Positive Luxury measures the sustainability credentials of global brands
Sustainability. It’s the buzzword on the tongue of every scientist, politician, celebrity and consumer. Pick up any newspaper, click on any website and someone, somewhere, is urging you to take more of an interest in the future of our planet. It is not, however, a concept that’s immediately associated with the luxury industry. Which is where Diana Verde Nieto, the co-founder of Positive Luxury, steps in.
Since launching the London-based online database in 2011, Nieto and her staff at Positive Luxury have offered consumers insight into the sustainability credentials of luxury brands. At the heart of it, Positive Luxury looks at the effects that global brands have on people and the environment. Paying employees fair wages and reducing the use of toxic chemicals in the supply chain are some of the criteria that, according to Positive Luxury, make a company sustainable. If a brand fulfils enough of Positive Luxury’s preset requirements, it will receive what is known as the Trust Mark, represented by a blue butterfly motif that indicates that it can be trusted by us, the consumers.
Nieto’s interest in sustainable living began long before the launch of the company. The Harvard Business School graduate explains that social sustainability has always been a part of her life. “I’ve always been inclined to be a part of how you can change the status quo,” she says. “I was born in Buenos Aires, in a dictatorship, and wanted to be a human-rights lawyer, which wasn’t a possibility at the time.” It would be her tenacious nature and eventual move to England at the age of 22 that would lead to a career in sustainability.
Nieto went on to launch the sustainable communications consultancy, Clownfish, in 2002; by the time she sold the company in 2008, it had expanded into five markets, including China and the United States. “The company was successful, but what it really opened my eyes to was the confusion that existed around the term ‘sustainability’ and what that word means to people,” she says.
How, then, do you take a concept that is so vast and complicated, and expect consumers to apply it to their everyday lives, I wonder? “I like Gro Harlem Brundtland’s definition,” says Nieto. “It defines sustainability as ‘forms of progress that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs’. I believe that businesses can and should be a force for social good and that we, as individuals, have so much power through consumption and our choices.”
Running with this idea, Nieto and Karen Hanton, the founder of Toptable, a United Kingdom-based restaurant-booking enterprise, launched Positive Luxury with the aim of demystifying the concept of sustainability and trying to “break it down for consumers”. The first three brands to come on board were IWC, Rococo Chocolates and Prymal; today, 200 luxury brands carry its seal of approval.
It is perhaps unsurprising that some companies were initially resistant to the idea of sustainable luxury. Nieto puts this down to luxury lifestyle brands lacking understanding of the importance of telling their stories while being open and transparent to the end consumer. And while many brands, over the years, have achieved incredible things, she admits that “the concept still seems alien to some”.
But even for the companies that are ready to embrace sustainability, earning the Trust Mark is no simple task. Each brand must apply for the seal of approval through an industry-specific application form, which has been developed by a panel of experts known as the Sustainability Council. The form then passes through a screening process.
“We assess brands in a holistic way, looking across environmental, social, innovation, community, governance and supply-chain criteria,” says Nieto. “If a brand passes, they receive the Trust Mark and all the benefits of being a part of Positive Luxury’s community.”
What happens after a brand has earned its stripes? And how does Positive Luxury ensure that approved brands are staying true to the course? “Brands must reapply for the mark every year,” Nieto says. Even the accreditation process is reviewed annually, “mirroring social and environmental regulations”.
Unsurprisingly, there are many who do not live up to Positive Luxury’s stringent criteria. In fact, Nieto reveals that about 30 per cent of applications are rejected. “We look at the life cycle of the vertical and, simply put, if they don’t meet the criteria, they cannot join the Positive Luxury community.” It all seems rather black and white but, in fact, it’s not – with a subject as complex as sustainability, it can’t be. Nieto says that the process is more of a journey for brands, rather than a dead end. “We need to celebrate those that are making developments,” she says. “But also recognise where improvements can be made.”
The necessary improvements, of course, vary from company to company. Perhaps one of the more prominent issues, one that was in the spotlight even before Samantha’s red-paint debacle in Sex in the City, is fur. Yet, for all its controversies, we still see it sent down the runway, season after season – a recent case in point is the Bag Bug by Fendi (a Trust Mark brand) which is available in Bordeaux rabbit, mink and fox. When asked how to tackle this particular issue, Nieto remains honest and realistic. “Everybody is entitled to a choice, and if that choice is to wear fur, then that’s OK.” Admittedly, this is not the answer I am expecting. She continues: “It’s the industry’s job to ensure the animals used are not endangered and are killed humanely. Also [for companies] to be transparent about where the fur comes from, allowing consumers to make an informed decision.”
All this talk of transparency, accountability and informed decision-making makes one feel like they can take on all the world’s problems, one wise purchase at a time. But before we all start donning our Pucci capes, tights and masks, and rushing off to save the planet, there are still questions to be answered. For example, just how sustainable is sustainability? Can companies such as Positive Luxury keep the momentum going, or will this end up being just another fad, something destined to go the way of hemp rugs and step aerobics? Nieto admits that the word sustainability is not sustainable, simply because it means too many things to too many people. “But if we go back to Brundtland’s definition,” she says, “and break down the components of what it means, people won’t be switching focus.”
And because the Earth’s resources are not limitless, the 7.3 billion consumers on this planet have no choice but to pay closer attention to components such as agriculture, water and biodiversity. “A healthy ecosystem is fundamental for human survival. We need to stop talking about it and just make it normal.”
For all the questions around the issue of sustainable luxury, Nieto and her team have witnessed some real progress since 2011. It appears that consumers are becoming less forgiving when faced with brands that lack transparency.
“In the same way that social media has changed behaviour and the way that peers talk to each other,” she says, “consumers want to know what a brand is doing and will find out either way. There really is nowhere to hide.”
Along the way, there have been some watershed moments, Nieto says. Perhaps one of the most important is to be found in IWC’s annual CSR report for 2015. “The Trust Mark was included in [the report] as recognition for their commitment to CSR. That was a very proud moment.”
While enlisting 200 brands over four years is quite a feat in itself, Nieto is not one to rest on her laurels. Over the next five years she hopes for the Trust Mark to become “the definitive, undisputed seal of approval for luxury lifestyle brands”. She also hopes that consumers will be able to rely on Positive Luxury to do the homework on brands that they can trust. “This will enable them to make informed purchasing decisions.”
And are there any particular brands that she hopes to see coming on board during this time? “Chanel and Hermès,” she says. “In fact, if Mr Axel Dumas is reading this, call me back. You’re doing such great work that we need to tell the world about.”
Updated: June 4, 2015 04:00 AM