Climate Changers is an original transmedia series brought to you by What We Seee exploring the views and voices shaping diverse issues facing people, the planet, companies, our present and future. A forum to share and discuss the ideas that are radically changing how we see the world and each other.

The world is facing a climate emergency, and the luxury sector is not shying away from this. Luxury brands, thought-leaders and innovators tackled this critical topic at the London Luxury Think Tank this month. The June 2019 event hosted at Spring Studios was created by the French Chamber of Commerce in Great Britain and Walpole, the official sector body for UK luxury.

As an event partner, What We Seee had the unique opportunity to ask speakers “what significant behaviour could luxury brands STOP doing, which may be internally challenging or have negative commercial consequence but would have massive social or environmental benefits?”

Within their answers, two major themes presented themselves. The first was how the production side of luxury needs to drastically change – more sustainable materials, less waste and more transparency. The second is for brands to leave behind traditional thinking and cater to a new demand.

Part One – Materials, Overproduction & Waste

Read Part Two – New Schools of Thought

Many of the points voiced by the speakers echoed the major sustainability headlines of 2018. Issues of overproduction highlighted by Burberry’s burning of £28 million worth of stock; the proliferation of new materials, such as vegan leather and Piñatex; and the wider sense that sustainability had moved to centre ground.

Aligning supply and demand as a matter of urgency.

Dead stock and waste were recurring topics across the board. The misalignment between supply and demand was viewed as the overriding issue facing the fashion industry today.

“Waste for the fashion industry is one of the biggest challenges that we have,” explained Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council. “[We must] think about the materials used, the labelling, the opportunity to recycle, up-cycle and of course the over- production.”

Caroline Rush British Fashion Counci

Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council.

Comments by Tom Meggle, Founder and CEO of luxury brand consultancy Momentom 8 chimed with those of Rush, particularly in his discussion of pre-production.

“The problem is really about the whole merchandising flow. If production was tailored to demand and time to market would be shorter which today is feasible, the over production would be definitely easy to reduce.”

McKinsey reported in 2016 that the clothing industry “continues to pump out a swelling inventory; each year, north of 100 billion new garments from virgin fibres are pushed onto the market.”

According to Meggle, there is currently only an average of 50 to 60 per cent sell-through on certain collections. He asks the industry why should a Vuitton, Chanel or Gucci item of a year ago be discounted by 60 or 80 per cent? Rather he says it is about finding creative solutions to increase sell-through to 80 to 90 per cent.

Tom Meggle, Founder & Director, Momentom 8

One solution offered by Stephen Lussier of Chairman Executive Vice-President, De Beers Group was effective data management as a key means of tackling this overproduction.

“Really investing in ways in which we can understand much more accurately consumer demand to make sure we produce the right thing, at the right time for the right purpose with as little waste as possible,” said Lussier. “If you have accurate data on precisely what is selling, and where to, then you can hone your production, and that is a big win for everyone.”

Others pointed to the need for an EU-wide policy on dead stock, such as London-based activist, blogger and model Doina Ciobanu. “Destroying stock has now been banned by the French government, but within the EU it’s easy to cross a border and move your production elsewhere. I think policies need to be stricter and EU-wide or even global.”

Doina Ciobanu

Doina Ciobanu, model, influencer & environmental activist

Rethinking raw materials and sourcing

A change behaviour is crucial with respondents calling on the use of more sustainable materials and a greater emphasis on localised production.

“About 60% of the environmental impact of a product in the premium luxury industry in fashion comes from raw materials,” said Nina Marenzi, Founder and Director of The Sustainable Angle, a not-for-profit initiative that supports projects which contribute to minimising the environmental impact of industry and society.

Marenzi stressed the need for a complete overhaul of raw materials. “No longer using conventional cotton or generic viscose are obvious ones. A lot of brands already doing this and it’s time to communicate that so that others can follow. Consumers also need to be educated on why these materials have a lower environmental impact.”

Nina Marenzi – Founder and Director, The Sustainable Angle

Other topics left mostly unexplored in the responses were raised by Ciobanu who discussed a shift to more locale production. “It would be perfect for every single market for the pieces that they know will be sold in their market to be produced locally.” This would lead to less transport of stock and the associated co2 emissions from that and everything else that comes into the logistics of foreign production.

Working together for change

Open communication and transparency between brands is another important step identified by Michael Beutler, the Sustainability Operations Director at Kering explained.

“I think the biggest concept around this for luxury companies is in regards to open sourcing. I think it is really important to start to share solutions like we do at Kering because, as a society, we have a finite amount of resources and it is essential that luxury brands work together, which is what we are trying to do with the G7 and the fashion pact right now. To lead not just the luxury sector but also fashion brands in general to collaborate around the key topics in sustainability.”

Michael Beutler, Sustainability Operations Director at Kering

Changing behaviours is crucial for the future of luxury who according to Rush is selling a dream. “The idea of a product going into landfill, or even being massively discounted, takes away from the culture, storytelling and value in products,” said Rush.

Managing Director of French Chamber of Great Britain Florence Gomez cited brands like Gucci and Stella McCartney as being pioneers in the sustainability arena, noticing a shift in the industry as a whole.

“There has been a lot of progress over the years in every sector of activity but particularly in the luxury sector,” said Gomez. “I think it is quite obvious that Maisons like Kering, Gucci, Stella McCartney and many others are being followed as many luxury brands realise now that it is no longer a – it is being triggered by the consumers that have different expectations from what they used to have even 5, 10 years ago.”

Florence Gomez. Managing Director, The French Chamber.

Florence Gomez. Managing Director, The French Chamber.

Rachel Arthur of Current Global underlined the idea that luxury brands are primed to trail-blaze sustainability initiatives. Talking of culpability, Arthur argued that “being at the top of the funnel, luxury has a responsibility in terms of consumer awareness and recognition.”

Rachel Arthur is Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the Current Global

Rachel Arthur, Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the Current Global

According to Robert Skinner, Executive Director – United Nation Office for Partnerships, many companies are working towards positive changes, but he explained that it needs to be an across-the-board effort to have the real impact needed. Luxury brands are in a strong position to encourage this change of behaviours.

“Luxury brands can lead because they are the brands that people want to be associated with,” said Skinner. “If they are demonstrating they are taking this on seriously in a real way and not in a way that’s superficial or artificial – and can demonstrate that, they can be the leaders in business.”

Robert Skinner, Executive Director at UN Office for Partnerships

Robert Skinner, Executive Director at UN Office for Partnerships

Global VP Sustainability at Swarovski Dax Lovegrove summarised it well. “We need to talk about is who is making our products, how are they being treated, how can we communicate that story much better than we are today, how can we bring sustainability and break it down for the customer and make it simple, let’s talk about the environmental things we are striving to do and how we are looking after people.”

Dax Lovegrove, Global Vice President Corporate Sustainability & Social Responsibility at Swarovski

Dax Lovegrove, Global Vice President Corporate Sustainability & Social Responsibility at Swarovski

Read Part Two – New Schools of Thought

With notes from Emily White