Opinion / 12.09.16

Luxury x Climate Change: Future Thinking vs The Fear

This article was originally published in Hudson Walker / Opinion.


The very survival of luxury fashion will likely depend on its ability to adapt to climate change and its consequences on the environment, yet most major players don’t yet seem to be taking any significant steps towards innovation in their supply chains – it’s a perplexing paradox.

 
 

Late last year, as the UN’s global climate change conference COP21 roared into action in Paris, luxury conglomerate Kering and BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) released a joint report which sent ripples through the luxury industry.

The paper, titled “Climate Change: Implications and Strategies for the Luxury Fashion Sector” aimed to help luxury fashion brands, and the fashion industry more broadly, understand and respond to their specific climate change risks, and identified areas of weakness in supply chains vital to their survival.

The unanimous conclusion was that climate change is and will continue to affect the fashion industry in ways that most businesses to date seem wholly unprepared for and luxury – due to its reliance on specific, high-quality raw materials –  is particularly susceptible.

More specifically – as recently pointed out by Megan Logue of leading designer platform Not Just A Label (NJAL) – materials such as cashmere, vicuna, silk, and lamb leather are climate-sensitive and are also derived from production systems that have a limited geographical spread. Thus, being able to source materials only from a few suppliers, in a few locations, makes the luxury supply chain extremely vulnerable to climate shocks.

“The fashion business model is broken and we urgently need to find alternatives”
 
 

Yes, a handful of luxury labels have recently sworn off fur (Hugo Boss and Armani for example), and yes, companies such as Hermès do have niche fashion lines (such as ‘petit h’) created to cater to the eco-friendly component of their customer base. However, as Europe’s largest independent sustainability and social responsibility brand-comparison website Rank A Brand stated in its assessment of luxury fashion brands, Hermès achieved the “lowest possible sustainability score, with fellow luxury fashion labels – such as Chloé, Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Fendi, Marc Jacobs and DKNY – given the same, low rating. Most Kering brands (Gucci, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen) scored only slightly higher.

These overall low ratings, systematically bestowed upon the biggest luxury fashion players year-after-year, combined with the fact that the increasingly rapacious cultivation and processing of the rare, raw materials they use are further harming our planet, are a major cause for concern.

It’s clear that far more needs yet to be done for luxury to truly become – not just ethical, not just sustainable, but environmentally conscious and genuinely self-sufficient.

But – environmental damages aside – it is also baffling that many key luxury players still don’t seem to be genuinely preparing for the effects that climate change will ultimately have on their actual business operations and bottom line.

In a world where raw materials are becoming scarcer, and consumers are simultaneously becoming more savvy when it comes to sustainability and more aware about what their fashion choices are costing the planet, this slow reaction to the rapidly shifting environment doesn’t bode well for luxury’s survival.

So, rather than flog a dead horse and lecture the luxury fashion industry on climate change – let’s look towards the future.

As Safia Minney MBE, founder and CEO of eco-fashion brand People Tree proclaimed in the documentary ‘The True Cost’: “The fashion business model is broken and we urgently need to find alternatives”. I agree.

 
 

When it comes to combatting the effects of climate change on raw materials which are core to the luxury fashion industry, rather than joining the frenzy to secure producers of rare raw materials in some sort of high-end monopoly (Eg. Chanel bet big and acquired four French silk specialists, all in the vicinity of Lyon, France, an historic centre for high-end fabric production in July this year) , I would love to see luxury fashion companies tackling ways to reduce the carbon footprint further. They could start by investing in advanced, sustainable technologies on a larger scale, which could simultaneously guarantee unlimited supply and give our planet and its resources a chance to recover.

Stem-cell leather technologies, for example, are an alternative which could well swing into mass production by 2017, if the advances made by innovative players, such as Brooklyn-based startup Modern Meadow are anything to go by.  The company, founded in 2011, has dedicated its operations to “unlocking the capabilities of nature to solve our biggest sustainability challenges” by developing the technology to turn living cells into materials used to make leather that mimics animal hide.  Since its inception, Modern Meadow has raised over $40 million (with PayPal as a key investor) in its bid to become a top source of leather for the world’s makers of fashion and accessories, luggage, sporting goods, upholstery and furniture.

As TechCrunch points out: “One main challenge Modern Meadow still faces will be to make its bio-fabricated leather not just an attractive option, but an affordable one for the mass market.”

“Revolutionising supply chains to make them more resilient and sustainable is no doubt costly, but the alternative could be far worse”

However, with sales of leather goods expected to hit $91.2 billion globally by 2018, the motivation is there, and the company’s recent boost in funding means it could soon be an extremely appealing alternative to the natural and synthetic options that exist today.

Silk is another raw material, key to the production of garments in most luxury fashion houses which is severely under threat from rising temperatures, with climate change firmly at the root of the fall in natural silk production over the years.

In response, US company Bolt Threads has taken to developing new technology to replicate the silk production process sustainably, on a large scale for everyday use, and at a commercially viable cost via yeast engineering.

The start-up, founded by three PhD students in 2009, announced a new round of funding to the tune of US$50 million earlier this year, and recently signed a deal with adventure apparel brand Patagonia to further develop the company’s fabric.

The new process avoids the unpredictability of the natural production process, and the material can be tailored to have desired qualities.

Other companies – such as Japanese startup Spiber and German company Amsilk which is developing commercial grade spider silk – are also innovating in the same vein, so there’s no shortage of options for luxury companies willing to take the leap into a more sustainable future for survival.

And while it is true that acclimatising customers to the idea of buying garments from these types of novel materials may take some time, and revolutionising supply chains to make them more resilient and sustainable is no doubt costly, arguably the alternative could be far worse.

“There’s no shortage of options for luxury companies willing to take the leap into a more sustainable future for survival”
 
 

Climate change is upon us, and the effects are already being felt across industries and all over the globe, so it is less of a risk than pure common sense.

We already know that businesses which do not have contingency plans and prepare for the future fall behind, and those who have not been able to adapt to rapidly changing markets and consumer preferences ultimately crumble. The moral of this story is, therefore: adapt or die. There is no time left for tip-toeing into new territories with trepidation – the luxury conglomerates are huge ships to turn around, so they need to start significantly changing their directions now.

Besides, fashion as an industry has always prided itself on being cutting edge, so particularly for those luxury labels that define the seasons and have always been catalysts of change, perhaps now is the time to take the leap into a truly new frontier, one which can simultaneously propel their businesses to new heights and significantly contribute to the continued survival of our planet.

The tide is turning, so the time is now, and if salvaging what is left of our fragile world and its resources isn’t enough motivation to take action, then the long-term, bottom-line benefits for businesses who become more adaptable, socially-appealing, sustainable and ultimately resilient to our changing world and consumer preferences, should be.

Carpe diem luxury – tick, tock, the choice is yours.


Words / Daniela Aroche
Photos / Rhodri Jones

This article was originally commissioned by Hudson Walker.