One of the defining consumerist trends of the 21st Century has been an increased interest in the provenance of the goods we consume. Typically it manifests in a desire for locally-sourced food, organic produce or in more extreme cases ensuring that clothing or electronics are not made in conditions that are dangerous or exploitative to workers.
This trend also extends to luxury assets and is the driving force behind the ‘ethical luxury’ movement spearheaded by Diana Verde Nieto, a sustainability consultant. Her company, Positive Luxury, awards a ‘Butterfly Mark’ to brands that meet certain criteria to do with sustainability, philanthropy and social awareness. Over 200 brands such as Alexander McQueen, Hennessy, Krug, Kiehl’s and Dior currently work with the company to carry their mark of approval (seen above) and reassure consumers that the brand acts responsibly and ethically.
The movement implores companies to think of the ‘triple bottom line’, that is to measure their impact beyond financial terms and to consider the social and environmental costs of their business activity. In the information age, where transparency is unavoidable, any company that ignores these factors does so at their peril. Below we look at how several luxury assets are impacted by ethical concerns.
You are probably already familiar with the concept of blood diamonds – diamonds that are mined in conflict zones and used to fund corruption, war and violence. At its peak the trade in blood diamonds was believed to account for 4% of the entire diamond trade worldwide. Thanks to the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme that figure is now less than 1% and although there are still criticisms concerning enforcement and bribery, it has clearly made a huge impact.
In 2008 De Beers launched their Forevermark brand to reassure consumers that any diamond sold under that brand comes with a unique identification number that confirms its source as being ethically produced. Similarly Tiffany created its own subsidiary Laurelton Diamonds to help ensure the integrity of its supply chain
In Spring 2015 a theory emerged that ISIS, in its well documented destruction of ancient sites in Iraq and Syria was seeking not just iconoclasm but profiteering. Though their videos show them destroying antiquities and blowing up historic landmarks, it is suspected that many of these valuable items are smuggled away beforehand brokered through dealers in Turkey. The black market cash is then used to fund their barbaric activities.
The extent to which this type of activity funds terror groups like ISIS is not 100% clear, but what is clear is the amount of black market antiques that end up for sale in the West – so-called ‘blood antiquities. On a brief tour of the London antique market UCL Archaeological expert Mark Altaweel found a wide array items that could only have come from the territory currently controlled by ISIS.
“That we were able to find such items openly sold in London tells you the scale – we’re just seeing the tail end of it.” By the time such items reach London the provenance is lost and private collectors may take at face value the integrity of the items.
Luxury handbags are stylish, aspirational, collectible but sometimes controversial in their use of the skin of exotic animals. Ostrich and calf skin are popular, but crocodile skin bags are among the most valuable and undercover reporting has suggested that some production involves cruelty. Actress Jane Birkin even went as far as requesting that Hermès remove her name from their eponymous and iconic Birkin bag, until they could confirm that their products were ethically produced.
Thankfully these examples are exceptional cases and in many cases authorities and brands are working hard to reduce them even further. However, looking to the future, luxury brands must recognise that sustainability and ethical production are opportunities as well as necessities. Younger consumers have a keener awareness of the effect brands have on society and the planet and Positive Luxury is clear harbinger. As millennials continue to wield greater buying power, brands will have to respond to serve their luxury and ethical needs.