Sustainable Luxury:  Managing Social and Environmental Performance in Iconic Brands (BOOK REVIEW)

“Luxury is a necessity that begins when necessity ends.”   – Coco Chanel

In this blog, I review the new book “Sustainable Luxury” by Gardetti and Torres.

Most people who buy a luxury product, whether it is a Gucci purse, an Armani suit, a Dolce & Gabana dress, or a pair of Ferragamo loafers, rarely stop to think about whether the product was made by a sustainable supply chain.  However, Gardetti and Torres take on this question, driven by a belief that the two concepts can in fact work together to create a better world. The authors met through email and came together in Buenos Aires in October 2010, leading to a productive set of discussions that culminated in the creation of the Center for Studies on Sustainable Luxury.  They have also created a set of awards in the IE Business School in Madrid, the IE Awards for Sustainability in the Premium and Luxury Sectors. This books brings together a series of thought pieces, empirical research studies, and theoretical arguments that provide a broad platform for thinking about sustainable luxury.  In the Introduction, the authors provide a definition of luxury shown in the introduction, and which goes on to provide other definitions focusing on luxury as a search for beauty, refinement, innovation, purity, the well-made, and the essence of things (Giron, 2012).  They then go on to point out that many luxury brands, especially Italian items, have relied on illegal immigration, slavery, and organized crime, providing an ironic twist to our view of luxury.  They introduced the Center for Studies on Sustainable Luxury as a counterpoint to these elements, with the aim of assisting companies in the luxury sector to transition towards sustainability. The remainder of the book is divided into three sections:

  1. Luxury, sustainability, fashion and value chain in textiles.
  2. Luxury, sustainability, and consumption
  3. Luxury and sustainability in relation to various topics and areas.

The authors in the book provide a number of viewpoints, beginning with an interesting chapter by Godart and Seong that questions whether sustainable fashion is even possible, given the many divergent goals of luxury fashion with sustainable principles.  Finn and Fraser analyze the “make do and mend’ practices from the 1940’s in the UK, and explore whether these principles could be applied to a luxury fashion world.

Similarly, an article by Holmsten-Carrizo and Mark-Hebert explore the ethical challenges of luxury production in the cotton supply chain and provide insights as to whether these methods can minimized undesired environmental and social effects. Other authors explore issues such as the fledgling “Made in San Francisco” clothing industry that is targeted at the luxury market, while others make arguments that sustainable consumption appeals related to subjective wellbeing and self-fulfillment.

Other topics include purchasing behavior of Brazilian and Portuguese luxury consumers and attitudes towards conscious consumption, and the relation of luxury purchasers awareness to sustainable issues. While the book presents a diverse set of perspectives, I found it difficult to find a cohesive theme linking the different chapters together.

Beyond the obvious themes of “sustainability is good”, and “luxury producers need to be more aware of sustainable impacts”, I also found that many of the arguments were biased against luxury producers, and I did not find many prescriptive models for dealing with the realities of the global supply chain, the pressures to drive out cost and improve quality, and the massive movement towards globalization that has driven luxury producers to these regions fo the world.  There was also a lack of models on how to evaluate and manage sustainability in the global supply chain, as I found many of the articles highly theoretical with few practical examples provided. On the other hand, I was fascinated by the nature of the arguments put forward.  For instance, the first article points out that the relationship between luxury and fashion is an ambiguous one, and luxury is timeless, but fashion is ephemeral, and while luxury is for self-reward, fashion is not (relationship to self).  These philosophical evaluations provide a very interesting set of guidelines for executives to consider when building corporate and ethical codes of conduct that underlie their mission and values.  These authors also point out that there are many limitations to sustainability that are inherent in luxury items and fashion, for instance the inflated production cycles associated with fashion prompts regular changes of clothes, and the emphasis on consumerism above sustainability is certainly questioned. There is an interesting case study comparing Ikea and Finlayson, two major companies, and their focus on sustainable sourcing.  Both companies have strong material health and utilization programs, and strive to improve social and environmental impacts in the conventional chain.  However, these are limited to cotton, and often rely on Fairtrade labels, which my own research has shown has severe limitations when it comes to actually promoting ethical farming programs.

The book is a good one for academics seeking to expand their research base to sustainable luxury, but I found it to be a bit dense for most executive readership, and low on practical solutions.   It is certainly an interesting read, and one that the fashion designers who drive this activity should read.