Opinion: Why Supporting Sustainability Is Key For The Luxury Industry

LVMH’s latest move to partner with designer Stella McCartney signalled a wider move in the luxury industry to support sustainability and make it aspirational. Brands, both big and small, luxury and mass, will have to follow suit, explains Diana Verde Nieto.

Sustainability often seems like a high street buzzword, the antithesis to the perils of fast fashion that so often dominate the conversation. But when luxury brands announce moves that solidify their commitments to sustainability, we’re reminded that this is the segment of the market that makes the biggest waves.

Stella McCartney’s deal with LVMH is the latest piece of that news, and it represents a big shift for both. Up until March of last year, luxury giant Kering owned a 50 percent stake in McCartney’s eponymous label, and it was a place that nurtured the designer’s values – she avoided textiles like leather and fur, and opted for eco-friendly designs, like her glue-free trainers.

Even so, after 17 years with Kering, McCartney decided to buy their half of her brand back, stating that she was keen to have complete control. By all accounts, it appeared to be an amicable split, and it makes sense that McCartney would want to be the primary owner of her brand. It bears her name, after all. And when I think of that name, I think about the designer’s commitment to both luxury and sustainability in equal parts.

Since she launched her label in 2001, long before sustainability had taken off the way it has now, she translated her vegetarian habits into ones she could apply to her clothing and accessories. That meant respecting animals and the planet through every step of her supply chain, and it all lead her brand to become the gold standard in conscious, high-end fashion. Even so, she’s not often politically outspoken, letting her brand’s actions and its mission and do the talking.

And the latest action for Stella McCartney is partnering with LVMH. The fashion conglomerate is both taking ownership of 10 percent of McCartney’s business, and naming her a special adviser on sustainable development policies to the head of the company, Bernard Arnault. This is a bold move for LVMH – not so much the acquisition of part of McCartney’s business, but the appointment as an advisor to Arnault to have the “Stella effect” run through all the Houses within the group.

This is a true partnership where collaboration and know-how transcend beyond the ownership of a minority stake of a luxury house. For LVMH, this partnership is quite clearly about highlighting LVMH’s commitment to sustainability, and keeping up with the growing consumer trends towards knowing exactly what it took to make the pieces of clothing they’re buying. McCartney is heralded as one of the first designers to champion ethical production, after all, so who better to put their name behind?

LVMH isn’t new to sustainability, though. More than a dozen of their brands including Louis VuittonKrug ChampagneBelvedere Vodka and Gabriella Hearst have Positive Luxury’s seal of approval – the Butterfly Mark – after all. Taking Stella McCartney on is another way for them to reaffirm their long-term dedication to sustainability.

Arnault made it quite clear that one of the drives for the acquisition was “that [McCartney] was the first to put sustainability and ethical issues on the front stage, very early on, and built her house around these constraints. It emphasises LVMH Groups’ commitment to sustainability.”

LVMH and Kering aren’t the only luxury conglomerates focussing on sustainability – it is a smart business move that’s good for the planet, after all. L’Oréal, with stand-out brands like BiothermYSL Beauty and Kiehl’s, has reduced the carbon emissions of their plants by 77 percent since 2005, and 79 percent of the products they launched last year have an improved social or environmental profile. Richemont, another major luxury player behind brands like IWC SchaffhausenBaume and Montblanc, obtains more than 95 percent of their gold and diamonds from sources that are Responsible Jewellery Council-certified.

With massive conglomerates putting their money behind these kinds of initiatives, and partnerships with brands like Stella McCartney, supports the fact that the luxury market as a whole is valuing sustainability and making it aspirational. And it highlights the idea that doing more when it comes to protecting the planet will be a driver for business. Brands, both big and small, luxury and mass, will have to follow suit.

Consumers are demanding this shift, too. According to research conducted by management consultancy Bain & Co, 89 percent of consumers expect brands to publicly communicate their sustainable actions, especially in the luxury sector, and 56 percent see social and environmental impact as a mainstream, cross-generational issue – it’s not just about what millennials want anymore. As consumers become more and more aware of the detrimental effects that fashion can have on the environment, their habits are clearly shifting to support brands that recognise these facts. That means authenticity, transparency and communication are more important than ever before.

The conversation about sustainability often leads to one about mass production from fast fashion companies, ripping trends from the runways and churning them out at the lowest cost possible. But the luxury market has an equally important, if not more important, role to play. As designers produce the clothing that will influence seasonal trends, so too can they influence the way that clothing is produced.

When luxury brands like LVMH take measured steps that acknowledge this power they have, it shows that they understand the value of sustainability both from a business perspective and from an ethical one. Consumers want beautiful clothing and accessories, but they don’t want them at the expense of the planet’s future, and the fashion industry has to fall in line. Stella McCartney knows this, and evidently, so does LVMH.