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Priyanka Chopra in Zuhair Murad at the 88th Academy Awards. Photo: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
Priyanka Chopra in Zuhair Murad at the 88th Academy Awards. Photo: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

The luxury industry’s double standards

Big brands and designers speak about sustainability as a haloed idea, but continue to encourage over-consumption

I am in a hotel elevator listening to an odd conversation. Two gorgeously put together young ladies—both Indian, on a visit to Dubai—are animatedly discussing what steps they are taking to curtail their shopping addiction. I silently wish them luck because Dubai for a shopaholic is like a bar for an alcoholic. The taller one says her key strategy is “awareness", as in just hold the damn product she is about to buy, take a deep breath and think if she really needs it. The shorter girl looks at her with awe—she recounts her struggle to tame basic desire; it seems some sort of Steve-Jobs-like-reality-distortion field takes over her senses, and as if on autopilot, she buys and buys.

I don’t know how that conversation ended—the door opened and they marched out in their 6-inch platform heels, presumably to practise abstinence at The Dubai Mall next door—but it sure got me thinking. Truth be told, material gluttony is the defining theme of our times. The earth is groaning under the weight of this sans “awareness" consumption. According to Jim Leape, a former international director general of The World Wildlife Fund, humans are acting as if we have two planets to consume; worse still, if we carry on in this vein, in 20 years we will consume more than even two planets can sustain.

Bags from Fendi
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Bags from Fendi

The dots connect closer home—New Delhi is now the planet’s most polluted capital, and India the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, according to an April 2015 report on Mashable.com. Along with the earth, our bodies are polluted too—a heart surgeon friend from New Zealand tells me that when he operates on Chinese immigrant patients, their lungs are dark from pollution, but Kiwi lungs are pink. And then there is the accompanying unfairness of it all because nearly half of mankind doesn’t have enough basics, in fact next to none. The poorer half of the world needs to consume a lot more just to reach basic levels of human dignity.

Material gluttony sitting alongside material starvation in a stressed-out planet with fast-depleting resources—that’s the hopelessly tangled problem we have to address.

So what can the luxury industry do about it? There is a lot of talk about “sustainable luxury"—it has become a roomy catch-all phrase that includes initiatives that help the environment, avoid unjust practices in the supply chain, support social causes, encourage the arts, or restore architectural heritage. It is not as if the luxury industry has embraced sustainability in a warm bear hug, but there’s a movement towards it, a firm handshake, and an intention to grow it. In some ways, it is a business necessity—for example, consumer mindsets, especially of the younger ones, are increasingly tuned in that direction, so a brand with solid sustainability credentials can sell more to them.

Shoes by Sabyasachi
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Shoes by Sabyasachi

And that is my problem. In this whole discussion about sustainable luxury, there is hardly any mention of reducing consumption. If material gluttony is the biggest reason for our planetary crisis, shouldn’t reining in runaway consumption be the top priority? I totally agree that cosmetics-not-tested-on-animals are better than cosmetics-that-are-cruel-to-animals, but if I am going to load my dresser with umpteen jars of non-animal-tested lotions and rush every season to buy the must-have colours of eye shadows and lip glosses, and add this to an already sizeable collection of make-up, then the planet is not going to be any better off. Ditto for clothes without child labour; yes, of course, that is the only way to go, but if I cram my wardrobe with scores of dresses every season, all made by adult workers (paid properly and treated fairly), the environmental impact on the earth is still going to be nasty. A brand that is taking steps to reduce greenhouse gases by 10% is better than a brand that is not—but if its production doubles, then in absolute terms its greenhouse gases will go up, not down.

Right now, the global fashion industry’s business model hinges on the notion of “rapid obsolescence", which directly results in you and me (very willing accomplices, I might add) buying more and more. New collections are sent down the runway every season, and they define what is “in fashion", what the trends of the moment are and, in effect, what you must buy to stay current. The global media celebrates it, Gigis and Kendalls Instagram it, fashion bloggers go to town, celebrities wear it on the red carpet, and the whole fashion system careens into overdrive. The upshot? Perfectly good stuff you bought a few months ago is now “out of fashion", shoved to the back of your wardrobe, and you head out and shop for more. With every successive season, the stockpile grows, and before you know it, you are facing the same predicament as our shopaholic ladies in the elevator.

The global fashion industry’s business model hinges on the notion of ‘rapid obsolescence’, which directly results in you and me buying more and more

We have been dodging the real issue—we talk sustainability, but we encourage over-consumption—and while that may make perfect business sense from a company’s point of view, it doesn’t help the planet, except to destroy it further. It is time for a serious rethink. Can there be business models that contain consumption but still increase profit? Instead of use and discard, can durability and longevity be made desirable? Can we foster a culture of what our elevator ladies called “awareness" in consumption? Can less be more? If it is, our earth will breathe easy. And so will we.

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