Apr 2, 2012
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Paris show bets on green, fair luxury

Apr 2, 2012

PARIS - Luxury and sustainable development may sound like polar opposites, but green pioneers gathered at a Paris show at the weekend were betting on a cleaner, fairer future for the industry.

Photo: 1.618 Sustainable Luxury

Created in 2010, the four-day Paris event, dubbed "1.618 Sustainable Luxury", brought together some 40 firms, inventors and foundations, that aim to reconcile luxury with ethics and environmental good practice.

One of these was Bruno Pieters, a Belgian fashion designer who in January launched Honest by, billed as the world's first wholly transparent company.

Color-coded as organic, vegan, recycled or European, each garment on its website comes with reams of data on the origin of its materials, right down to the buttons, on its manufacture, cost breakdown and carbon footprint.

"Just because something is expensive doesn't mean it is good," explained the 36-year-old Pieters. "I wanted to create a brand that I would buy - to be able to shop in a conscious way with 100-percent guarantees."

With clothes - his own creations or sourced from partner firms - priced at hundreds of euros apiece, Pieters rejects the label "eco-fashion" as unsuited to his target - the high end of the market.

"You don't buy a product because it's green, you buy it because you love it," he told AFP.

From designer fashion to jewellery, design or tourism, luxury firms are under rising scrutiny from pressure groups demanding traceability on raw materials, and transparency on manufacturing conditions and environmental impact.

"Sustainability is about people, planet and profit," innovation consultant Francois Prevost told a debate at the show. "The luxury world is very good at one of the three pillars - profit - but needs more work on the other two!"

Just how much do luxury consumers care how their handbags, wristwatches or yachts are made?

In the West, at least, the answer is rather a lot, according to a survey of French luxury consumers commissioned by Jean-Noel Kapferer of the HEC business school, unveiled at the fair.

He discovered a yawning gap between what consumers expect of luxury brands - and how they judge their performance.

Seventy percent said the sector should be showing the way on sustainability, given the prices it commands, according to the survey of 966 luxury consumers carried out by the pollster BVA in February.

Yet 52 percent thought the luxury industry was lagging in terms of sustainability, and 44 percent that it was wasteful.

China could follow West's return to 'real luxury'

What of the view from emerging markets, most notably China, which are key to the sector's booming growth?

For Anne Ponsard-Delliere, head of international marketing at Richemont, the Swiss luxury group behind such brands as Chloe and Cartier, in China and Brazil the ferocious appetite for luxury goods trumps concerns over how they are made.

But she believes China's rising green awareness, and its appetite for "authenticity", could see it follow Europe and the United States away from prestige-driven mass luxury, and back to a "real luxury" built on precious materials and exquisite craft.

For the fair's organiser Barbara Coignet, many luxury consumers worldwide need to be sold on sustainable luxury, which "has to prove that it is still exciting, glamorous and fun."

"There no point telling someone to stop driving a polluting sportscar if you haven't got a desirable alternative to offer" - like the BMW concept sportscar on display at the fair.

Parts of the luxury sector face real hurdles to sustainability, Coignet said, like jewellery which is limited by the small number of ethically-run mines, the hotel business with water management, or fashion with pollution from dyes.

Tourism faces the biggest challenge of all since "the reality is there is no non-polluting alternative to air travel," she said.

Richemont and the French giants PPR or LVMH, the world's top three luxury groups, have all set wide-ranging sustainability targets, be it on sourcing, packaging, transport, or energy use.

Yet at the Paris show they were conspicuously absent from the exhibitor's hall-- although PPR's Francois-Henri Pinault did call in on opening night.

"Some luxury groups will be very active in one field, on the environment, say, but not so good on labour practices," said Coignet. "If they trumpet what they are doing right, they are afraid to be attacked on what they are not doing - and accused of 'greenwashing'."

According to Kapferer, analysts have started to factor corporate social responsibility into their assessment of luxury firms - reasoning that doing nothing risks harming their most valuable asset, their brand image.

At the end of the day, he said, "sustainable development will come about through pressure from the people who count - NGOs, celebrities and financial analysts."

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