Sustainable luxury: Illusion or reality?
Sustainability is increasingly perceived as a crucial value both by luxury labels and consumers, but reality by no means corresponds to this idyllic picture. The surveys presented by Deutsche Bank and PwC at the Pambianco Fashion Summit, held on Wednesday in Milan, illustrated the sizeable gap existing between the good intentions of labels and consumers, and concrete actions in terms of purchasing decisions and luxury industry practices.
“Is fashion sustainable? Definitely not!” exclaimed David Pambianco, CEO of the eponymous Milanese management consulting firm, opening the debate. He reminded his audience that the fashion industry is responsible for between 8 and 10% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and for 20% of water pollution caused by industrial waste, that each year it produces half a million tons of plastic microfibre that swamps the oceans, and that 65% of the fabrics consumed in the industry are made of non-biodegradable synthetic fibres.
Given the dramatic urgency of the global warming problem, adopting a sustainable strategy has become a necessity, as shown by the social and environmental profit & loss accounting now adopted by the majority of fashion and luxury companies. However, it is a commitment whose translation into actual business practices is hard to pinpoint, and it is also difficult to decipher by consumers when they shop. In a nutshell, the fashion industry has engaged extensively with sustainable development since 2010, but it has never tackled the root of the problem: given that the business rationale is volume and market share growth, fashion and luxury cannot be sustainable by definition.
“Younger generations are increasingly sensitive to this issue, and this will lead to changes in consumer behaviour”
“We are living through a period of change. On the one hand, we are witnessing a multiplicity of initiatives by the luxury industry, but they are sporadic efforts, mostly linked with advertising. On the other, the younger generations are increasingly sensitive to this issue, and this will lead to changes in consumer behaviour, though it is early days yet,” said Francesca Di Pasquantonio, a financial analyst in charge of luxury research at Deutsche Bank. “But now the time has come to make concrete choices."
In the study Di Pasquantonio presented on Wednesday, ‘Sustainability and luxury: a complex relationship’, she underlined that “a new kind of consumer is emerging as a result of generational change, more responsible and critical in their choices of whether or not to buy one product instead of another, but also more aware and better informed, and this will inevitably drive the industry to shift towards sustainable luxury.”
Under pressure from social media and public opinion, driven by consumers who are “activists and investors,” luxury companies are gearing themselves up to introduce significant changes in the way they operate. The real challenge is striking the right balance between committing genuinely to sustainability and remaining profitable. Hence the difficulty in implementing this irreversible process, one which, according to the study, will radically transform the luxury industry's current business model.
The influence of both Generation Z, with 2.6 billion consumers, and the Millennial generation, with 2.14 billion potential customers - in other words, 64% of the world’s population - is huge. According to Deutsche Bank estimates, they will account for nearly 40% of luxury goods demand from 2020. Yet, while sustainability has a rising influence on these consumers’ behaviour, it isn’t top of the list of their purchasing parameters. “Quality, creativity, brand loyalty, and the commercial policy, history and exclusivity of a brand remain the predominant criteria,” according to Deutsche Bank. The younger generations are more responsive to sustainable fashion, while social responsibility seems to be less of an influencer for them.
New business models
On the sustainability front, young consumers are chiefly attracted by the circular economy. “For the time being, it is one of the most practical approaches to eco-sustainability,” said Di Pasquantonio. The trend for buying second-hand products and renting luxury items is fostering new business models. The former in particular has evolved from niche sector to an increasingly significant sales channel, whose revenue in 2018 was estimated at $22 billion, and is expected to grow by 12% in 2021.
The second-hand market has the highest penetration rate in France and Japan, while the phenomenon is still much more limited in China. According to Deutsche Bank, Gen Z and Millennial consumers are driving this market, with handbags and jewellery the most frequently purchased products. The market for renting is instead still in its infancy, and is mostly thriving in China.
Another strong emerging trend is that of sharing. In a survey by auditing firm PwC of over 2,000 young Italians, 3 out of 10 stated they are willing to share or rent out consumer goods, including “highly personal” ones like footwear, clothes, handbags and jewellery. And positive responses to this were twice as high from younger interviewees, like Gen Z consumers.
Personal and planetary health are a priority for over 40% of Gen Z interviewees, and for only 28% of Millennials. Nearly half (approximately 45%) of these young consumers said they are willing to pay a 5% surcharge for sustainable products. About 20% of them would accept a 10% surcharge, and less than 10% of them a 20% one. Finally, social media is their main source of information about the CSR practices of companies, with product labels ranked second, followed by advertising.
“Labelling has slipped into second place, but when it provides a thorough description of the entire supply chain it can become a genuine storytelling tool for brands, and a useful way of convincing youngsters to buy their products,” said Erika Andreetta, the survey’s author, who also underlined the rising influence of voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home. “These tools will change the purchasing behaviour of the younger generations,” she added.
With regards to storytelling and social media content, it is interesting to note that the ‘hashtag generation’ of consumers aged 14 to 28 - thus identified in a survey by tax-free shopping specialist Planet - is chiefly attracted by everything that is “revolutionary, shocking and emotional.”
“For them, a brand’s assets and heritage are less important than digital storytelling, and sometimes, more specifically, of anything a brand has published in the last 24 hours,” said Sara Bernabé, general manager Italy for Planet. Plenty for fashion and luxury labels to think about. Especially on how to make their sustainable development advertising more creative.
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