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Luxury vs. Sustainability. A new perspective

“Luxury” and “sustainability” have been for years, maybe out of superficiality, considered as conceptually distant. Very much so. As a matter of fact, and strictly speaking, because of the social and technical milieu in which the two terms found their legitimation and dissemination, they seemed to be on two opposite sides, even conflicting. In consumer markets, in fact, luxury implies uniqueness, prestige, a hedonistic distinction bordering on frivolousness and ostentation, on separation rather than wealth; While sustainability, whether environmental, ethical, economic or social, implies sobriety, ethics, selflessness or at least a sense of synchronous and diachronic solidarity (for future generations).

In spite of the assumed, and often verified, incompatibility between luxury and sustainability, the book Sustainable Luxury Brands by Cesare Amatulli, Matteo De Angelis, Michele Costabile and Gianluigi Guido, published by Palgrave Macmillan, builds on recent anecdotal evidence witnessing a growing attention from luxury brands themselves as well as luxury consumers towards concepts like sustainability and social responsibility issues while advancing the idea that luxury and sustainability are much closer worlds, more compatible and certainly converging to the point of overlapping – something that it’s hardly believable by so many people, including several luxury managers. This proximity, or at the very least this increased compatibility, is due to the fact that luxury has features making it, to use a definition often used in the book, “inherently sustainable”, and therefore naturally suited to bring multiple benefits to different categories of stakeholders: from consumers to employees to the environment and referenced communities. This happens on a much greater scale than most “mass-market businesses” we know today.

In particular, among the “instinctive sustainability” characteristics of luxury we can include not only the high technical quality which on average sets apart luxury goods and has objective benefits for consumers, but also the durability that is so typical for many luxury products, with – again – direct and indirect benefits for consumers (in terms of reduced average long-term spending and a reduction in time and effort to search for new products) and environmental resources. A by no means secondary issue is the ingrained limitation of the units that are actually produced, with benefits primarily for the environment and the communities on which these companies have an impact on; This is often combined with the use of local craftsmanship, which increases the possibility of giving continuity to traditional work techniques and skills and actually produces cultural, if not artistic, capitalization processes. Finally, it follows that luxury companies tend to pay higher-than-average wages with all that this implies for the well-being in the referenced communities.

These issues, presented and discussed in the book, are supported by interviews with some of the top luxury business managers and the description – in the last chapter – of some empirical results from the authors’ researches published and soon to appear on some prestigious, international academic journals.