Positive Luxury interview: biodiversity is the 'new black'; ignoring eco is a business risk
Positive Luxury — the group working to accelerate the sustainability efforts of the high-end sector across various industries — has released it latest annual Predictions report.
Key themes include being “nature-positive” and reducing harmful economic activities; collaboration across the industry and with suppliers (who need to be a big part of the sustainability journey as strategies will fail without them); being transparent because the rules will require it and companies’ customers and staff will judge them harshly if they aren’t; and embracing sustainability to reduce supply chain, financial and brand risk.
Fashionnetwork.com spoke to its co-CEOs Diana Verde Nieto and Amy Nelson-Bennett this week and was told that becoming more sustainable is no longer a “will-we-or-won’t-we” choice. It’s non-negotiable for many more reasons than we might think.
WHY BE SUSTAINABLE?
We know the planet — or at least the way we and all the other animals and plants live on it — is at risk. But sustainability for businesses isn’t just about “save the planet” mantra. According to Verde Nieto and Nelson-Bennett, it’s also about legislation that will force companies to change even if they’re not ready, about consumer groups with sustainability embedded into their mindsets becoming more influential, and about the speed at which attitudes can tilt and leave those without a robust strategy looking like dinosaurs. The simple fact is, companies that continue to kick the can down the road face major risks to their business."
CHANGING RULES, CHANGING MINDSETS
“So much legislation is imminent that will affect large companies directly and smaller companies that are supplying them indirectly,” said Verde Nieto.
“Businesses need to get realistic about the fact that the deadline for that happening is here. 2023 is the year they have to make meaningful progress, because, from next year, they're going to have to, due to new legislative requirements. We’re encouraging them to prioritise getting started if they haven't already.”
EU and American legislation is looming around corporate sustainability reporting, while a whole host of other rules such as clear information about the eco and ethical implications of products on packaging and labelling are on many countries’ agendas.
But even without that, Nelson-Bennett said that fast-evolving consumer attitudes make pivoting a necessity. “You can see a change with luxury consumers, the ultra-high-net-worth individuals who once were acquiring luxury goods as if they were fast fashion,” she said.
“They’re being more thoughtful about their purchases. They’re buying items that they're not going to be bored of in three months. The reselling market is the fastest growing sector of the retail market within luxury because people are more conscious of the fact that these things have a longer life. For fashion, that's a huge opportunity for luxury to sell on quality and longevity.”
It means luxury consumers — and especially if they’re part of younger demographics — will have much higher expectations regarding brands’ commitment to sustainability and will be prepared to flex their muscles at the point of sale (and on social media).
As Nelson-Bennett said: “They have earning power, are steering the agenda and will be followed by generations that are only going to be even more active.”
In short, younger consumers are becoming more powerful. What they want, they’re likely to get and one thing they really want is sustainability.
Verde Nieto thinks that while sustainability is important for Millennials and Gen Z, the next age group down — Gen Alpha (those born after 2010) — will see it as totally non-negotiable.
“The Alphas are to sustainability what the Millennials were to technology,” she explained. “They have sustainability completely embedded into the way they’re brought up with Gen Z brothers and sisters and Millennial parents.”
Not that older people have a laissez-faire attitude to the environment. Nelson-Bennett said that while it’s unfair to assume older consumers (and older employees in companies) are change-blockers, it’s younger people who are the real change-drivers.
“There's an assumption that Generation X or Baby Boomers don't care, that sustainability is only a Millennial or Gen Z issue,” she said.
“That's just not true. Older people don't want to leave a disaster for their children and grandchildren, but they’re not acting on its in the same way. What you see in the younger generations is people taking actions, being more powered by social media to spread their views and making employer choices.”
CATCHING UP AND TAKING THE LEAD
Consumers are clearly evolving fast. But are companies keeping up? Verde Nieto said luxury businesses are all at different stages of their sustainability journey with some lagging behind and not recognising the need to dive deep and fast into eco and ethical positivity.
“The biggest challenge must come in the mindset of companies,” she explained, adding that it has previously been about “just doing bits — ‘I'll think about plastic bags, I'll think about tree planting’ — all the scattered action that has happened in the name of sustainability.
“Now we need a different mindset, which is about how we properly advance sustainability within business practices. The whole system has to change instead of just individual actions within a business.”
On the plus side, Nelson-Bennett said luxury has many advantages already built into its DNA, given that at its heart it’s all about investment pieces, durability, celebrating and valuing skilled craftspeople and local production.
“The luxury industry has a unique gift. Their businesses are structured in a way that should make luxury a leader and there's an opportunity for more [companies] to be part of the band setting the example. Luxury is very high profile and should be the champions.”
Another example of luxury’s advantage over the mass-market is resale, which some luxury brands and retailers have been embracing. “What they have on their side as an industry is the fact their products don't have so much waste compared to other Industries,” Verde Nieto said.
“If you have a Dior bag tell me where you're going to throw it away, because I will pick it up and resell it!”
She added that the new report is “a callout for luxury to lead in this space as an industry that has advantages compared to mainstream businesses in difficult economic conditions."
THE NEW BLACK
One key area where they think luxury should lead is what they’ve identified as one of the biggest current challenges — biodiversity.
Nelson-Bennett explained that “carbon was the ‘new black’ in sustainability a year ago, and now biodiversity is becoming the new black. It’s incredibly relevant and important to the luxury industry.”
Why is that? “There’s a view that everything needs to be ‘natural’ to be good, but we need to think about the fact that everything natural is also scarce. There’s a lot of scarcity of materials in the world and that's only going to increase as demand increases,” she insisted.
“We’re putting out a call for people to genuinely improve their understanding of biodiversity and understand what it means to be ‘nature-positive vs natural’ and to not confuse the two issues. We must really think about what science and technology can do to help us protect and enhance nature rather than constantly be draining it as a resource to serve our needs."
While that’s a huge issue for beauty (“we’ve groomed beauty consumers to think natural is 100% right”), she said it also impacts fashion and other luxury sectors. “We don't have a single industry that isn't impacting biodiversity in some way or couldn't be doing something differently,” she believes.
IGNORING SUSTAINABILITY IS A RISK
Both of these sustainability flag-bearers feel that the time for excuses is long past and companies need to realise not being sustainable is a huge risk.
When they’re told that the issues aren’t ‘strategic priorities’, Nelson-Bennett said... “my response is that you can't afford to not be working on this right now.”
While admitting that investing in sustainability can hurt the bottom line at a headline level, it’s must for long-term success.
“People need to shift their mindset about how important a company's performance across environmental and social factors is, not just to their consumers, but to their employees, to their investors, to all their different stakeholders,” she explained.
“They need to realise that if they're not strengthening their performance across these different factors, they’re going to have more employee turnover, trouble recruiting staff, be unattractive to future luxury consumers, and they’re going to struggle to get financing when they need it because they're going to be seen as a risk to banks or private equity houses or potential buyers.
“Sustainability was always seen as something they’d have to do further down the road but that deadline is here now. Not only will legislation make you have to do these things, you have so many stakeholders groups who are not going to look on your business as attractive or valuable if you're not doing these things… and getting better at them on an ongoing basis.”
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