It’s spring. New life is waking up and blooming. So we wanted to turn our attention to nature and think about how luxury — always at the vanguard of culture — is rising to the defining challenge of the age: climate change. While fashion and sustainability are often seen as contradictory, we think that brands, through their behaviour and storytelling, have an important role to play in halting the climate emergency.
It is nearly a year since the New York Times’ influential fashion director Vanessa Friedman disavowed the phrase “sustainable fashion”. It is an “oxymoron,” she said: sustainable means continuity, fashion means change. Friedman cast doubt on the growing universe of Chief Sustainability Officers, novel-length ESG reports and international industry groups who exist to assert fashion’s green credentials.
Given the fashion industry still contributes up to ten percent of global emissions, brands should be wary of overclaiming. Friedman suggested a new term — not “sustainable” fashion, but “responsible” fashion. This is more honest, more modest and has the added benefit of not being logically incoherent.
Friedman is right. But we also think there’s another, overlooked way luxury brands can help the quest to stop climate change. And the good news is it involves doing more of what they do best.
In 2012, the author and environmentalist Richard Louv wrote “We cannot protect something we do not love. We cannot love something we do not know. And we cannot know what we do not see. Or hear. Or sense.” To protect the natural world, it helps to be beguiled by it. And who better to beguile us than the world’s most desired brands?
Luxury is about seduction. Through alluring images and storytelling, it persuades us not just to buy things but to reappraise whole strands of society. The luxury industry elevated streetwear into high culture. It brought protest movements into high-end retail spaces and the pages of glossy magazines. And now it can do the same for the environment.
Forward thinking brands are already nudging us toward a greater appreciation of nature. Chloe is suffused with images that give us a delicate, intimate view of nature. In its Open Spaces ad, British brand Burberry evokes the raw energy of experiences in the great outdoors. Pangaia, meanwhile, reframes nature as an innovator. The late Dame Vivienne Westwood brought a campaigning voice to her designs and the communications around them. These brands are not just making their supply chains and production methods more sustainable. They’re looking at the natural world as a source of creative inspiration, surrendering the stage to nature and inspiring communion with a world that city-dwelling audiences are increasingly curious about.
Seductive depictions of nature persuade the public to conserve it without shaming or guilt-tripping them. These ad campaigns are not pious. Quite the opposite: they are indulgent. They luxuriate in the beauty of the natural world and turn the planet into an object of desire and aspiration.
These bold creative visions reflect a shift in the way brands approach issues like sustainability. Once relegated to CSR departments, worthy causes have gone from afterthought to core concern. More than ever, brands are putting considerable marketing and creative resource into showing the world the good they are doing.
Of course, putting nature at the heart of branding is not enough. ‘Greenwashing’ is a growing problem and campaigners are getting better at calling it out. Behaviour must match communications. Brands like Chloe understand this: the company is so committed to sustainable business that it is now officially a B-Corp. Pangaia is an innovator, too, having experimented with ways to source raw materials from natural ingredients. LVMH and Kering have also taken massive industry-defining steps in the last few years.
But it’s through creativity that brands can have the biggest impact. By celebrating the wondrous beauty of nature, and by helping us connect with it emotionally, brands and communicators appeal to us in a different way to scientists and campaigners. For a long time science has held a monopoly over climate communications. Even as the effects of rising temperatures become more lethal and apparent, for many climate change remains an emergency of numbers. And numbers do not galvanise movements.
“The spaces of the imagination can touch people in a way that data cannot,” wrote the designer Amale Andaros. It is a truth first observed by Aristotle who 2,500 years ago wrote that facts, shorn of emotion, have little persuasive power. The Scottish philosopher David Hume agreed. He wrote that reason and logic are “slave to the passions”.
Passion is the stock in trade of luxury brands, which is why they have such an important role to play in tackling the defining problem of our times. As masters of persuasion, creative professionals can lead culture toward the light and encourage ever greater action within the industry too. Through storytelling and creativity, we can make sure the most coveted and desired thing in the world is the natural world itself.