The Lap of Luxury
As featured in Issue 15 of Ethos Magazine
This feature by Eve Halliday was written for Ethos Magazine and looks at the worrying trend towards fast fashion, excess – and a throw-away culture when it comes to luxury. It’s time to challenge providers of luxury goods for greater transparency on their supply chains and put an end to the greenwashing.
At Weeva we are all about sustainability across all aspects of our business. We are committed to reducing, reusing and recycling – and we don’t just mean our waste! So, when we come across features that resonate or inspire change in publications or by authors that share our ethos and vision – we love nothing more than to share them.
Just because we pay more for a luxury item doesn’t mean the people who made it, or mined it, are being paid fairly. But the luxury market has some new challenger brands that are doing things differently, says Eve Halliday.
Luxury is timeless. Luxury is something we buy not because we need it, but because we want it. We buy luxury because we want to feel good. When we’re willing to fork out extra cash, with the higher price comes a confidence that our luxury goods, whatever they are, will be just that– luxurious.
But modern day luxury is filled with contradictions. While the word itself conjures up images of jewellery passed down through generations; tailored clothes made to last a lifetime or lotions and potions concocted with the finest natural ingredients, it’s changed in the social media age.
Now, looking at luxury brands also leads us to plain tracksuits with a designer logo slapped on the front, walk-in closets with crocodile-skin Birkin bags towering from floor to ceiling, or the newest and most lavishly-packaged cosmetics, never to be seen again after they’ve been posted on Instagram. In a world where wildfires are more and more common, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows by the day, luxury can feel like excess.
This side of luxury is one that is keeping up with a fast-paced society that swaps rapidly from one fashion trend or aesthetic to another. A top 1% has a bigger carbon footprint than the poorest 50% of the world, and savvy companies use sustainability as a marketing tool for an emerging generation that’s trying to balance being blamed for climate change with curating its own image. We can’t assume luxury brands are sustainable just because they’re not ‘fast fashion’: in 2018, The Times revealed that luxury retailer Burberry had burnt more than £28m of unwanted products in the previous year, to stop them being sold at discounted prices and preserve the exclusivity of its goods.
While luxury brands produce less (and generally higher quality items) – which means less goes to landfill, studies have shown that luxury brands have just as much impact on the planet as cheaper businesses – it’s just at the other end of the supply chain. Kering, the luxury fashion group that owns a range of brands including Gucci and Saint Laurent, released a sustainability report that found that ’75% of its total environmental impact is generated at the start of the supply chain, with 50% of the impacts being associated with raw materials production’. Frighteningly, this doesn’t even take into account whether the materials are sourced sustainably in the first place, or touching on whether they were sourced ethically.
When we get into the high end of luxury, the items become things you can’t just go and pick up off a shelf and take to the till – there are waiting lists, exclusive items kept in back rooms, and limited availabilities.
When the prices are high, we assume this means there’s enough money involved for everyone to be paid fairly, but in a world where there’s less transparency and sustainability has become a marketing tool, this can’t be guaranteed. But, as a consumer, how do we know what to look for?
Beck Prior isn’t only a creator of sustainably luxury goods, she’s a curator too. Through Prior Shop, Beck checks every brand extensively to make sure they’re as sustainable as they say they are, and that’s not an easy task…
“Sustainability is measured in so many ways and there seems to be an unresolved battle… for me, a sustainable product must be a balance of three main things: responsible material (low impact/ renewable/ recycled), responsible sourcing and manufacturing and, finally, to have a positive lifecycle (durable, timeless design and high quality craftsmanship, or a material that can be reused, recycled or composted),” says Beck. “When stocking brands, we know that it is impossible to be 100% sustainable and ethical as each individual component is sometimes very hard to trace… we ask questions about the sustainable credentials of their brand, their materials, processes and packaging, how much waste they create, and also if they have looked into the diversity and inclusion commitments of their suppliers. Often small brands trust their suppliers and get caught up with buzzwords such as ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainable’, without really checking their practice.”
The time has come to rethink luxury. It shouldn’t just be about who’s buying the products, but who is involved at every stage of the process. Brands need to think outside of affluence, Instagram posts, and profit margins. It’s time for transparency.
Surely something so ingrained in our world can be turned into a force for good, not just for those who are buying it, but those who are making it, too, and the environments involved?
It’s time, then, to turn luxury on its head – and some businesses are already getting to work…
The scent of change
And fragrance aims to redefine luxury, incorporating expertise and craftsmanship with a wholly-transparent supply chain and ethical focus. It’s working in a way that makes sure the highest quality ingredients are sourced in ways that support the environments, communities and traditional practices of the environments they come from. Founder, perfumer, and CEO Simon Constantine is using his expertise to create fragrances that help the planet, instead of harm it.
“My background is a perfumer. I worked for Lush Cosmetics for about 18 years and my focus there was as a perfumer – but also on ethical buying. I worked with the buying team there to initiate ethical projects and look at the impacts the ingredients have, so those two areas are what inspired me to create Ånd. The impetus came from an accumulation of different experiences. Working at Lush, I was very lucky to travel the world, look at different ingredients and look at all these different issues. Over time you could really see the climate change impacts on the real world, so you could see it stop being something you read about in the papers and start being real,” says Simon.
“My focus has always been threefold. One is ecological regeneration and restoration – making sure that the materials are of the planet and that the ecosystem is healthy. Then it’s looking at healthy communities as a part of that, and the key part that joins these two together is the livelihood – how do you go into that ecosystem and access it healthily, so that it enhances and increases and creates greater biodiversity and income?”
Having honed the artistry of perfume, Simon understands what luxury means for fragrances and ensures that this translates to what he creates. And’s scents, from Båre to Frånk, conjure up crisp breezes or heady opulence, designed to transport wearers to the exact environment that the ingredients came from.
“Luxury should mean ultimate benefit for everyone,” he says. “Luxury too often means a silo up into the highly wealthy, and as we’re seeing, extreme wealth is just as much of an illness as anything else now. It’s lovely if you can watch Jeff Bezos blast himself into space on a space penis, but that to me isn’t luxury. It’s about being as connected to the natural world as you can be, and developing these models of economy which really give back.”
Connection to the natural world should be a massive part of luxury. If part of luxury items is getting the best materials, shouldn’t we want them to come from beautifully maintained ecosystems that help sustain the livelihoods of the communities that rely on them? In a world that is becoming more and more industrial, a traceable link to the natural world, where the sourced products aren’t factory farmed, feels luxurious. For Ånd, this definition of luxury is at the heart of its carefully curated fragrances.
“The last trip I took with Lush was to Somaliland, and the impacts there were really shocking. You had a long period of drought, three or four years at that point, which has continued, and that led to the dying off of cattle, and of the herds that the pastoral herders relied on, so they no longer had any livelihood. These large internally displaced refugees (IDRs) no longer had their income, but were becoming an issue in terms of big camps within Somaliland needing aid and having very little access to healthcare.
“I was looking at frankincense, which is a resin that comes from a tree. You wound the tree and you get what they call ‘golden tears’ – this resin that forms on the bark. People were turning to that in increasing numbers because their livelihoods were drying up and the price of frankincense was rising. So people were cutting the trees more and more often and broke with their traditional protocol and wounded the trees too heavily and then they were dying off. Through the impacts of climate change, you’re looking at quite substantial, rapid decline in the ecosystem and that impacts people.
“One of the first fragrances that I established for Ånd was Frånk. The focus there was on frankincense and supporting a guy called Ahmed, who is growing new frankincense trees. Over Christmas we ran a For Frånks Sake campaign and the funds went to him. The other four fragrances equally have a very strong ethical focus. There are hero ingredients, but the idea is exactly the same behind each one – linking to the ecosystem in a positive way and making sure that you’re having an overall benefit to the planet.
“The nice thing about perfume is that it’s a very physical and intimate way for you to be connected. If it’s tonka from the Amazon, it is literally tonka from the Amazon, and you’re wearing that on your skin, so it’s a very personal connection.”
Ethics with elegance
Can you get much more luxurious than beautifully designed jewellery? Mamater began life in 2018 after founder, designer and CEO Marilyne Kekeli had a self-proclaimed Eat, Pray, Love moment and decided to move away from her work in finance and strategy consultancy for big brands like Prada, and begin creating jewellery. With pieces inspired from the art she encountered in her childhood spent in the Gulf of Guinea, to the movements of animals, lights, and shadows, Mamater’s vision is to deliver timeless luxury that’s created lovingly, with ethics in mind.
“I knew when I was 20 I wanted to do work that was actually going to be of benefit to people,” she says. “I’ve always been someone who, even when I was little, was annoyed by things being unjust… it was kind of a given that my business was going to be something that doesn’t exploit others, but one that tries to bring something to the conversation.
“I’m originally from Togo, a country next to Ghana that is one of the countries where you find gold in the wild. I’ve seen and experienced people working in the jewellery trade. I’ve seen how they’re living, and the standard of living that they have, and when you compare that to jewellers and the life a jeweller would live in a country like the UK, you see a complete dichotomy between the source of the product, where people live in absolutely terrible conditions sometimes. You see the people who mine and dig in the soul living in absolutely atrocious conditions, and then you see the lavishly dressed characters that are living in some of the best addresses in the world.
You start asking yourself questions about the supply chain, about the people doing the work that is indispensable for us to even have an industry; how come they are so poor when others in the sector are so rich? That’s where I started thinking about how this needs to be something that brings something different to the conversation.”
Through Mamater, Marilyne is bringing transparency to the forefront. The biggest issue she sees facing the jewellery business is rooted in the very beginning of the supply chain, and consumers not understanding the true story behind the materials. Stories are emerging about jewellery brands claiming to be ethical or sustainable through the use of recycled metals, but these metals can’t be traced, so again there’s no way for consumers to know if they’ve been sourced ethically. For Marilyne, it’s all about letting consumers in on the stories of the supply, from start to finish.
“When manufacturing a pair of earrings or a ring, you’ve got the beginning of the train. You’ve got the raw products, you’ve got the metal, those digging it out of the ground. Then you’ve got the first layer, which is when the product transforms, so you see small bits coming from the ground and them turned into bars. You’ve got a question around the mining practices of sourcing that product from the ground, the practical reality is that the majority of mines in the world are informal mines, so they’re not so structured. You don’t have as much money round there. People are paid very little money, so unless they do it at a very big scale with a very big conglomerate, it’s actually not a very profitable business, it’s a very tough business. People need a lot of infrastructure to pay people fairly or to ensure that they’re not using materials which are polluting, so it’s a very small means for them to do that. That’s the first problem.
“Then you start looking at the transformation. Firstly, the transformation often happens in developing countries where, again, they don’t have enough money for people to be able to change things. That’s why I’m really interested in ethical practices. If you were able to pay people more fairly at every stage of the manufacturing process, then you’ve got more chance of having a green supply chain. People actually have the means to not pollute, so they have the means to use things that aren’t bad for the environment or for their own health, because they can afford them. What often happens is that they have to produce the product at a very low cost because they’re getting pressure from intermediaries to squeeze it, because they want to maximise profit.
“The second element – and I can say this now after three years in business – is the reality is few customers truly care about being sustainable. If you truly, truly cared about sustainable products, you would be willing to spend a bit more money on it, to buy something that’s ethical from end-to-end and that’s fully visible. You need to pay a few more people fairly to have that product, so you need to be happy to pay a little bit more and buy less.”
As an insider in the luxury industry, Marilyne has seen firsthand that the money we spend on luxury items doesn’t go to those in the supply chain in the first instance. When the prices are higher, we assume this means there’s enough money for everyone to be paid fairly – but when there’s no transparency this can’t be guaranteed. It’s not as simple as seeing the price and assuming everyone is paid fairly. Behind the scenes, most of the money we spend on luxury goods goes to the company to be spent on marketing, merchandising, and distributing, whether the brand is big or small.
“To be featured in a department store, you often have to pay hundreds of pounds a month whether you make sales or not, in order for you to sustain that,” says Marilyne. “The result is that brands mark up their products to a high level in order to stay in the department store and sell and have that image. That’s the tricky bit, because when you’re trying to focus on transparency and ethical pay, the answers are in conflict.”
This is where luxury markups come into play. As Marilyne observes, people want fancy packaging and an upscale shopping experience, and this is where we see the major markups.“I was in a department store last week, I like to go and see all the brands. I saw a nylon ring – that’s plastic – sold for £250,” she notes with a laugh.
“If you work with a really good manufacturer, a plastic ring is probably what £5, £6, to actually manufacture. That’s being sold for £250, so that gives you an idea of the kind of markups we’re talking about. That’s the reality. That brand can’t be transparent with its pricing, because what’s it going to say, ‘oh yeah, it costs £5-6 pounds to make that ring’? That’s the problem in jewellery – people don’t understand the materials. Yes, this is a really good ring. It looks flashy. From a design perspective it’s very pretty, but it doesn’t cost that much to make. It would be so easy for me to say I’m not an ethical brand, I’m just making beautiful jewellery – then I could make that nylon ring and put that markup on it!”
For Simon and Marilyne, the work doesn’t stop here. Through Ånd and Mamater, both are hoping to inspire conversations around sustainability and ethics in the luxury sector.
When we speak at the end of July, Simon is in a very exciting location. “At the moment I’m in a walled garden space down in Dorset that we’ve opened to the public. The idea is that we can talk to people in a safe environment and unpack things around climate change and offer courses as well, so I’m hoping to create places that accelerate changes at a greater rate.”
The space is Carey’s Secret Garden, a space hidden among the rolling hills of the Isle of Purbeck, that was left untouched for 40 years. What was once an overgrown space littered with rubbish is now being transformed with edible hedgerows, fruit trees, roses and flowers, as well as a vegetable and herb garden. Through Carey’s, Simon and the volunteers are holding events that get people talking about climate change in nature itself.
As for Marilyne, there are big things in store for Mamater and for the people in her supply chains.
“I’m looking to increase transparency in terms of pricing and products. I’ve seen the behind- the-scenes, in terms of the markups – the way there is a complete lack of balance in terms of how much people are paid versus how much things actually cost.”
And for the luxury sector as a whole? If brands like Ånd and Mamater keep doing the important work they’re doing, it’ll be a more sustainable and ethical place in the future. Luxury can become a force for good, for everyone and everywhere it touches.
First published in October 2021 in Ethos Magazine
Weeva stands firmly for ethical business practices and believes in fair-trade journalism. This article has been syndicated and paid for with kind permission of Ethos Magazine.