Sustainable Luxury: Oxymoron?

by Milena Cvijanovich

When I first began advocating “Sustainable Luxury” seven years ago, the concept was truly an oxymoron. Sustainable luxury stood proudly beside its cohorts: military intelligence, a fine mess and shabby chic. Whether the target has been natural resources, entire civilizations or the local spirits shop, the upper echelons of society have typically adopted a rather Darwinian attitude, considering the entire topic of who-deserves-what a matter of natural selection. In short, luxury, regardless of the cost to society, was considered by many to be, quite simply, a natural birthright. Social issues and natural disasters were merely an unpleasant fact of life and considered “most unfortunate.” This attitude is changing.


(Figure 1: Craftmanship which might have disappeared is preserved by luxury brands)

Luxury, in its truest sense, celebrates authentic craftsmanship, noble materials and a society’s cultural heritage. Traditional knowledge, handed down through generations, is combined with awe and respect for the intrinsic qualities of the raw materials. The art and the artisan are one. Similarly, sustainability has, at its core, a reverence for natural resources and a respect for the human being behind the creation. Only recently have luxury companies received criticism for their rather cavalier attitude toward, and lack of regard for, the environment, the artisans and the communities that support their operations. Consumers have become more aware of what is going on “behind the scenes” and are now forcing luxury companies to take a hard look at the resources they consume, the quality of life of the people they employ and the living conditions within the communities that provide their labor.

With the increased call for transparency, luxury companies have an interesting dilemma: How do we continue to serve our marketplace while simultaneously protecting natural resources, preserving human rights and honoring Fair Trade practices? Not too many years ago, those questions would have been met with rolling eyes, a sigh, perhaps an occasional raised eyebrow or two and a shaking of heads. The issues would have fallen on deaf ears, casually brushed aside as one might wave off an annoying housefly. Not so today.

(Figure 2:  The Cervin Mountain & the electric car only ski resort: Zermatt)

The good news is that more and more luxury companies and high-end consumers are embracing the concept of “sustainable luxury,” which not only helps our planet, but also, much to the surprise of many old-line thinkers, has a good deal of marketing value. As luxury providers become more environmentally conscious, they are able to appeal to their consumer’s newfound global awareness. Many companies that cannot adopt 100% sustainable business practices are donating a portion of their earnings to the communities who support their production facilities. Profits that may have decreased as greener methods were initially employed, can now be offset by increased market share, as consumers buy products that combine a love of luxury with a sense of fair play. The world has made great strides in finding alternative energy solutions and companies are turning more and more toward using sustainable materials.

The luxury consumer is unique. He is able to make his purchasing decisions based on desire rather than need, comfort over cost, and pleasure over, well, everything. Since his purchasing decisions are based on very different criteria than the non-luxury buyer, he is able to make choices based on a broader world view. As luxury consumers grow in global awareness and demand greener business practices, they are able to redefine the way in which luxury companies operate. As more and more luxury companies adopt sustainability as one of their core principles, consumers are able to continue to indulge in the finer things in life, while simultaneously respecting the environment and helping to support underprivelaged communities.

(Figure 3: Solar Impulse: the first solar powered airplane)

This trend is an exciting new angle in the luxury arena. Even now there are some exquisite products out there. One or two are already on my “absolutely fabulous, have to have” list. You might be surprised how many will end up on yours.
As the world becomes more conscious of the responsibility we all have to the earth and to each other, Sustainable Luxury will move to the forefront. Sustainable Luxury is not an oxymoron, but rather an exciting opportunity to explore new horizons.