Women's Fashion

How deep is your luxe?

Responsible luxury is the new mantra for premium brands. So why the reluctance to trumpet their ethical credentials, asks Avril Groom.

March 08 2010
Avril Groom

Late last year, Italian cashmere company Loro Piana published a beautiful, hauntingly photographed book about its 10-year baby cashmere project, which helps sustain the lifestyle of nomads in the semi-deserts of Outer Mongolia. Then Louis Vuitton announced that it is helping a Japanese tree-planting association to create a forest near Nagano for the local community. And the British Fashion Council’s latest batch of Topshop-sponsored New Generation designers includes Christopher Raeburn, who works with recycled military and traditional British fabrics, manufactures in Britain and has shown with Estethica, the “green” arm of London Fashion Week’s exhibition.

These disparate events illustrate a movement that is gathering force: not only is the luxury fashion business doing more to address ethics and sustainability than it is given credit for, but it is finally beginning to talk about it. Its hand was forced first by the 2007 Deeper Luxury report by the World Wide Fund for Nature, which rated most publicly quoted luxury companies poorly for efforts in this area, accusing them of being slow to act, and second by the Copenhagen Climate Change summit.

Another reason why luxury fashion firms are revealing their ethical credentials is that this is big, and growing, business. According to the Co-operative Society’s annual Ethical Consumerism Report of 2008, the ethical market in Britain has tripled in value over a decade to £36bn, while overall consumer spending has only grown by 58 per cent. A 2008 survey by Ledbury Research found that over 60 per cent of those earning more than £100,000 were concerned about ethical issues, and Mintel estimated ethical fashion sales in 2008 at £175m.

To increase this still-modest total requires one factor that every consumer with a conscience will welcome: beautiful, top-quality merchandise that takes precedence over ethical credentials. It is, as Bridget Cosgrove, fashion and buying director of Matches, puts it, “all about the product. We stock recycled fur from Hockley [from £1,600], jewellery from Annina Vogel [from £250], Giorgia Scarpa eelskin bags (a by-product) [from £998] and we’ll have Raeburn’s recycled leather, all firstly because they’re gorgeous.”

Achieving the right level of quality and design is not easy and has been a factor in luxury brands’ reticence to put their heads above the parapet. “There’s a misconception”, says Stella McCartney, whose environmentally conscious, anti-leather and -fur stance has been a driver for ethical practice by the Gucci Group. “With fashion, the words organic, environmental, sustainable or natural don’t conjure up cool, edgy, modern, fashionable or sexy images. To me that’s wrong. I don’t understand why clothes have to look ill-fitting or like an oatmeal cookie; I try to make the best product I can, regardless of how environmental it is.”

Orsola de Castro, who has co-curated Estethica for three years and runs recycled-fabric brand From Somewhere, agrees but says retailers’ perception lags behind ethical fashion’s quality. “When we started, some fabrics and designs were not as luxe as they should have been so now, although we have designers like Christopher Raeburn and Beautiful Soul [reworking vintage kimonos, from £100], we still have to convince some top stores,” she says.

Some are convinced. For its first British stores, US chain Anthropologie has bought several small ethical labels. NearFar has its African-print cottons (£58) made up in Sierra Leone by tailors who train former child soldiers and who receive a portion of the proceeds; Minna Hepburn makes feminine dresses and tops from recycled lace and fabric (from £237) and receives eco-fashion mentoring from the British Fashion Council; and Beyond Skin does some of the most flattering non-leather shoes (from £120) and has been asked by Anthropologie in the US to supply a capsule collection. Head of buying Olivia Richardson says, “We label each product explaining its background as that’s the kind of twist our customer likes, but we wouldn’t have bought these collections unless we thought they were beautiful.”

Well-known French designer Agnès B has run a show for Afghani designer Zolaykha Sherzad’s Zarif range and sells her ethnically inspired tailoring (from £250) at her Paris flagship, with profits going to Sherzad’s seamstresses in Kabul. At Browns, buying director Erin Mullaney believes “climate change and the reduction of carbon emissions are hot topics, and big players in the apparel industry need to start changing their supply chains and business models. We can set an example as retailers by buying organic and eco-sustainable clothing. Everyone should be more aware of where their clothes are manufactured, what they’re made of and what the working conditions are like.” She already buys Christopher Raeburn (from £165), Bantu swimwear made in Ethiopia (from £145) and – for next autumn – Edun (from £45), Ali Hewson’s ethical brand in which LVMH quietly bought a minority stake last year, illustrating luxury groups’ growing interest in this area.

According to Mullaney, Edun needed this investment. “It’s a pioneer, and developed an eco-sustainable business model that any luxury conglomerate could learn from,” she says. “But I think they found it difficult to farm, produce and finish a product entirely in Africa that was high-fashion enough to make an impact. With this new investment and a new creative director I think Edun will become a serious player.” Her view will be familiar both to Adam Smith, founder of London’s first (relatively) luxury ethical fashion store Ascension, and Peter Ingwersen, founder of Danish brand Noir, one of Ascension’s bestsellers. The store (then named Adili) was formerly online only where, says Smith, “It was hard to sell clothes at this price level; customers did not seem to equate ethical with true luxury.”

In the light, spacious store, Noir’s minimal, undeniably high-quality styles (from £240) seem a perfect fit and are attracting Ingwersen’s target market of sustainability-conscious professionals. He employs Ugandan farmers to grow organic and fair trade cotton but says, “In this business the supply chains are long and complex. I may have organic cotton but it took time to find a factory (in Turkey) that could process it in an eco-responsible way. With different fabrics it is hard to get the same guarantees. We’re almost there on wool but I still can’t claim every fabric we use is fully ethical.”

He believes this factor – along with ethical fashion’s homespun former reputation – has made luxury brands shy of admitting involvement: “Small companies are less under scrutiny. But if a global luxury name trumpets its ethical credentials and one under-age worker is found in one of its suppliers, it would be pilloried.” It is, says Jem Bendell, co-author of the WWF report, “a challenge to change an organisation so that it strives for social and environmental excellence in all aspects, from product design through operations, marketing and retail.”

Other factors contribute, such as companies wanting to avoid accusations of “greenwashing” – where brands jump shallowly on the ethical bandwagon. Also confusing are the disparate aspects of what constitutes ethical production – anything from organic or recycled fabrics to production methods that sustain local communities or companies that actively reduce their carbon footprint. “Ideally, Estethica designers would do it all but we realise that’s not yet practical, especially for small-scale companies,” says de Castro. But it is confusing for professionals, as I found when helping to vet new applicants for the upcoming exhibition – their varied ethical bases made comparison difficult.

In addition, some top-end firms, especially family-run Italian brands, see social responsibility as part of their DNA and nothing to make a fuss about. Anna Zegna, president of the Fondazione Zegna, says, “We all know now there is no alternative to behaving in an environmentally responsible way but as a company we have always done so. My grandfather planted half a million trees near our mills to make an oasis for the people who work for us to enjoy. Now we are building our own hydroelectric power plant.” Sergio Loro Piana, joint CEO of his family business, advances similar arguments and notes that such paternalism met political disapproval until the recent rise of interest in local production and brands’ heritage.

So it’s small wonder that big luxury brands have been circumspect in this area. Even now, they tend to approach it obliquely. Asked why he waited so long to publish the baby cashmere book, Loro Piana shrugs: “It took me that long to find a photographer, Bruna Rotunno, who could do it justice.” The project, which involves company staff trekking for five days down Gobi Desert tracks to locate the nomads they have spent years persuading to comb their goats in their first year for a tiny, ultra-fine and lucrative crop, has helped increase prosperity in the region but this is, as Loro Piana points out, a by-product. “It is good business because it gives us a unique, extremely superior product [from £505],” he says. “The social benefits are wonderful but first it has to work for us.”

A vicuña reserve that the company has helped set up in the Peruvian Andes, encouraging these increasingly rare animals to breed, is the same. But he admits that customers are now more concerned about origins and ethics, “and at this level are prepared to pay more for things that are properly produced”, so now is the time to reveal Loro Piana’s involvement.

Also indirectly sustainable is Yves Saint Laurent’s New Vintage collection (from £800), a capsule range sold on its limited-edition appeal but the result of Stefano Pilati’s belief that good design and fabric should not be obsolete after a season. He has made classic designs from earlier in his tenure in leftover fabric. Each piece is numbered, making it a collector’s item but also encouraging conservation. The second collection is at the YSL flagships in London, Paris and New York.

The Gucci Group, which backs YSL, is proving the leading conglomerate in this area. Led by McCartney, who has more than 50 spring styles from blouses to bags (from £395) in organic or recycled materials but does not trumpet them “because I cannot always insist on organic fabrics if the resulting piece will not be luxurious and desirable”, the Group’s designs go from organic cotton scarves last year at Alexander McQueen to biodegradable shoes at Sergio Rossi.

Behind the scenes is impressive, too. “Last year we funded a film, Home, which showed the effect of climate change in 54 countries; we’re sponsoring a PhD at Central Saint Martins in sustainable textile technology; we’re supporting rainforest initiatives and we’re working towards an ethical code of practice for all the Group’s operations,” says a Group spokesperson. “This is as big a topic in Asia as the West, but it takes time so we have not publicised it much.”

Other luxury brands are not far behind. Designers such as Marc Jacobs, Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein have parts of their diffusion ranges made in high-standard, non-exploitative factories in Sri Lanka. Vuitton’s Japanese forest is the tip of an iceberg, spanning beehives on the roof of its Paris HQ and a new “green” warehouse which will act as a template for other buildings.

“Ethical concern is not new for us,” says president of Louis Vuitton Yves Carcelle. “We’ve done a carbon inventory and an ethical audit since 2004 and have a code of practice for our suppliers; 60 per cent of our goods are transported by sea, we’ve reduced packaging by 40 per cent and our new stores are 30 per cent more energy efficient. Small actions make big differences so we encourage every employee to help.”

Hermès has a long-standing sustainable tradition. Vice-president of industrial affairs Francis Chauveau says, “We support it by making long-lasting products that can be repaired rather than replaced. We have also reduced our water consumption by 40 per cent and have the first crystal factory to use a filtering garden rather than chemicals to purify its water.”

Much of the jewellery business also responds to close scrutiny, from Tiffany working to support changes in US law regarding hard-rock metal mining and restoring landscape, and creating window displays campaigning against coral in jewellery, to Gemfields’ environmental and social projects round its Zambian emerald mines or Damiani’s clean-water projects in Africa.

European companies almost vie for the most environmentally and worker-friendly factories, such as Audemars Piguet’s new silent, carbon-neutral watch works at Le Brassus in the Jura. Swarovski uses copious amounts of water in its crystal production in Austria and runs “water schools” in India and China, which teach youngsters to conserve the resource. Even fur has an ethical side, with Saga pelts certified for welfare and traceability used by brands such as Burberry – but here too the link is oblique. “We need to know which farm each pelt comes from so the farmer knows what price it achieved,” says Saga CEO Jan Erik Carlson. “The advantage is that the consumer can also trace it.”

Another reason why luxury fashion brands don’t trumpet eco-credentials is that all involved admit these are early days. “I think our industry is one of the last to try to do things responsibly,” says McCartney. “It needs to follow other big companies which are trying to work hand in hand with the environment and not do the usual fashion thing and think, ‘We’re above that’.” Mullaney at Browns agrees: “Fashion must take some responsibility and I believe we could learn a lot from the food industry.”

Bendell believes “there is a major shift in thinking. Senior executives in most large luxury groups now recognise sustainability is commercially important but there is not yet widespread understanding or leadership. And they are not in general investing enough of their premium margins in social and environmental excellence” – which may explain why my requests for figures on investment in this area were always sidestepped. Mullaney believes pressure is coming more from consumers “increasingly taking note of where and how their clothes are produced”. De Castro believes, “It will be impossible for large companies to operate non-ethically in 20 years.”

The motives for luxury customers’ interest in ethical fashion are debatable – genuine concern or social pressure? Things are different from five years ago, when a handbag buyer for a major store told me customers for a £10,000 crocodile bag didn’t care how it was produced. If, as Loro Piana suggests, “for some people it’s a matter of looking good with peers rather than genuine concern”, it does not matter if it has the desired effect. Carcelle believes, “Customers are increasingly conscious of luxury brands’ engagement in environmental and ethical fields, which is why we have a mini website about our efforts.” The more luxury companies publicise their ethical projects and their consumers acknowledge and buy into them, the sooner de Castro’s prediction will come true. Then publicity will be unnecessary and ethical will just be, as Zegna says, “The way we always do things.”