How Sustainable Luxury Can Save The Planet

How Sustainable Luxury Can Save The Planet
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Co-written by Dr. Gjoko Muratovski


People care about themselves, their children, their animals and then the environment - in that order. Guilt, shame, even doomsday prophecies have little to no effect on how people go about handling their daily consumption. Education helps. However, even when one knows the right thing to do, it is nearly impossible to change one's own behavior, let alone the behavior of someone else.

Re-designing consumerism by using behavioral economics may offer an enjoyable path - and may work. Reducing, reusing, recycling and disposing responsibly have been the mantra for saving the planet for decades. However, another workable option could be increasing spending on our aspirations by channeling our purchasing power to where we might do the least harm - by buying sustainable luxury goods.

Here is a pop quiz question: Which iPhone hurts the environment most when produced? An iPhone 6 (requiring 95 kg CO2) or an iPhone 6 Plus (requiring 110 kg CO2), which is 15 percent more CO2 than the former?

The correct answer is the iPhone 6 Plus with 110 kg CO2. What is important is how much environmental hurt one can cause per dollar (EcoValue) and the iPhone 6 Plus sucks up twenty percent more capital per unit CO2. When the iPhone 6 Plus sucks up three hundred dollars more of your purchasing power, it prevents you from doing environmental harm with your cash somewhere else. Just imagine how much a $50,000 Chanel evening gown, a $1,500,000 Ferrari or 100,000,000 Monet painting reduces your ability to hurt the Mother Earth.

While people are positive about the idea of sustainability in principle, these perceptions are often overshadowed by various perceived 'negative' attributes. Many people view sustainability as being costly, unnecessary, or disruptive to their everyday life.

The same can be said about luxury brands, but purchasing them is considered a privilege rather than a nuisance. Then again, sustainable products also share the same 'essential' qualities of luxury goods: They call for extraordinary creativity and design, they need to be made from exceptional materials, with good quality and they are rare and expensive. It seems that the two concepts are not that far apart from each other.

At the beginning, luxury brands were mostly small family businesses operated by high-quality artisans and craftspeople that had highly specialized areas of expertise for which they had obtained a global reputation. Their products have always been sustainable, but have not been promoted as such - that is, until recently.

Increasingly, leading luxury brands are taking steps in this direction and are introducing the idea of 'sustainable luxury' as an integral part of their own brand image. Already there is a Sustainable Luxury Working Group made of leading luxury brands that are committed to advancing good social, environmental, and animal-welfare practices in their business operations, including sustainable sourcing practices.

The benefit in having luxury brands promoting sustainable behavior is that they have the ability to make sustainable behavior a mainstream lifestyle choice. Making sustainable behavior to be seen as an aspirational statement is a much more effective way for introducing social change, than simply using guilt to make people feel bad about the environment - which is what traditional social marketing does.

The key challenge of social marketing is that this type of marketing often ignores the underlying philosophy that each side should have something of value to offer and exchange. On the other hand, sustainable luxury offers people fulfillment of their individual desires by introducing better consumer choices - rather than making them feel guilty about themselves.

This is the exchange philosophy that we can promote in order to achieve sustainable behavior change. Even though sustainable luxury, as a concept, will remain a privilege only for the wealthy, we can certainly expect for the concept of sustainable consumption as a form of affordable luxury to trickle down to less affluent users. After all, many of the things that we all take for granted today were once considered a luxury.

Special thanks to Dr. Gjoko Muratovski for researching and co-writing this article.