Helping luxury brands on the journey to authenticate sustainability
Today’s luxury brands know that they have a great deal to gain by acting in an exemplary manner when it comes to social responsibility and sustainability. These brands are uniquely well-placed to do so, given their celebrated focus on high quality and lasting value.
But that doesn’t make the sustainability journey simple. Brands must first ensure that they and their suppliers are acting impeccably and can therefore be confidently transparent. On this journey, international standards and best practice can be powerful allies and, as this blog post explains, brands should start by following four clear steps: assessment; strategic planning; programme development; and monitoring and reporting.
The good news for luxury brands is that there are many golden opportunities available to excel in sustainability. For one thing, luxury brands are often created by founders who had vision, passion and integrity. There’s often a backstory the brand can tap into to help it plot a coherent and authentically sustainable path going forward.
Moreover, luxury labels have the advantage of being able to connect to what “luxury” really means. After all, the word itself implies craft, respect for human skills and toil, a commitment to the use of exceptional materials and the creation of lasting value. It’s the opposite of mass-market, cost-conscious, throw-away consumerism. Luxury brands are also better placed to bear the costs of research, development, craftsmanship and innovation.
But whether safeguarding natural resources and biodiversity or reducing waste, it’s important that the chosen path is as close to the brand’s core purpose as possible and is strategically sound. This helps ensure the authenticity and longevity of the commitment. Benefits can include an enhanced reputation and a refreshed brand that feels contemporary and “in touch”. Brands can reach new markets and may also make actual cost savings on energy and materials. Also, often luxury brands have a high media profile, allowing them to become campaigners and influencers able to take up leadership roles and inspire wider change.
That said, a high profile is a double-edged sword in this environment. We know that luxury brands are more exposed than ever to unwavering scrutiny from journalists, a cottage industry of activist groups and influential advocates. Meanwhile, social media influencers and celebrities are hyper-sensitive to the impact of associating with brands that are perceived to have acted discreditably. Couple this with the growing eco-awareness and consciousness of consumers, which will only grow as values-driven Generation Z matures - and luxury brands can be vulnerable. A brand’s reputation can be badly scarred if sustainability initiatives are questioned. When it comes to sustainability, luxury brands have huge opportunities, but must proceed with real care.
The way ahead
The luxury brands that will win the future are those that can exhibit creativity, transparency, conscience and authenticity. They must appeal to today’s luxury consumers who are seeking conspicuous consumption much less than they are ways to express their taste, discernment, ethics and awareness. This is evidenced by a growing trend in the luxury goods market for customers to ask questions about the ethical sourcing of materials or for verification of labour practices. So, what should brands do? The following outlines a robust approach, based on international best practice, which will deliver credible results.
Luxury brands’ first course of action should be to assess their level of readiness to start a genuine sustainability journey. This could include maturity and gap assessments, benchmarking against their peers and building their understanding of relevant international standards and best practice. They need supply chain visibility and to build their awareness of any potential risks, such as mineral materials coming from conflict-affected areas or textile and leather products linked to rainforest clearances.
Labels should also review their alignment - potential and actual - with international frameworks such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and legislation around supply chain responsibility, including new legislation trends such as the European Mandatory Human Rights and Environmental Due Diligence legislation. Ask yourself, if the legislation was enforced tomorrow, would your brand be ready?
Strategic planning and programme development
Brands can then build on insights gained from readiness assessments by working with stakeholders to evaluate and determine strategic priorities and objectives. This includes activities such as discovery workshops and deeper assessments of materiality. Objectives can then be translated into sustainability commitments and action-oriented strategies and programmes, in line with industry best practice.
It’s also critical that the mechanisms of consumer communication are strong as this is a major stakeholder group. Likewise, luxury brands will need to have solid supplier engagement plans in place to help them navigate the complexities of supplier relations. Awareness-raising around due diligence is also needed, and labels need to create incentives for suppliers to meet human rights and sustainability requirementss. All of it calls for strong management frameworks - have yours been stress-tested recently? Brands would also do well to communicate with consumers to encourage responsible choices and the responsible use of products once purchased. Luxury brands have a strong hand to play in this respect because their products are not disposable and are often made to last a lifetime.
Monitoring and reporting
A critical component of any future strategy will also be the capacity to make product lifecycle assessments: labels must understand the impacts of their products from “cradle to grave”. This includes looking at whole-life greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and doing GHG inventory assessments. These apply not only to direct emissions. Sometimes the biggest impacts are found beyond tier 1 suppliers, so brands must get to get to the right data quickly from multiple tiers to report on indirect/scope 3 emissions.
Brands must also consider societal issues . This calls for planning and an audit of the business’s approach to managing human rights issues. Monitoring will be necessary at both the manufacturing and material extraction stages including ensuring the full supply chain is child- and forced-labour-free.
Finally, it’s imperative that all reporting and communication is accurate, up-to-date and credible. Brands will be wise to work with reputable and experienced organizations who can ensure that their sustainability actions and initiatives are in line with international best practice; and that data and reporting are robust so that sustainability claims cannot be disproven or accused of greenwashing.
Luxury brands are aspirational and they attract attention. They’re always going to be vulnerable to criticism, but at the same time a luxury brand’s reputation can be burnished, consumers inspired, and the planet nurtured, when creativity, care, passion and excellence unite to create something authentically responsible and sustainable. With the right guidance, sustainability is a winning hand for those labels with the integrity and imagination to do it well.