Is luxury fashion more sustainable than high street fashion? And of course, more sustainable than fast fashion? It’s a question I get asked from time to time, and the assumption is usually yes. These brands have more capital to spread across their supply chains, so surely there is more care and attention paid to people and planet? Let’s find out…
What Defines Luxury Fashion?
To my mind, luxury fashion refers to high-quality garments and accessories that are created with a focus on art, culture, and creativity. Collections are created in small quantities, adding to its covetable nature. And the best luxury fashion is iconic, often embodying or defining culture at the time, from The Breakfast at Tiffany’s LBD to Lady Di’s Revenge Dress. Even my Grenson Nanette Boots* here – they hail from Northamptonshire, home of the cobblers, and also my hometown.
At best, luxury fashion has an illusive, vague definition. From Vogue Italia’s Editor’s Blog in 2011: “Quality and not price? Yes, maybe, but it’s not enough. Luxury involves a much wider concept. If you misunderstand it with richness referring to expensive items only, then you have an old idea of luxury. Plus, luxury is not necessarily elegance.”
Yet, the luxury landscape is changing. From the pandemic, we discovered a new love for loungewear, and brands like The Row flourished, while Balenciaga clothing* sales dropped, to the point where the brand revived its haute couture to compensate.
Artisans, Not Garment Workers. Ateliers, Not Factories.
Despite being unable to pinpoint what luxury fashion embodies, there are some clear pointers to look out for. Everything from the clothes designs themselves to the logos and emblems can establish a fashion brand as luxury. It even comes down to the language used to describe these brands’ creations: Collections, not ranges. Ateliers, not factories. Artisans, not garment workers. But are these elevated words really describing better working conditions, better quality materials, and a better product overall? Unfortunately, not really.
As Amy of Sustainable & Social and I uncovered in our collaborative post, 11 Fashion Lies To Look Out For, a higher price tag doesn’t necessarily represent a higher quality garment. A large price tag for world-renowned brands will most likely have a higher percentage of that money going towards a bigger marketing budget, reputation-building activities, and fashion events. Red carpets, catwalks and couture shows notoriously lose money, but these seasonal offerings are what keeps brands in the press, in social media, in our mind’s eye. At the same time, you may also be aware of fashion houses like Chanel hiking their prices to compensate lower sales. Is it fair? No. Will it stop people from buying? No.
Orsola de Castro, founder of Fashion Revolution recently said in an article with The Guardian: “The luxury industry needs to go back to some kind of semblance of luxury, because it’s hardly been immune to the low-quality, high-quantity bug… To imagine a luxury industry that really is luxurious, they need to reinvent their parameters, go back to the essence of what luxury is – craft, respect for human toil and skills, and beautiful materials. None of this can hurt people and nature, if we are to consider it a luxury product.”
Luxury Fashion Brands Are Secretive
One issue that does stem directly from luxury fashion sector is the focus on secrecy. These brands are fiercely protective of their reputation, and with that comes a financial incentive to stay quiet about supply chains, manufacturing partners, and more. (Did you know, big brands actually put a figure against how much their reputation is worth? It’s a normal business practice, and can be worth up to 75% of their value.)
This increased secrecy, of course, creates a lack of transparency. A large number of the lowest scoring brands on the Fashion Transparency Index 2021 are luxury brands:
- Tom Ford: 0/100
- Tory Burch: 0/100
- Max Mara: 0/100
- Dolce & Gabbana: 2/100
- DKNY: 2/100
- BCBGMAXAZRIA: 2/100
- Longchamp: 3/100
- Marni: 5/100
- Brunello Cucinelli: 5/100
- Jil Sander: 6/100
- Furla: 7/100
- Diesel: 7/100
- Valentino: 8/100
- Canada Goose: 8/100
- Sandro: 9/100
On top of that, this secrecy breeds unethical practices, such as burning unsold stock. How do you keep an item covetable if the market is flooded with it? After being linked to such scandals, brands like Burberry, Gucci, and Moncler all have implemented anti-incineration policies, but still refuse to disclose what they do instead.
Sustainability Is Starting To Define Luxury Fashion
With the world moving towards technology and sustainability, luxury fashion needs to keep up. This need is accelerated as millennials and Gen Z – luxury fashion’s market definers – are shopping their values more and more, too. So why does it seem like so many brands are slow on the uptake?
As Orsola de Castro called for, luxury fashion brands need to provide more transparency, and with this brings more ethical practices. Alongside transparently displaying good practices across its supply chain, an incorporation of circular design into collections and business models is key.
Unfortunately, these things take time. To bump up their sustainability ratings, and in turn, keep their luxury status, many are turning to third-party certifications. From B-Corp Status to Positive Luxury’s Butterfly Mark, there’s a badge out there for everyone. Personally, I take these with a pinch of salt: it’s an indication of awareness, not a promise of truly putting people and planet before profit.
At the same time, there are a number of steadfast sustainability advocates within the luxury fashion space. From Bella Freud to Vivienne Westwood – there’s over 50 on my master list of sustainable fashion brands.
And before you rush off to do a haul of Louis Vuitton clothing*, consider whether you truly will love these garments enough to wear them 30 times or more? We can all be more sustainable with our clothes.