy pants, and hemp T-shirts of the so-called green movement.
Today the current has started to shift. With global income inequality worsening and a rapidly deteriorating environment, social issues have come to the forefront of consumers' minds. They now expect a greater commitment to craftsmanship, social causes and environmental concerns.
The press is abuzz with reports of these attitudinal shifts. “Luxury Considered,” published last week by Ledbury Research on behalf of DeBeers, reported a distinct change in consumer behaviour. Faith Popcorn told WWD that consumers are moving from "from conspicuous consumption to conscious consumption." And the FT's Environment Correspondent Fiona Harvey said that “being environmentally-friendly can be a luxurious form of consumption.”
More and more fashion designers and retailers are promoting themselves as socially-conscious and eco-friendly too. Stella McCartney was amongst the first to start the trend for eco-friendly designs with a fashionable approach. Donna Karan's Urban Zen Initiative combines a philanthropic foundation with retail that distributes natural and organic creations. Saks Fifth Avenue has introduced “The Beauty of Living Well” in five of its stores, dedicated to ‘natraceutical’ skin care products.
Small and independent fashion associations are also promoting the concept of ethical luxury. Paris-based designer and fashion show organizer, Isabelle Quehe’s Universal Love Association promotes the concept of “ethical fabrics”- namely, those materials that are ecologically friendly and produced by manufacturers that abide by ethical labour codes. Such fabrics are to be used as a “profitable alternative” to traditional textiles.
London-based People Tree combines fair trade and ecological principles with the latest trends in fashion. By using traditional skills and technologies, championing natural and organic cotton-farming, and providing artisans in developing countries with proper training and benefits, People Tree simultaneously does good to the consumer and the environment.
However, most luxury brands have struggled to reconcile luxury with deeper social and environmental concerns. A report published last November by WWF, the conservation charity, graded high-end luxury products according to their environmentalism. L’Oréal topped the list earning a C plus and was followed closely by Hermès, LVMH, and Coach. Bulgari and Tod’s were given F marks.
The luxury industry doesn’t need to become the next Greenpeace or pretend that it will change the world, but it does need to pay attention to consumers’ ethical concerns, especially now. In this economic storm, it seems, consumers are looking for a deeper luxe.
Rebecca Anne Procter is a writer based in Paris and Connecticut.