Last week over fifty newspapers and magazines from Britain, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Italy and Switzerland reported on the corporate responsibility of the world's largest holding companies of luxury brands. For the first time they had been ranked on their ethical performance in the report "Deeper Luxury: Quality and Style When the World Matters," which was published by environmental group WWF-UK. The news went 'viral' through trade journals and blogs on fashion, jewelry, and celebrities.
The report "could herald a huge change in the way global luxury brands operate," states Fashion UK. "The luxury goods industry looks like it's having its own Nike moment," suggests UN corporate reporting expert Dr Anthony Miller, referring to the mid-90's criticism of labour practices in Nike's supply chain that made the company invest heavily in its corporate responsibility programme. Within days, Just-Style.com reported that "PPR Group commits to improving sustainability" as a result of the publication.
Leading industry executives speaking at the International Herald Tribune (IHT) conference on luxury in Moscow, on the day of the report's launch, portrayed a growing awareness of the importance of ethical performance. Laurence Graff, chairman of Graff Diamonds, and Yves Carcelle, chairman and chief executive of Louis Vuitton, spoke positively of their company's responsibilities. However, in Conde Nast Portfolio.com, Lauren Goldstein Crowe contrasted "the words v. the reality," citing the WWF-UK report as an opportunity for needed leadership on this agenda. Not surprising then that IHT had earlier refused an offer to launch the report at their conference. The newspaper did not feature the report, with the international business coverage being scooped by Vanessa Friedman at the Financial Times.
"Press coverage has focused on the ranking, and on what these companies are failing to do right for the environment," noted WWF-UK's Anthony Kleanthous in The Guardian. "However, the main thrust of the report looks to a future in which the very definition of luxury deepens to include not only technical and aesthetic quality, but also environmental and social responsibility," says the co-author of the report. The longest chapter in the report focuses on the business reasons why that new approach to luxury is commercially viable. "We examined key commercial challenges facing the industry and found that greater depth and authenticity is a strategic response to many of them," explains Dr. Jem Bendell of Lifeworth Consulting, the responsible enterprise consultancy contracted by WWF-UK to manage the research project and co-write the report.
"Modern technology means that what's on the catwalk today can be copied and in the shops tomorrow, so brands need to offer something deeper than purely appearance. The same goes for counterfeiting." says Bendell.
"Sales growth in societies with high social inequality means that luxury brands face a crisis of legitimacy and a regulatory backlash, so their products will need to benefit the local economy with good jobs. The increasingly youthful profile of luxury consumers means luxury brands need to find ways to build in value to casual fashion items, without making them non-casual, with sustainability and ethics an obvious approach," he explains. "The increasing availability of luxury items means that brands must find new ways of maintaining their cachet, rather than relying on the memory they were once scarce and exclusive. Deeper luxury is the strategic answer to all these challenges."
Also an associate professor of at Griffith Business School in Australia, Dr. Bendell stresses the need for a paradigm shift in corporate strategy: "Consumer awareness should no longer be assumed as the only commercial driver for ethical excellence. Though counter-intuitive to traditional corporate strategists, this shift in thinking is fundamental to the contemporary business environment of global communications, where successful brands are behaving more like social movements."
Tom Ford, the former Gucci top designer said on the eve of the report's publication that "we need to replace hollow with deep." Ford's business instinct rather than telepathy is key, according to Bendell. "There's no one better than Tom Ford for spotting trends in consumer mood. The report details a variety of strategic commercial imperatives for deeper luxury. If executives don't get it, that could be because they've had it so good for so long and have become complacent."
At the IHT conference Tom Ford explained his emphasis on depth means that his own clothing label does not carry - a label. "In the report we explain that 'no logo luxury' is a growing trend that responds to consumers' desire for authenticity as well as responding to the availability of counterfeits," says Dr Bendell. If luxury is having its 'Nike moment', then "executives could do well to hire expert advice on the stages of corporate response to social challenges over the past 10 years, to learn from the experience of others," says Sao-Paulo based sustainable enterprise advisor Roland Widmer. "Lifeworth is working with research and consulting partners to offer solutions to those executives in the luxury industry who really believe in achieving social and environmental excellence as part of the identity of luxury brands" says Dr Bendell.
And what of the reaction? "Some executives might be stung by the coverage, and some environmentalists confused," notes Lala Rimando of the Authentic Luxury Network. "But WWF-UK should be applauded for sticking its neck out by publishing this report" says the Manila-based business journalist and consultant. "The scale of the environmental challenge is so great and pressing, and the reach of NGOs into Asian societies currently so limited, that if the brands that affluent Asians love can excel in sustainability, then awareness of sustainable living may grow in emerging economies fast enough to offer a chance of curbing global consumption and pollution within environmental limits."
Source: Lifeworth Consulting
Contact: Jem Bendell, firstname.lastname@example.org