When we think of the word “luxury”, words like opulence, extravagance, and indulgence come to mind. It’s an industry that was built for people of affluence and wealth to enjoy the finer things in life. Luxury is a lifestyle, after all. And although luxury products are better quality and tend to last longer than non-luxury items, the process of manufacturing luxury products isn’t typically sustainable or ethical.
Sustainability, on the other hand, is often associated with affordability, eco-conscious operations, and tailored for the "hippy" or conscious consumer. “Sustainable luxury”, therefore, is an oxymoron.
Yet, the world is shifting, and we are learning to live a life that is less wasteful, and more thoughtful. From lab-grown leather, to spiderless silk, technology is making it easier for luxury brands to make the switch to a more sustainable production.
In this article I’ll discuss how the luxury industry has evolved; and I will highlight some products that are perfect purchases to transition to a more sustainable luxury lifestyle.
A Shift in Luxury
We’re living in a time where, never before in the industrialized world, have so many people from different walks of life come together for one cause; saving our planet. The luxury industry has always been known to exploit our planet’s resources—from the use of animal furs, to excessive and unnecessary packaging, to overharvesting of precious gemstones and diamonds. But in the past decade we’ve seen an incredible shift.
The unethical and often barbaric practice of fur farming has been banned or restricted in around 20 countries (1). This is still such a small number, but with some hope this number will keep increasing.
We’re also seeing designers step up and change the way they operate. From making the switch to animal-free, vegan products, and using the advancements in biotechnology in lieu of declining natural resources. We’re also seeing some brands taking on a more circular approach.
What Makes a Brand Sustainable?
You’ve heard me talk about sustainability a lot. But the key factors to consider when a brand is considered sustainable are:
It all starts from the conception stage of a brand’s products. Where are they sourcing from? Are they ensuring the integrity of the artisans, farmers, and suppliers are being met? It’s reported that 71% of retailers and suppliers in the UK think that it’s likely there are slaves in their supply chain (3). Such a shocking revelation, yet nobody seems to be doing very much about it.
For a brand to be truly sustainable, they would do what Tiila Abbitt from Āthr Beauty does and not source anything from anywhere without first investigating the ethical and sustainable viability of that resource. If a resource is not 100% ethically or sustainably sourced, or if the supply chain is vague, or lacks transparency, Tiila finds another source. She will not compromise the quality of her products, or the moral integrity of her brand.
This is something many brands just don’t do. Most larger brands outsource to partnering companies. Take chocolate giants, Mars, Nestlé and Hershey for example. They were facing child slavery charges earlier this year, and were being sued by eight men who are now adults who were forced to work as children on these plantations under disgusting conditions. They were claiming that thousands of children were forced to work at an Ivory Coast cocoa plantation, yet the chocolate giants claim that they were unaware of the child slavery, or the conditions the workers were forced to endure.
It’s a little implausible that a multi-billion dollar company that works in an industry that everyone knows is rife with child slavery and worker exploitation had “no idea” that this was happening. You just need to doa simple Google search to find out the truth. But they maintain their innocence and claim their commitments to abolishing child slavery, yet there are reportedly 1.56 million children working on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast (5). Hmm.
It’s especially disappointing when we’re seeing small startups with very little capital in comparison, putting their own company boots on the ground to ensure that their products cause no harm and are conflict-free. If small startups can do it, why can’t large corporations?
When it comes to consumer products, luxury brands are starting to wake up. They’re starting to think about where they get their materials from, and what the materials are made from, which I’ll talk about a little later.
This is another area that has claimed some attention from luxury brands. But this is still an enormous issue in the industry, as often a luxury item comes with excessive and unnecessary packaging to create a whole unboxing experience. Consumers tend to pay more just for nicer packaging (6).
Think about products like perfumes, with their extravagant bottles and boxes that no doubt end up in landfill. It’s what consumers expect from a luxury brand, so I suspect it’s going to take a while for this to change, as brands will need to create a luxury experience without all of the waste.
Lastly, a brand needs to be operating more sustainably. No brand is 100% perfect, but if they are making some strong efforts to be more sustainable and ethical in all that they do, they get a gold star.
There’s no way to measure how sustainable a brand is, but there is a way to determine, using your own judgement, whether a brand you support is at least trying their best.
The brands we onboard are a collection of different kinds of brands who are doing their part for our planet. It isn’t easy. But it’s important for them to be taking adequate steps in the right direction. Things like carbon neutral shipping, setting up a mail-back collection program for customer's packaging, collaborating with environmental funds and foundations, and just being a strong voice in this area.
Earthwise Beauty are a luxury skincare brand who have a strong commitment to creating gorgeous and effective products, while doing no harm to our environment. Through their philanthropic efforts, they support farmers in South America, they make regular donations to foundations every quarter, and they are bringing awareness to the oil drilling crisis the Amazon faces when someone buys their products. Their products are also housed in glass, which is a renewable resource.
A Change in Luxury
As mentioned earlier, we’re seeing some luxury brands make some critical changes to their operations and to the materials they source in order to lower their impact on the environment. Here are a two ways luxury brands are innovating:
Biotechnology might just be the answer to our problem of overharvesting and overconsumption of natural resources. Scientists say that if we don’t implement strategies today that minimize and lower our consumption of natural resources, we won’t have anything left to source. Biotechnology is essentially technology based on biology. Scientists can mimic the molecular structure of plants and other organisms, creating a safer and more sustainable option.
Bolt Threads are a material solutions company founded in 2009 (8). They pulled their inspiration from nature. They currently have three products, Mylo™; Microsilk™; and B-Silk™ Protein. Mylo™ is derived from mycelium, an ecological connective tissue found in our earth. Microsilk™ is a synthetic and sustainable version of spider’s silk, an incredibly strong and pliable material. B-Silk™ is a replacement for silicone and keratin in beauty products.
Luxury brands like Stella McCartney and Lululemon have been using this technology for a few years, while many other brands are also looking to collaborate in the name of sustainability.
Another product we’ll see more of in the future is vegan leather, made from plant materials, like mushroom, or lab-made leather, made from salvaged plastic (9). And we’ll also see other lab-made materials in lieu of animal-byproducts (10).
A circular economy is going to become mainstream in the near future. This is where products or materials destined for landfill are salvaged and given a new purpose. Like an old bicycle that’s been made into a kids swing set. Or an old, torn denim jacket is made into drink coasters.
In skincare, brands like UpCircle Beauty and Three Ships salvage byproducts from other industries, like coffee grounds, juice waters, and leftover bark from the lumber industry to create effective and natural skincare. But we’re also starting to see it in other industries.
Perfume company Les Fleurs Du Dechet has made a perfume called “I Am Trash” (7). It’s formulated using salvaged flowers and fruits that have been discarded.
A circular economy is perhaps the most important trend to come along in recent times. For too long consumers have consumed their way through the world, buying up a storm, taking as much as they can—and then most of our stuff usually ends up in landfill. We all know this is unsustainable, so we’ll be seeing more of a circular economy in the coming months and years.
Sustainable Luxury Products
The common misconception is that “sustainable” doesn’t equal “luxury”. This is just not the case. So let’s squash this mistaken belief once and for all, and here are my top picks for perfect purchases for a sustainable luxury lifestyle.
We spend a third of our lives asleep, so it’s important to have high quality bedding. One of the most sustainable fabrics out there is silk. It’s made using silk from silkworms, so it isn’t for vegans, however, it uses less water and pesticides than other fabrics, like cotton. Silk is also hypoallergenic, naturally antibacterial, and thermo-regulating, so you'll stay warm in Winter, and cool in Summer.
Our skin deserves to be pampered, without impacting our environment negatively. Try a luxury skincare range that pulls from Ayurvedic tradition, while catering to the faster-paced lifestyle most of us live.
My Pick: M.S.Skincare
A home is not complete without a signature smell. Many candles contain toxic ingredients that can cause hormone disruption and migraines. So choose candles that are formulated with clean ingredients, and that are housed in low-waste packaging.
My Pick: Woodlot Candles
Although things are not back to normal just yet, many of us are starting to travel again. But when we travel we forget to take care of ourselves, and we reach our destination exhausted and disheveled after a long-haul flight. Travel in style and luxury with a silk travel set that includes a silk sleeping mask, a silk face mask, and a silk pillowcase.
My Pick: Essential Travel Gift Set
It’s always been a moral dilemma to buy luxury products, as they used to promise this luxury lifestyle with no real regard to their impact on our environment. But with the change in the air, it’s exciting to see the industry finally make some actual progress to become more mindful and more sustainable. There are many products and brands out there now trying to lift their standards for our planet, and for our future, and hopefully they pave the way for every brand to follow suit.
Emma Masotti is an Australian now living in Austin, TX, and has been a trained esthetician for over 15 years. She is a sustainable skincare writer, educating and building awareness around proper skin health that doesn’t cost the earth.
Some of the products promoted in our blog are from our online store. Many others are brands we have researched and found to be great examples of sustainable, ethical, and innovative brands in their field, and we don't make any profit from mentioning them in our blog. #CollaborationOverCompetition