Professor Jem Bendell

notes from a strategist and educator on social and organisational change

Elegant Disruption

Posted by jembendell on August 31, 2012

Just over five years ago I began working on the luxury industry.  I thought, why cant these elite brands not excel in social and environmental performance? I researched, wrote and produced the report Deeper Luxury for WWF-UK, and it triggered a bit of a furore in the fashion press and wider luxury industry (about 8000 sites now link to the report). 5 years on, I’ve helped some luxury companies with their social and environmental impacts. But I havent seen much change. Some large firms like PPR have embraced the agenda, although we wait in anticipation for more results, in terms of positive social and environmental outcomes. In the 5 years, what inspired me the most were the entrepreneurs I met. People who were creating businesses to address social and environmental problems, and targetting the luxury segment as a way to do that. I began to realise something might be in this – that these entrepreneurs might be shaping the future of luxury, and that they might be revealing a new way we can engage in social change. In the new study, I profile sustainable luxury firms Elvis and Kresse, Tesla Motors, Shokay, Source4Style, Rags2Riches, Positive Luxury, Timothy Han and Nue Luxe… It’s called “Elegant Disruption: How luxury and society can shape each-other for good”. It took about a year to write, as it involved a lot of conversations to understand just what the potential of luxury might be to influence social change. Ill be presenting it at conferences in Brisbane and Barcelona in the coming weeks.Elegant Disruption

Abstract, August 2012.

This paper outlines the contemporary luxury sector, showing it is global, thriving and influential. It shows how creative destruction is typical in most industry sectors, including luxury, and how disruptive innovation by entrepreneurs is key to that process. It proposes that the current time is potentially disruptive for incumbent luxury brands and groups, due to five key trends that are beginning to re-frame the markets that luxury brands sell to. Sustainable luxury entrepreneurs from USA, UK, Philippines, India, Argentina, China and Hong Kong are profiled and described as  pursuing “elegant disruption”: a well-designed intervention in markets that both uses and affects aspirations in ways that change patterns of consumption, production or exchange, for a positive societal outcome. The paper reviews the response of mainstream luxury brands to the sustainability agenda, proposing some possible reasons why they appear to be encumbered in embracing this agenda fully. Some of the paradoxes in the notion of “sustainable luxury” are described, in order to draw implications for both the luxury industry and people interested in positive social change. The paper draws upon the authors five years of interaction with the luxury industry on sustainability issues, and is therefore written as a “first person inquiry” and draws upon principles of “appreciative inquiry” in documenting the breakthrough approaches of some sustainable luxury entrepreneurs.

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3 Responses to “Elegant Disruption”

  1. Rachel said

    My initial reaction to the abstract of the paper was: How can there be sustainable luxury when luxury itself is unsustainable? Although reading the paper provided more context, to me, sustainable luxury remains an oxymoron. You list two main reasons people give for this claim: It is immoral and environmentally reckless (21). You claim that if we reframe luxury (within the context of consumption), we can make it both moral and environmental. I don’t think that is true.

    Luxury is immoral because it is excess (its original meaning) while others’ basic needs are not being met. This situation can only be morally rectified when there is no longer a hierarchy in which some people can live in excess at the cost of others. While it is true that the purchase of a luxury item might contribute to someone’s “decent work,” there remains a dependency in that, which makes it ethically questionable (see, for example, Quentin Skinner’s third concept of liberty). The person with the “decent work” is dependent on the generosity of the person buying the luxury item. As long as it is en vogue to buy “sustainable luxury” items, the decent work continues. What if conspicuous consumption comes back into fashion (it’s doubtful it is out of fashion)? (As an aside, it’s interesting that your Box 4, p. 26, does not include the people who are actually putting the luxury items together…).

    There is another word tied to luxury that you don’t mention: Privilege, which is closely connected to the extrinsic values (23). Those who have privilege can buy luxury items. Privilege, or rather the dismantling of privilege is what feminists, anti-racism and gay activists have fought for – not the enhancement of social status/prestige/power. For example, feminists question the automatic privilege of men that is reflected in the higher social status of men. It isn’t so much the enhancement of women’s social status, as you claim, as the questioning of men’s status qua maleness. Thus, we question a system that establishes social status based on gender. If we apply this to luxury, we would question, rather than promote, the system that provides social status – and other extrinsic desirables. After all, being able to buy luxury items does not give us social status (or prestige or power or authority), it shows that we have it. Thus luxury sustains an immoral system that is built on hierarchies and inequality. Not the sustainability you’re writing about and a moral issue that cannot be removed unless luxury itself is defined through something other than goods (more along the lines of defining wealth as life).

    Which leads to the second point: Buying luxury goods is also not environmental because it remains consumption. I fully agree with Kresse Wesling that we need a zero waste society (13), however, the question is not “what are we going to do with our waste” but rather “how do we prevent our waste?” Turning fire hoses into belts simply moves the problem: The belts will become waste at some point. What if we build fire engines that don’t need hoses?

    I think a systems approach helps illuminate the oxymoron further. As i was mulling over the article, i got a piece of chocolate. Delicious chocolate made with cocoa beans bought directly from the farmers. At $6 per 1.5 oz bar, i would certainly consider this a luxury. Sustainable? Well, at first glance maybe. After all, they’re buying from the farmers, so this chocolate is certainly fair trade. It’s organic. And, yet, how did it get from there to here? It was shipped – first from Central America to Hawai’i and then to San Francisco (in my case). So, the carbon footprint of the shipment stomps out any benefit from growing the beans organically. The most sustainable thing for me to do: Stop eating chocolate. This example also helps illustrate another environmental issue: Scalability. If everybody were to switch to this type of chocolate, it would not be possible to produce it sustainably (aside from the shipping). This is something the biofuel industry faces now: Are we using precious land to grow crops to feed people or cars?

    And then there is the issue with sustainability itself. If we were to sustain our current level of consumption, we would still deplete all non-renewable energy quickly. Global climate disruption is well underway and some scientists fear that some impacts are already irreversible. Our soil is largely depleted. Our air and water polluted. Instead of sustainability, we need to repair the damage already done if we want to survive. So, if we want a sustainable luxury, we would promote a luxury that steps outside the current paradigm: The luxury of growing our own food, eating it with friends and family while – most importantly – breathing clean air and drinking unpolluted water. And ensuring that this luxury is shared with everyone – thus redefining what luxury means.

    • jembendell said

      Thanks Rachel! Lots of issues here, glad to see you really engaged. Im travelling, but one quick question for you. I mentioned many examples of start up companies doing useful things. Some of the things are not the full solution, for instance upcycling doesnt address waste-creation (although perhaps byproducts are inevitable and so we could consider them byproducts not waste, unless you want everything to biodegrade, which we could discuss), or electric vehicles are not going to create sustainable mobility, as we need changes in land use and in public transport for that. Some of the things I mention are indeed involved in the restorative economy, i.e. creating revenues for the conservation and restoration of biodiverse ecosystems and related livelihoods e.g. some of source4style’s suppliers, or Ainy. But my question is this… Why is the fact that these firms charge higher prices in order to sustain their activities, and therefore are associated with the “high end” a problem for their environmental impact? How is that an oxymoron? Whats the alternative? Charge the high prices but actively work against impressions of being luxury? Do you know examples of where that works? Or dont charge the high prices, and thus seek a rapid scaling of turnover in order to stay in business? Again, examples of where that works would be helpful. Otherwise, your critique is made by debating words, and contrasting things with hypothetical ideal situations. Ill get back to you on the intrinsic/extrinsic stuff, as that is key for social change, and Im looking forward to such dialogues. But for now, Im asking for people to be grounded in their critiques.

      • Rachel said

        You asked:

        Why is the fact that these firms charge higher prices in order to sustain their activities, and therefore are associated with the “high end” a problem for their environmental impact? How is that an oxymoron? Whats the alternative? Charge the high prices but actively work against impressions of being luxury? Do you know examples of where that works?

        That’s more than one question😉.

        Based on your questions, you seem to suggest two things: (1) That i am critiquing the firms, not your extrapolation and (2) That my critique is invalid if i don’t come up with alternatives.

        What i am taking issue with is not what the firms in the case studies you present are doing. I’d rather see trash be turned into something useable. I shop at second hand stores for that reason. What i am questioning is that sustainable luxury can be anything but an oxymoron.

        Although marketing a product at a higher price just because that’s the market we’re after, not because that higher price reflects the true cost of the product, remains ethically questionable (see also the research on inequality, which is reflected in the existence of luxury), again, i’d rather see trash upcycled than remain in the landfill…

        An alternative to what? You seem to suggest – and please correct me if i read you incorrectly here – that we can use luxury goods, like the ones in your case studies, to ensue a “sustainability transition” of the masses (22). Aside from questioning the underlying premise – that there are sustainable luxury goods – this extrapolation is also not grounded. As you point out yourself, there are several issues that have to be resolved before this extension is even possible (22). And the research, including what you cite, seems to suggest that this is an uphill battle, at minimum. As the weekly Greed at a Glance column in the Too Much newsletter suggests, incorporating the ethical dimension into luxury will also be difficult…

        Okay. I didn’t start this conversation because i wanted to rip your paper! I wanted to start this conversation because i saw some things in the paper that lead me to believe that you, too, are searching for solutions (e.g., the first two paragraphs on p. 12). So, what are some alternatives?

        What first came to my mind actually illustrates the issues i’ve been trying to raise more: How about we redefine luxury! For example, have clear air or clean water be a luxury – rather than talking about consumable goods, let’s make something we all need a luxury. But then i realized the road that leads us down: Do we really want clean air to be a luxury? That would mean that some would be able to get it – and others won’t (and those others are likely to be poor, non-whites). We would expand the hierarchies and in the process worsen the social inequality crises we’re facing.

        There is something in there, though. What if i have the luxury of eating super-ripe and delicious tomatoes because they’re growing in my backyard? That would be a luxury, i would want to see expand. And even if not everyone has that luxury, it might influence the quality of tomatoes in general.

        Ultimately, I think the alternatives will be outside of the current paradigm – after all the way things are is killing the planet. Instead of creating sustainability via maintaining social hierarchies, we could work together to regenerate the air, the soil, the water, our communities, ourselves. Not by donating money to XYZ organization but by actively regenerating the soil (like Ecology Action) or growing the luscious forest (like the farmer in Michael Pollan’s book….). Instead of another form of goods consumption, we could measure our wealth by the time we have to spend with our friends, that our soil is healthy within a closed system, that our tomatoes are delicious…

        So, to me, alternatives need to take into account all the crises we are facing – and that includes social inequalities. And if all goes as i am planning, i will have more case studies in a year or so… For now, the examples i’ve sprinkled into the last paragraph are pointing more into the direction of true sustainability.

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