When we think of luxury, we often think of excess, self-indulgence, and extravagance. A Google image search of “luxury” gives us images of private jets, yachts, mansions, and infinity pools. This all begs the question- is there really a place for compassion for the larger world in the luxury market? Increasingly, both consumers and brands are answering with a resounding yes.
At the International Herald Tribune Luxury conference in 2007, a focus on “ethical luxury” emerged. Designer Tom Ford gave a speech about the growing importance for luxury brands to focus on social responsibility. In large part, this trend stemmed from the desired of consumers, who valued compassion and responsibility alongside extravagance and quality. Consumers of luxury items want their possessions to make statements about who they are as people, and why shouldn’t that statement include their moral values? Tom Ford urged his peers to keep up with the times: “Luxury is not going out of style. It needs to change its style. We need to replace hollow with deep.”
“Luxury is not going out of style. It needs to change its style. We need to replace hollow with deep.”
A prime example of this trend is Tesla, a company which has seen success with its “premium electric vehicles.” Tesla found a place in the market at the intersection of luxury and sustainability. The Tesla Roadster, which debuted in 2008, had a base price of over $100,000. The company was asking would-be customers of Porsches and Corvettes if they wanted a car that not only checked all of their “luxury boxes,” but also minimized its negative impact on the environment. In other words, did they want a car that announced to the world, “I care about style, but I also care about the Earth.”
Another market where ethical luxury is beginning to bloom is tourism. While luxury resorts have a reputation for ignoring local environments and inhabitants, options for consumers seeking a socially and environmentally responsible luxury vacation are popping up all over the world. Campi ya Kanzi, a resort located at the foot of the Chyulu Hills in Kenya, prioritizes both the environment and the local community. It structures are all built from local, sustainable materials and are powered entirely by renewable energy and collected rainwater, 90% of its employees are from the local Maasai community, and it uses some of its profit to support a community trust.
Another example is Amble Resort, with locations in Panama and Belize, whose target guest backpacked or volunteered in Africa or South America in their youth, and holds on to that adventurous, socially and environmentally conscious spirit while seeking out a high quality resort experience.
What does ethical luxury mean for the fashion industry? A key consideration is the supply chain- including the working environments in which the products are made. Today, most items in stores are mass produced in factories- item after item is a carbon copy of the last. In fact, the speed at which hundreds of thousands of identical products are produced creates the opposite of the exclusivity we crave in a luxury product. The process is also impersonal in the truest way- the consumer fails to consider the very real men and women behind the creation of their goods, and how they may be exploited. In this way, considering ethics in fashion can actually contribute to luxury- brands can add exclusivity and quality by being mindful of who is making their products, and under what conditions. Products which are handmade, by skilled craftspeople, in positive work environments, are going to be both of higher quality and more exclusive.
This trend in luxury isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. The 2016 Positive Luxury trend report predicted the role that social responsibility will play in the luxury market in 2016 based on 2015 trends- and the news was good. 71% of individual investors demonstrated interest in sustainable investing. This is exciting because investors have the power to drive market even before brands reach consumers. Further, the report found that millennials are twice as likely to purchase from environmentally and socially conscious brands. This is a positive sign for the future of socially responsible luxury brands, as the buying power of millennials will continue to increase in coming years.
Ultimately, people buy luxury items because they want their possessions to make a statement about who they are as people. Luxury items tell the world that we are exclusive, prestigious, trendsetting, and that quality matters to us. But why stop there? The cars we drive, the hotels we stay in, and the clothes we wear can say something deeper- that we care about humanity, and the earth we inhabit.