How and why luxury fashion brands are focusing on sustainable alternatives
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Luxury fashion has a problem. According to McKinsey, the industry is responsible for over $2 billion in greenhouse gas emissions every year. That’s roughly 4% of the world’s total output.
For added context, luxury fashion puts out the same amount of greenhouse gasses as France, Germany, and the UK. Combined.
While these stats are horrifying, this issue isn’t only about the survival of the environment. It’s also a threat to the survival of luxury fashion brands.
Consumers are increasingly looking for fashion brands with sustainable, ethical sources for their goods. That’s especially true after the COVID-19 pandemic. Even during the pandemic, fashion customers rated environmental impact second-highest on their list of concerns.
After the pandemic, 57% of consumers have reported they’ve made “significant changes to their lifestyles” to lessen environmental impact. Long story short: customers care now, more than ever, about the sustainability of their favorite luxury fashion brands.
The luxury fashion industry hasn’t been totally ignorant of this need. “With climate change bearing down hard, the industry’s goal [is] to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050—as well as meet consumer demand for greener practices,” wrote Dana Thomas for Vogue. “The industry is reshaping its methods, from field to form, dirt to dress.”
That much was evident when the French luxury brand LVMH created Nona Source, an online platform for selling so-called “deadstock” materials or leftover fabrics. “Now designers can purchase remnants from the ateliers of Dior, Givenchy, Louis Vuitton, and others at a fraction of the original cost,” wrote Thomas.
However, reusable materials are just the start. Luxury fashion brands have to pitch themselves to today’s increasingly climate-conscious consumers. If these consumers are going to trust a luxury brand, sustainability has to be part of the equation—woven into the fabric.
Beyond reusing a few materials at Nona Source, how are today’s luxury brands pulling it off? Let’s take a closer look.
Ditching the supply problems: non-vegan, plastic, and fur
The first problem to overcome? “Luxury fashion” is not a phrase typically associated with reusable materials.
For years, luxury fashion has been a purveyor of plastics, animal-sourced leather, and natural furs. But now, consumers expect the opposite: plastic-free, animal-free, and artificial furs. To appeal to these consumers, luxury brands are already rethinking how they source materials.
Prada currently uses recycled nylon made from abandoned fishing nets, with an eye on eliminating “virgin” nylon altogether. Sarah Burton uses recycled poly faille, or recycled polyester, in dresses.
Here’s what other brands have done to lower their reliance on unsustainable materials.
Brands moving away from fur
Fur may be the “last stand” of non-sustainable luxury fashion materials. Consider LVMH, which Vogue Business describes as one of the “few luxury fashion companies to show no sign of moving away from fur.” But now, even LVMH is focusing on sustainable alternatives in their materials.
So is Armani, which has recently shut down its Angora wool supplies after concerns about how Angora rabbits were raised.
Banning fur is a trend that’s been growing in recent years. In 2017, Gucci was one of the first luxury fashion brands to announce it would be abandoning fur. At the time, the Humane Society dubbed the move a “huge game-changer” in the world of fashion. Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, and Balenciaga are all expected to follow suit by the fall of 2022.
Ditto on the no-fur rule for Dolce & Gabbana, a brand that hasn’t always gotten stellar sustainability ratings. It’s a sign that things are changing if D&G is willing to make a new emphasis on sustainability. They even announced they’re going to discontinue all animal fur in collections starting this year.
Why the sudden change of heart? For starters, technology might be catching up. “The successful development of a low-impact bio-based alternative to animal fur would be a game-changer…for the entire fashion industry,” writes Vogue Business.
It’s not just an eating lifestyle—it’s a total commitment. And it’s been hitting luxury fashion for quite a while.
This falls in line with consumers’ sustainability concerns: If you can plant it in a field and grow it, it’s probably going to be more eco-friendly than the alternatives, like animal-sourced leather. As a result, “the plant-based craze is coming to fashion,” reads a recent headline from Vogue Business.
How so? Take a brand like Stella McCartney, which has already been using animal-free materials. As PETA notes, consumers can already seek out the “vegan leather” label in everything from clothes to accessory tags.
But McCartney hasn’t been the only fashion brand to embrace “livestock-free” replacements for animal-sourced materials.
Gucci and Salvatore Ferragamo have been looking to use more “next-gen materials,” or livestock-free alternatives in what are traditionally livestock-abundant products. According to a report by the Material Innovation Initiative, that shift to livestock-free alternatives resulted in Ferragamo switching to citrus-sourced fibers.
As for Gucci, they’ve created their own material: Demetra, “composed of bio-based polyurethane, viscose, and sustainably-sourced wood compounds.” Hey, it beats using animals.
Thrift and secondhand fashion
When you think of Gucci and Salvatore Ferragamo and Stelle McCartney, what’s the first word to come to mind? Probably not “thrift” or “secondhand.” Those words and luxury fashion brands likely only intersect in crossword puzzles.
Yet luxury fashion is going to have to get comfortable with these words if they want to join the sustainability boom. Luxury is “learning to live with the contradictions of sustainability,” writes Stéphane JG Girod for Forbes. And nowhere is that contradiction more apparent than in luxury fashion promoting secondhand fashion.
But what if there isn’t any contradiction here? Luxury fashion, after all, is all about “[emphasizing] longevity, durability, authenticity, unique design aesthetic, craftsmanship, and quality.”
If craftsmanship and quality are keys to luxury fashion, then secondhand products should still hold a lot of value.
Thrifting is big among fashion shoppers who value sustainability. According to McKinsey, sustainability was the second-highest reason shoppers sought out pre-owned products.
Other concerns, like saving money or getting the product sooner, rated lower on the list. This creates an opportunity for luxury fashion brands to reframe pre-owned goods not as cheap or convenient, but as meeting the high standards of sustainability.
“We have seen a huge increase in vintage fashion and secondhand popularity, and there are no signs of slowing down,” says Maggie Adhami-Boynton, CEO and co-founder of ShopThing, a live shopping app. “Consumers are hyper-aware of their carbon footprint and sustainability within the fashion industry. Turning to pre-loved items is an incredible way to find rare, discontinued and curated items at affordable price points.”
“Pre-loved” is the key phrase here. Throw out old slang like “hand-me-downs,” “thrifting,” and “secondhand.” Luxury brands can embrace resale as part of their sustainable marketing strategy.
The only question is, how does this turn into long-term profit?
McKinsey’s research suggests there’s more value to “pre-loved” products than just a fancier way of saying “pre-owned.” That shows up in the long-term value of potential customers. According to McKinsey, people who buy secondhand goods from a brand, and like the materials (it doesn’t hurt if they’re vegan and sustainable), are more likely to buy that brand’s first-hand goods in the future.
Think of it pre-owned as a strategy. In this case, sustainability is a secondary benefit. The primary benefit is finding new customers who love that sustainability.
It’s nothing to sniff at. McKinsey expects one-third of all watches sold by 2025 will be pre-owned. Handbags and shoes already comprise a third of the pre-owned luxury fashion market. And as younger buyers—Gen Z and Millennials—gain purchasing power, sustainability concerns will only drive them closer to pre-owned products.
Smart luxury brands are positioning themselves accordingly. Oscar de la Renta did just that by calling up vintage dealers “around the country,” according to CEO Alex Bohen. They established relationships with TheRealReal and Vestiaire Collective, which also hosts pre-owned products from Alexander McQueen.
Doing so didn’t hurt the brand or reframe Oscar de la Renta’s pieces as hand-me-downs. Instead, these vintage dealer relationships bolstered Oscar de la Renta’s control over its brand. The brand could step in and fix misidentified pre-owned goods or verify a piece’s authenticity.
The end result: improved brand credibility through taking ownership of thrifting.
Eventually, this thrifty approach led to the creation of de la Renta’s own platform, Encore. Now they not only control the branding of their pre-owned goods, but they demonstrate an active commitment to sustainability, reusable materials, and the timelessness of their designs.
There’s nothing cheap about it.
Big picture: How are luxury brands shifting focus to sustainable alternatives?
It’s one thing to say brands are switching to sustainable alternatives—or at least making pledges to do so. But how are some of the top brands turning this commitment into action?
At Stella McCartney, it’s been a commitment since “day one,” notes the brand. They don’t just slap “vegetarian leather” on their labels and call it a day. They note the specific benefits of their commitment: “Using synthetic leather instead of Brazilian calf leather, for example, creates up to 24 times less environmental impact, as calculated through the Environmental Profit and Loss (EP&L).”
Other brands may not have had the lifelong commitments of the Stella McCartney brand, but are beginning an about-face. As noted earlier, Dolce & Gabbana is ditching furs in an announcement made only this year.
That impact would be enough if it was just focusing on lessening animal cruelty. But brands can move away from furs and still demonstrate a commitment to increased sustainability and a smaller impact on the environment. According to the Fur Free Alliance, the consequences of fur farming include environmental runoff, increased waste disposal, and loss of biodiversity in local habitats.
Like Chanel, Prada, and Burberry, D&G is moving to “eco-fur” instead. That may be due to pressure from outlets like Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, which have made efforts to stop selling fur products in recent years.
Finally, luxury fashion brands should continue to embrace pre-owned luxury trends. A majority (56%) of luxury shoppers will turn around and sell their luxury items to others. This creates opportunities for brands to find new customers when they buy items second-hand, appreciate the material quality, and seek out first-hand products from that brand in the future.
Expect that trend to continue in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when 55% of luxury consumers in the U.S. reported they’d seek out pre-owned products from luxury fashion brands.
Where luxury fashion is headed: More sustainability, less cruelty
Luxury fashion often looks to set the trends. But it’s equally at the mercy of consumer demand, especially when consumers feel the obligation to seek out products that are good for the environment, good for animals, and good for the future.
It doesn’t have to be an expensive proposition for luxury brands. Sourcing sustainable materials, adding vegan and animal-free labels, and embracing the pre-loved movement won’t blur the lines between luxury and standard retail.
It will require luxury brands to acknowledge that “luxury” doesn’t always mean maximum opulence. Sometimes the word means having the luxury to choose something better for the world.