Free delivery, free returns, clothing items worn once to appear on social media. How should luxury brands tackle the increasingly important issue of sustainability?
Article by Rupert Watkins
We live in a world where the word luxury is ceasing to have great meaning. Every brand, every experience is couched in the most over the top terms to gain traction in a flooded market. Meanwhile, the ongoing debate over our relationship with the environment becomes ever more intense; not merely in the luxury world the concern over the fashion industry and its polluting effects but in a world of limitless opportunity the effect of humans on the last untouched vistas of our planet.
At its core true luxury and sustainability should be natural bedfellows. You are looking to invest in the best – be that an item or a service – which in turn offers longevity, timeless style or utility which means you do not need to replace it frequently and you can spend the time you would have spent having to keep replacing the said item more enjoyably. It’s a virtuous cycle. Luxury is in many ways freedom from care – yet in a Insta-tastic world, the narcissistic, craven desire for the next thing is compulsive and obsessive, hardly a recipe for truly freeing up your time to really enjoy life.
Luxury brands face a war on two contradictory fronts; firstly they are businesses, they must sell and grow their segment of the market. This can at its worst lead to issues over quality – regardless of declared aspirations, a brand may be hungrier for a customer to return and replace something quickly to keep turnover high. There is then the inevitable question as to whether that item really is luxurious if it provides only fleeting service and satisfaction. For many in the current fashion industry it probably will have served its purpose after only one Instagram snap; 10 per cent of shoppers admit to taking a shot of a new purchase for social media before returning it.
The best luxury brands rise above the transient froth of in-trends and stylistic debate to offer something more fundamental and timeless. An item or service that is invested in for the long term is likely to be far more sustainably sourced and made, constructed to last and in an era where the debate over environmental sustainability and the provenance of what we buy is becoming ever more important to new consumers entering the marketplace, this will gain traction and loyalty.
Currently the Achilles heel of the luxury world does not lie with its products but with its packaging and manner of delivery. The rise of e-commerce allied to long time issues with overpackaging is a problem brands will have to grapple with and solve if they are to retain the full attention of an audience that is becoming concerned about the environmental impact of how they consume. The very nature of high end brands is synonymous with luxuriant packaging – tissue paper spritzed with the house scent, hat boxes, ribbon, branded bags (especially appealing to the extroverts of today’s consumer culture) and so on. More prosaically the use of plastic wrapping has gone unchecked; be it LVMH perfumes or Jermyn Street shirts too much has been vacuum packed. Much of this revolves around both quality control and logistical ease. Boxed items are easier to stack, plan for and optimise so stock bar codes can be checked off but even with more time and focus placed on recycling customers are beginning to ask is it all necessary…?
Clearly many boutiques – especially women’s wear – have always shown off their collections on clothes rails with minimum packaging and many American brands made their names in the 1980s onwards with a more laid back but refined jumble sale feel to their shops. Large clothing or leather items have proven to be less of a problem packaging wise than the smaller items that some of the biggest luxury brands sell en masse; underwear, cosmetics, shoes and the like that are still boxed up and wrapped in plastic. The cosmetics industry at large is ripe for fresh thinking especially at the high end. The sheer wastage of buying fresh bottles of perfume, moisturizer, toner or whatever it might be is chronic – but many large brands know the arena is their mass market cash cow. Very few brands have attempted to offer refills but the opportunity to offer true one-off cut glass and crystal bottles and jars that are items of beauty and can be reused seems to be a blind spot for larger conglomerates, but this would cater to the desire for both personalisation as well as sustainability.
One of the most basic aspects of luxury is the ability to get what you want when you wish. Over recent years this has led to the enormous growth of courier companies – our love of e-com at all income levels shows no sign of abating – and almost all brands have accepted they need to offer free returns.
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This appetite for delivery – and the belief that the more high end the e-com site is, the speedier the service needs to be – means some online sites have invested in their own delivery fleets which can only add to the chaos and pollution on our inner city roads. In a bid to secure repeat custom, larger e-com players have long offered free returns, until very recently this has been seen as standard and something newer or smaller brands coming on to the market have to match for fear of scaring away custom. However, with ever more people buying large quantities of items with the intention of returning the vast bulk of them and an increasing trend for luxury brand consumers to buy to wear once for social media purposes, the harsh business and environmental costs associated with free returns are starting to bite. The largest internet giants are beginning to crack down on these buyers – they know themselves they must take the lead in combating pollution or face ever increasing regulation and costs – it remains to be seen whether luxury brands will accept they have a part to play.
Several luxury online outlets have unfortunately taken the worst practises of over packaging in their desire to brand customer orders with their own distinctive stamp. Many sites mostly stock third party brands so the customer will get whatever packaging the original brand uses. What is plainly absurd is the extra ribbon, tissue paper and extra presentation box to ensure that you know you bought a certain brand via an intermediary. Having ordered from these sites on a small number of occasions, this does seem desperate overpacking; as well as the environmental impact of finding an item triple boxed could this be seen by increasingly sophisticated, provenance focused consumers as a way of softly rebranding the original product?
Intermediary e-commerce sites could find themselves on the wrong side of the environmental debate moving forward unless they fundamentally re-evaluate how they conduct business. The idea that they offer curated selections is increasingly undermined when you search on them to find they have often have entire product lines from participant brands and as those individual brands start to pay attention to their own recycling and environmental footprint, they may start to realise their weak spot is in their dealing with these larger sites.
Luxury and environmental sustainability should be natural bedfellows; you are buying carefully and to thus last. Many luxury brands are increasingly taking steps to partner with environmental charities and many are, to give them their credit, are now fundamentally looking at their logistical underpinnings to cut down on wastage. In a world where the emerging consumer generation Z is hyper critical of brand’s provenance and sustainability this is welcome but I feel that there is more work to be done than some brands are prepared to realise.