Champagne Scruples: Luxury and Ethics

16/11/2017 13:35:45

Patagonia is an especially unforgiving and expansive wilderness in South America. It’s also the name of an eminent outdoor clothing brand that, over the past decade, has tripled its profits under CEO Rose Marciano, taking around $600 million in revenues during 2013 (according to ‘sexy business’ mag Fast Company).

Patagonia is a technical clothing manufacturer, and its high-spec products often conflict with environmental values. The waterproofing chemicals used on its jackets cause havoc when they get in the water table, for instance. But the company ‘owned’ these issues by publishing online articles that were written on the basis of ‘extreme transparency’, listing exactly how its clothes damaged the environment and what it was doing to improve that. At the time many corporate leaders, including Marciano who arrived at the company in 2008, thought this was bonkers. Ten years – and all those new profits – on, the business world at large is flirting with Patagonia’s ‘ethical luxury’ values. Especially the travel sector.

But ‘eco-lodges’ and even some particular success stories, such as community-embedded celebrity favourite Jakes’ Resort in Jamaica, have been around for a while. Long enough, in fact, to prompt some voices to wonder if consumers really do prefer values, to value.

Why has ‘ethical luxury’ really begun to take off now? Insight and strategy consultant Sean Pillot de Chenecy says, “The stereotypical 'ethical consumer’ and ‘luxury consumer’ were essentially at different ends of the branding spectrum for years. But what some people used to dismiss as ‘worthy but second-rate offerings’ are being surpassed by an ever-growing number of brands, products and experiences where ‘ethical’ and ‘first class’ are aligned.”

Former Mr and Mrs Smith editor-in-chief Juliet Kinsman’s new project is Bouteco, a travel content resource that “Works with eco-hotels, but we’re very specifically looking at the hotels that have beautiful design and style, too.” In Britain, she cites The Scarlet in Cornwall – gold rated by Green Tourism and firmly entrenched in the Condé Nast Traveller UK Top 20 – as a good example of how to make an eco-hotel work as a business.

Juliet also lauds gestures such as The Zetter in London’s bore hole that sinks almost a mile below the building, providing toilet flushes and cooling, and banning single-use plastic such as drinking straws. These are notable especially because they prove that you doesn’t have to go ‘all out eco’ and completely revolutionise your business at vast expense.

Juliet’s co-founder in the venture is writer Holly Tuppen. She believes that the drive for ‘ethical luxury’ is a by-product of Airbnb’s disruption of the travel market, that’s demanded innovation in the hotel sector itself.

“Sustainability is a trend but also a necessity,” says Holly, “If this is not done, tourism taxes may need to apply because there is an increased risk of destroying unique paradises, or even for ski resorts not to have snow due to the climate change. In addition, sustainability allows hotels to provide a unique experience, and consumers to forge an authentic connection with the destination.”

Tom Kendall’s Wayward is the go-to organisation for ‘greenspace developments.’ It’s worked for kids’ retailer Petit Bateau, Selfridges, and Google Campus plus it created the Market Hall social space at London’s Borough Market.

“I grew up on a farm and I’ve seen people’s minds change about food culture, and now design culture as well,” he says, “If ‘ethical luxury’ is a paradox now, it won’t be in two to three years. Think how much solar panel roof tiles have improved and become popular over the past decade.”

Tom is realistic about consumers’ motivations: “I don’t mind that some people are wanting to buy their ethics, and I’m sure there’s a percentage for whom ethical travel is about Instagram posts too. But a good brand, hotel, or restaurant will exploit that as well.”

Tom’s praises ‘farm to fork’, the policy of restaurants and hotels growing their own ingredients, as an especially strong ethical policy, because of the “overall impact for education – it introduces adult learning such as basic DiY and design skills, let alone farming and gardening.” And if you really want to make a grand gesture to sustainability that could never be dubbed ‘greenwashing’, Tom has a suggestion.

“We made a hydroponic waterfall for Selfridges that I’d like to rebuild on a large scale,” he admits, which would certainly bring an element of ‘ethical luxury’ to your infinity pool.

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