Zero Harm & Sustainable Luxury: Can That Which is Freely Available Still Be Luxurious?
What is Luxury?
Luxury is hard to define – certainly, if you ask three different people, you’ll probably get five different answers. This isn’t helped by the fact that the definition is changing every day – luxury is affected by all sorts of socio-economic macro-trends. What is luxurious today may not be considered so in fifty or even five years from now. It’s even more complicated when it comes to zero harm luxury.
There are however, some consistent key-words surrounding luxury, such as ‘rare’, ‘exclusive’ and ‘expensive’. So, where sustainability is intended to be just that – sustainable – we find ourselves with a challenge. How can that which is forever replenished be considered rare?
Well, just because something keeps being replenished doesn’t necessarily make it freely available. Solid wood has always been considered as luxurious, and this is largely because it is a natural product that grows. Trees grow slowly. Some really slowly. So, to be sustainable, the rate of consumption must not outstrip the rate of the growth of the raw material. In this way, supply is restricted, which inflates prices and hey-presto, you have your luxury.
“How can that which is forever replenished be considered rare?”
What About Zero Harm?
Zero Harm materials are more of a challenge. Leather, silk, wool, all are considered luxury products – but all involve the slaughter or mistreatment of animals. There are alternative materials from plants or synthetic fibres, but these are not generally considered as luxurious. Either luxury brands need to compromise on their pricing and thus profits and positioning by manufacturing their products with these Zero Harm substitutes, or there needs to be a change in the perception of the materials, or where the value in the products comes from.
Zero Harm Alternatives
Piñatex – Pineapple ‘Leather’
Manufactured from the fibres of pineapple leaves, which would otherwise just be discarded and left to rot during the harvest of pineapples, Piñatex can be produced in variety of different thicknesses and colours. The manufacturer is certified as a Vegan Fashion Brand by PETA.
Alcantara is a synthetic suede-like material produced in Italy, by a single manufacturer. If you’ve ever spent any time in a sports car, there’s a good chance you will have come across this material on the steering wheel, seats or other interior trim elements. It’s soft, wears well, and offers good levels of grip.
The latter is probably the best example of a man-made fibre being considered luxurious – you tend not to see Alcantara on cheaper products, and it conjures up all sorts of images of racing heritage. The benefit of it being produced by a single manufacturer means you can only get it in one place, and as a result, pricing remains high. You could see the same outcome for Piñatex over time.
So, let’s recap so far – we’ve got sustainability sorted, or at least are on our way, and we have some credible zero harm textile alternatives. Where does this leave us? Well, consider this: Hermes Birkin bags sell for many tens of thousands of pounds, but would you be able to justify charging the same amount for an equivalent bag that looked like leather, felt like leather, but just wasn’t?
This is the challenge: The perceived value of the product needs to shift away from the material (or at least, the type of material), to the design, craftsmanship, heritage and even perhaps the zero harm story; to justify the pricing.
“The perceived value of the product needs to shift away from the material to the design, craftsmanship, heritage and even perhaps the zero harm story; to justify the pricing.”
But Wait! What if Zero Harm Luxury Makes the Problem Worse?
This is all well and good – make a man-made product rare, put the right story against it, make zero harm and sustainability desirable, and you have solved your problem. Well, yes, for luxury items. For expensive items. For rare and exclusive items. But suddenly, have we made the problem worse? Have we made zero harm such a commodity that only those who can afford it can have it – the net result being that the vast majority of people can’t, and must resort to buying leather, wool and silk-based products because in this hypothetical marketplace, they’re considered cheap because they aren’t zero harm. You’ve turned the market on its head, and incentivised the production of even more leather to cope with this demand, because people can’t afford to buy polyester any more.
Of course, this is just a bit of a thought-experiment. A ‘what if?’. Man-made fibres are generally cheap because they are easy to produce – produced volumes are high, and as a result, the unit price is low. This is extremely unlikely to change.
“You’ve turned the market on its head, and incentivised the production of even more leather because people can’t afford to buy polyester anymore.”
Ultimately, however, the global economy functions on profits and money changing hands. Price is dictated by value, and if that perceived value shifts, it’s anybody’s guess as to what could happen.
This post first appeared as a guest blog for L is for Bridget on 19th April 2016. You can find the original here.
You can follow L is for Bridget @TheMrsWilko