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Can Sustainability Co-Exist With a Life of Luxury?

Much has been made of Bono’s work on and off the stage (particularly as it pertains to debt relief), but many people may have seen him more recently in the rather odd (to me at least) advertisements that show him and his wife on the African plains toting Louis Vutton (LV) luggage. I don’t think it’s odd because he’s advertising LV while attempting to fight poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa, but I do think it’s odd because, well what does LV have to do with Africa? As it turns out, not as much as it could.

Addressing sustainability issues in the apparel industry is incredibly important. One, because the supply chain is generally very complex and includes many players across various borders. Two, because apparel, whether it’s of the upscale variety or otherwise is an important fixture in our daily lives and a significant driver of our economy. And three because, to be honest, apparel companies have a pretty poor environmental and human rights record. The good news, however is that the tide within the sector is changing.

A wonderful article, “India Plants Seeds of Sustainable Luxury”, outlines a number of these issues in great detail including LV’s relationship with Ali Hewson’s (Bono’s wife) “ethical fashion” brand Edun. By purchasing a stake in the company in 2009, LV has in effect pursued a CSR initiative without making any changes to the LV brand, which would arguably have much greater impact. In fact, LV has been instrumental in moving much of Edun’s production to Asia (only 15% is produced in Africa), which is incredibly unfortunate, not to mention against what Edun seemingly stands for.

This case is provided simply as an example of luxury brand involvement in sustainability and potential difficulties moving forward. Much of the greater issue is that organic goods from developing countries (such as those produced by Edun) are not generally considered luxury and therefore are a tough sell to companies such as LV, as well as to consumers. However, this need not be the case. Appropriate marketing and transparency about the product would help consumers understand the importance of organic cotton to developing countries. Also, a hands-on approach to production by LV would allow the company to achieve the same level of quality and brand awareness while utilizing a different raw material. While this scenario is hypothetical, depending upon the financial ramifications, it could be a positive and proactive move by the company.

Here the difficulties are highlighted, but so too is the CRS issue that I am most passionate about and that is, in order for sustainability initiatives to be successful they must be integrated into the business plan and/or core strategy of the business, which I consider to be active engagement rather than passive engagement.

Jem Bendell at Lifeworth puts it much more succinctly than I ever could, “Responsible business is about how you make your money, not how you give it away.”

Image Credit by Luxorium via Flickr under a CC license

Written by Jonathan Banco

Jonathan has worked in both journalism and various facets of small business development over the past eight years. Most recently, he graduated from the Monterey Institute of International Studies (graduate school of Middlebury College) in 2010 with an MBA and an MA in International Development Policy. His interests include SME development and its role in economic growth, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa as well as how CSR/Sustainability measures impact both business operations and the communities in which businesses operate. While at MIIS he worked as a summer fellow involved in small business consulting in Accra, Ghana and was an active member of the MIIS Net Impact chapter. As a life long traveler, Jonathan has been fortunate to have lived in, worked in or visited over 20 countries on 5 continents and he truly hopes that he will be able to continue this trend.

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