Late last year, the Italian luxury brand Loro Piana made what it called a discovery: lotus flower fibre, a natural raw material produced on the lakes of Myanmar, extracted from the plant, spun by hand and necessarily woven within 24 hours, producing a fabric akin to raw silk. The fabric has been made locally for centuries but is largely unknown outside of the region. Now Loro Piana has initiated a programme to back a fully sustainable production, and launched a jacket made with the first batch of cloth. So limited is the supply that the company has termed it a summer vicuña, after the super-fine wool cloth it also uses.
"Sustainability is going to become more and more important in the luxury fashion market," says the co-managing director Sergio Loro Piana. "A company like ours, which uses tons of water, lakes of water in production, has to take steps, for example. It's not just a marketing tool. Increasingly it's going to be part of the purchase decision for more mature consumers - especially those who have experience of wealth - because the eco story can give as much pleasure to the consumer as the product itself. And those companies that pursue it now will have a competitive advantage. The question now is whether consumers are ready to pay extra for sustainability in luxury products when they're already paying high prices."
And it is a big, complex question. A Ledbury Research report found that 60 per cent of people earning more than US$160,000 (Dh587,665) are concerned about ethical issues, but a Journal of Marketing report suggested that, while 40 per cent of consumers are willing to purchase green products, only 4 per cent actually do when they see the price. As Leo Cantagalli, the former president of the Dutch fashion giant Mexx and the new chief executive of the green fashion brand Kuyichi, puts it, "any fashion product, even at the very top end, can be made in an ethical way - it's just more complex and takes more time and money". But, he estimates, it makes them only about 10 per cent more expensive.
Certainly it might seem that, relative to luxury in the home, food, automotive and even travel industries, the giants of luxury fashion have been remarkably reticent about making more of eco appeal's potential. Gucci is one company that has become involved, launching a worldwide sustainability programme - albeit one so far focused on packaging and emissions - following a pledge last year to the Rainforest Action Network. But it has kept its promotion of the fact low-key, while the brands under its wing have dabbled too: Sergio Rossi with biodegradable shoes, Alexander McQueen with organic cotton pieces, Yves Saint Laurent with a collection made from previous seasons' leftover fabrics and, most stridently, Stella McCartney, with the launching of an organic capsule collection.
Other luxury brands have made modest inroads, too. Hermès has launched its Petit H, a crafts-based laboratory that creates collections from the excess materials or rejects of Hermès' mainline production, while the LVMH Group has bought a minority stake in Edun, the "socially conscious" fashion brand launched by the U2 singer Bono and his wife Ali Hewson. But no company has taken a bold, unqualified step into the eco market since the provocative WWF Deeper Luxury Report of 2007 concluded that, of a number of companies in the sector, none of those ranked deserved a grade higher than C+.
"It is more a question of the fashion brands adopting the attitude slowly," contends Loro Piana, whose company has also made moves to protect the vicuña population by creating a reserve in Peru for the animals - and at no cost to revenue either: turnover is 10 times what it was 10 years ago, with double-digit growth expected this year too. Says Loro Piana: "One major problem is that only a very few companies in the luxury industry control the full cycle of their production - they have to convince their suppliers to be environmentally minded in order to claim it themselves, while licensees just want to sell as much of a brand as possible. These issues can only be approached step by step."
That explains why many of the leading sustainable fashion brands have tended to be young, independent, much smaller labels - the likes of Annina Vogel in jewellery, Beyond Skin in shoes, Ciel, Kuyichi, Christopher Raeburn, and Noir in clothing - able to use recycled, vintage or organic fabrics in small runs for a niche market.
The availability of raw materials is, for the moment, certainly a factor for clothing companies with global distribution, luxury or not. Levi's, the Gap and Nike, for example, all now use organic cotton, albeit amounting to no more than 3 per cent of their total cotton usage - but this still adds up to more than all the smaller, organic-only companies' usage combined. Were Nike to switch production to organic cotton only, it would swallow up the entire world crop.
"And it takes a lot of time to source the right green fabrics, even though there are more companies out there developing them now," says Nic Herlofson, the founder of the Norwegian fashion brand Fin Oslo, which is at the forefront of using wild "non-violent" silk (which doesn't involve the killing of the silk moth) and fabrics made from bamboo or even surplus milk proteins. "But for them to make it work they also need demand, and the demand for high-end eco fabrics isn't there yet," adds Herlofson.
A further complication is the limiting nature of eco-fabrics in the first place, or the processes that they can undergo: printing without chemicals, for example, has yet to be developed. "If you restrict manufacture to the use of only environmentally friendly materials, you also limit the creativity that luxury consumers especially want to buy," argues the Finnish designer Minna Hepburn, a maker of hand-embellished, organic cotton womenswear and selling internationally through the likes of dia-boutique.com. "A fashion range can be ethical in different ways - it can use locally sourced materials, or be made locally, for example. Yet without design, luxury clothing is a non-starter. You can't sell it to retailers because they can't sell it to consumers."
But, Hepburn adds, there is a bigger problem for fashion brands at all levels of the market - one less an issue for other, more progressive consumer sectors: the question of image. "I think luxury fashion companies are probably more eco-conscious than they actually let on at the moment, through sponsorships, reducing carbon footprints and other initiatives, if less so in the clothes themselves," she says. "But the fact is that fashion should above all be about fun and the still slightly tree-hugger reputation of the eco message cuts against that. That's also difficult when you need to explain that your product is ethical in order to justify prices but actually want the ethics to be secondary to the style."
Indeed, the designer Lu Flux, who built a reputation for creations using sustainable fabrics, is repositioning her label to downplay its ethical credentials. "You tend to get put in a box as an 'eco designer'," she says. "Eco's champions have placed so much emphasis on saving and cutting back that it has run counter to the whole idea of what luxury is really about - luxury still has to look and feel superior. The distance between those stances will break down in time, but there are stereotypes on both sides to overcome."
Might that distance already be closing? Mass-market chains such as Zara and H&M are already dabbling in eco lines and the US chain Anthropologie is buying into several small labels. But it is a sign of the times, perhaps, that Selfridges, one of London's premier department stores, is launching its first "retail activism" project, albeit focused on promoting and selling only sustainable fish rather than fashion. It is, arguably, the buying of power retailers that will most speedily encourage lagging luxury brands to make eco advances. "Retail is in an incredibly strong position to encourage change," says the Selfridges creative director Alannah Weston. "Consumers often want to make a change to eco but want to have it made easier for them."
Certainly the designer Katharine Hamnett, an outspoken pioneer in ethical fashion, believes it is only a matter of time before the idea of luxury is inseparable from that of the ethical and environmentally friendly - clean green products will define the new luxury, leaving the traditional luxury products looking irrelevant. "There's no reason why that shouldn't happen," she says. "The luxury brands have been pretty poor on ethical issues when they should be leading. They don't seem to care. But more and more consumers do. And in tough times like these you ignore that at your peril."
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