2011 marks an exciting year in luxury goods. After years of being singled out for lackluster social and environmental performance, luxury brands are recognizing the benefits of going green, and are starting to talk about it. Backtrack four years ago to the release of WWF-UK’s analysis of the luxury goods industry, and things looked bleak. For example, Tiffany scored a D+, PPR a D, and L’Oréal a C+.
This year, Tiffany launched its well-received sustainability website, detailing the responsible business practices that have made it a sector leader. PPR unveiled the first complete annual environmental profit and loss account for its brand Puma, committing to extend the practice to all of its brands, including iconic luxury houses Gucci, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta by 2015. Finally, L’Oréal pleasantly surprised more than just one sustainability expert at its inaugural global stakeholder forums this year.
Like other business sectors, luxury brands still face a lion’s share of challenges. In September, the Ethical Consumer Research Association (ECRA) in the U.K. lambasted leading designer clothing companies in its special report Style Over Substance, at the height of the “killer” sandblasted jeans problem involving brands such as Armani and Dolce & Gabanna.
For sure, there’s a lot of work to be done.
However, in reading the ECRA report, many companies received criticism for lack of available information, and ECRA assumed the worst. Dig a little deeper and I’m convinced that better things are brewing beneath the surface. Secrecy, after all, is a hallmark of the industry, which protects its craftsmanship and its margins like a mother bird her eggs.
I used to manage wholesale at Chanel, one of the most coveted brands out there (and one of the most searched for names on the internet). Online videos will take you backstage at December’s Paris-Bombay runway show, but you’d be hard-pressed to find much corporate information on this very private company.
Because of their glamorous role front and center, we expect the best from luxury brands (and that creates a special risk for them if customer perception of good business doesn’t match reality). But, as luxury brands begin conversations around sustainability, they face the same challenges as their non-luxury counterparts.
How do you communicate on your sustainability journey, essentially a work in progress, without becoming a target for criticism or losing control of the dialogue? How does a corporate executive support sustainable consumption while meeting ever-increasing sales targets? How do you talk to customers about your green or social initiatives without detracting from key brand messages?
Since I don’t have the space here to discuss all these questions, I’ll focus on that last one, i.e., how do you talk to customers about your social initiatives without detracting from key brand messages?
The question of how to communicate on CSR themes to customers comes up frequently with my consulting clients these days. Fortunately, luxury brands have the potential to excel in this arena. They know how to create universes – whether that’s stores, fashion shows, websites or ads – which are on brand, make you dream, aspire, and ignite all your senses.
First, let’s start with a CSR-focused ad campaign gone a little wrong.
Italian leather and fashion house Ferragamo pioneered eco-luxe in 2007, with the launch of a small collection of bags made of natural, metal-free leather. This year, it launched the Ferragamo World collection, with 5 percent of proceeds going to the vanguard Acumen Fund. What a great partnership, but what a bad ad.
I fear the message “Ferragamo supports socially responsible initiatives,” doesn’t quite translate to fashion magazine readers. It’s classic and trite CSR-speak and worse for the fashion conscious, too sensible, therefore, boring (if readers even understand what the brand is referring to).
A lot like the loafer in the picture.
With sky-colored writing and plain Jane loafers, Ferragamo falls into a cliché green ghetto that probably won’t appeal to its customers.
So what does work?
A subtle mix of function and form: The function part is about getting the messaging right. What will your customers understand and associate with? Many times, you don’t even need a lot of words, as the right picture can be worth a thousand. Louis Vuitton’s campaigns featuring Edun founders Bono and Ali Hewson or Angelina Jolie make saving the world look adventurous and glamorous. Whether or not you quite agree, that resonates in a way boring and sensible doesn’t.
The form is about sticking to your brand’s DNA.
Customers are drawn to brands in part for the sensibilities, the values and the aesthetics they display. Whether you’re talking about sustainability or launching a new product, speaking the language of your brand ensures impact and coherency.
A new ad for the Seamaster watch by Swiss watchmaker Omega features stunning ocean photography and an engaging quote by astronaut Buzz Aldrin. It turns out Omega supports GoodPlanet and has created an initiative to focus on ocean preservation.
Good initiatives don’t necessarily make for a sustainable company. But many luxury brands are off to a good start. If they can make sustainability as sexy as a new pair of stilettos, then 2012 could be a memorable vintage.
Next: Sanford Lewis asks whether 2012 will be the year the SRI community occupies 'Personhood'.
2011 in Retrospect: CSR & Sustainability News, Views and Trends
Part 1: CSR in the News