Luxury and Sustainability

Is sustainable luxury fashion just an oxymoron, or can the power of ethical values drive design innovation, from hot new artisans to big brands?

What satisfies the luxury consumer is changing. There is a growing value placed in buying less and buying better, with leading ethically minded brands now encouraging us to emotionally engage with what we buy. With increasing demand for sustainable goods, ethical practices and transparent business models, the luxury fashion industry should be an obvious key player with its emphasis on quality, heritage and craftsmanship. What was once considered a supply and production chain challenge is now appreciated as a design opportunity. But how do all these buzz words translate in reality? We spoke to the woman in the know, Professor Dilys Williams, director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion (UAL) to find out more about the changing relationship between sustainability and luxury fashion.

How would you say that luxury fashion brands are now making a claim for sustainability?

Any company that lives and operates by the values of equity, environmental balance and commitment to the future can make a claim for sustainability – a few luxury businesses name these values, but not all, so not all luxury brands can make that claim, just for being luxury. The word luxury is overused, you 2 3 might imagine that luxury is synonymous with these values, but this is not always the case.

How is the industry responding to accusations of fuelling fast fashion and driving the need for seasonal collections, whilst also addressing issues around sustainability?

The business model upon which the majority of business operates is based on industrialised production, factoring in only some of the costs incurred – the cost to the wellbeing of people and the planet is not on the balance sheet. This creates goods that need to be sold to make a profit for that business, an advertising industry that encourages sales and an ethos that encourages quick obsolescence so more can be sold. This cycle pervades more than fashion, although fashion is a highly visible form of this model.

Our appreciation of beauty, novelty, style and dress is a vital part of our being – expressing ourselves through our attire is a wonderful element of being human. This can be created without degradation to people or to our environment, and it’s a great opportunity for luxury brands as they are not as welded to the scale of production as the high street – they can create cultures and practices of sustainability that others can then emulate.

Is part of this shift towards sustainability down to a growing demand for corporate responsibility towards ethical, environmental, and social issues?

The industrialised model has been scaled up and out due to developments in global connectivity, which have created great opportunity – for example, access to amazing embroideries, skills, techniques, materials, synergised practices, cross-cultural dialogues and so on. But it has also disconnected many from what fashion consists of – how it is made, what it represents.

Valuing fashion has become more difficult as it is culturally more of a commodity. The race to the bottom where fashion is successful if it’s cheap is a travesty for the people, resources and skills involved and also for fashion itself. Fashion’s role in identifying what we stand for has been eroded, which is why the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion has set up projects like I STOOD UP – where we co-create fashion that enables people to stand up for what they value, through what they stand up in.

How is this shift towards sustainability related to authenticity in the luxury fashion industry?

Authenticity is just what sorts the wheat from the chaff. True authenticity is where a business lives by its values – not easy in a world where many businesses do not count the value of nature or human dignity. Authenticity is about having a culture of care and also a means to see what you are doing in order to create better.

[At LCF] we are delighted to be currently working with Kering, one of the luxury goods holding companies who are outliers in naming and living by values of sustainability. Each of their brands has committed to sustainability values in their work, with different applications for each brand, according to their style of working. This is being backed up by the world’s first environmental profit and loss account for luxury, to be published in the near future. We are working with them to develop the skills needed for a prosperous future, they are committing to research and education, we are committing to testing out our ideas, and we are both committing to learning and sharing innovation through sustainability.

It is true to say that the ability for the press and citizens to see the reality of how a brand operates is making sustainability a risk reduction strategy for many businesses, but the fashion industry can do much better.

Could you explain the role of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion?

The Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, UAL, is a community of researchers, designers, lecturers, students and others, with a shared commitment to explore what it means to live well without jeopardising our fellows and our futures. We do this through fashion design for sustainability as a discipline, because fashion is a vital individual and collective visualisation of our times and our context.

CSF develops new curricula – our graduates are forging new roles in fashion at luxury level (working in sustainability roles at Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen for example), through to setting up social enterprises (Antiform), and collectives (HereTodayHereTomorrow). We work with business on research projects, consultancy and other creative projects (Catalytic Clothing, M&S Shwopping) and we undertake a range of research projects and produce publications (Local Wisdom, Antarctica). We also work with the government and in public spaces (Habitat, APPG). Working with Kering actually brings all of these elements together, which means that the sum is much greater than the parts.

What is required now to really make a change in the industry?

Our current unsustainability is a result of how we live and what we value – we have the technology, the wit, the wisdom to live well, but we don’t have the habits that enable us to prosper together. If we could create cultures of care, then we could transform our world. Fashion is about what we cherish and how we are cherished and there are great examples of this happening. We need to tell these stories to help change cultures.


Photos:  Cork coat by Sara Emilie Terp Hansen, a winning design from the 2011 Fashioning the Future Awards at LCF’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion (photo: Kerry Dean/LCF/CSF); Hemp satin dress by Miriam Rhida, another winning design (photo: Tomer Halfon/LCF/CSF);  Film still showing Erin O’Connor wearing an air purifying dress from the Catalytic Clothing project by designer Helen Storey (UAL) and scientist Tony Ryan (University of Sheffield). For more, visit

This article appears in CR’s Luxury May issue, also featuring the Creative Review Annual 2015. Subscribe to CR here.

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