Luxury and Corporate Responsibility are not Antonyms

Luxury brands have notably been leery of novelties such as e-commerce and social media. Although not a particularly new precept, sustainability has also raised wariness. Not that labels oppose it, but its enormous implications for their time-honored philosophies overwhelms. Nevertheless, some high-end Houses are opening their doors to corporate responsibility.

By: Dimitria Vitanova

Posted on: May 6, 2016

Corporate social responsibility and voluminous fur coats, round sparkly diamonds, coquettish crocodile leather purses and skincare elixirs from rare Amazon plants have not belonged to one another for a long time.  

Outlandish opulence has for decades pervaded luxury brands. More than a modus operandi for them, lavishness has often inadvertently amounted to a carte blanche to exploit, drain, dig and taint – from hazardous pesticides used to produce raw materials to animal cruelty and appalling working conditions to water-polluting fabric dyes to gemstones mined in oppressive states. And these practices wedge beyond the conspicuous, so deep that many Maisons today find it excruciatingly hard to reform.  

Luxury labels are not sole culprits. Nevertheless, as far back as 2007, a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report on the 10 largest, publicly traded, high-end brands, including Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Louis Vuitton, proclaimed their environmental, social and governance policies inferior to those of their non-luxury counterparts. A beam of hope did shine though, through L’Oreal, French cosmetics conglomerate, which is also the world’s biggest. 

Almost a decade later, the beauty label remains a leader in environmental and social responsibility – a consideration that a legion of high-end brands are slowly but steadily waking up to. In 2013, L’Oreal cinched its sustainable 2020 targets in its Sharing Beauty With All program. Fashion designer, Eileen Fisher, has followed a similar path with her Vision 2020, which spells a staunch commitment to phase out viscose, a semi-synthetic fiber manufactured with unsafe chemicals that, however, makes some of the label’s most sought-after garments. A vocal sustainability pioneer and activist, Eileen Fisher could be seen as the notched-up kindred of fast fashion house, H&M. The Swedish, high-street brand boasts an extensive H&M Conscious clothing line and campaign of recycling old fabric, using organic materials and securing animal and human welfare.

It appears labels are in a hasty race with themselves to clean their filthy footprint. The laudable contest is also run by what is often decried as one of the dirtiest luxury segments – automobile. While many are just starting to chug, BMW roars. In its 2015 report, the German vehicle  manufacturer has singled itself out as “the world’s most successful and sustainable premium provider of individual mobility.” It is not a statement without merit. Not only has the carmaker cut greenhouse gas emissions across its production chain as well as in its models, it is also building a fleet of electric vehicles and is rapidly expanding its green car share service across the US.

Today, for an ever-growing band of high-end labels, including those under Kering and LVMH, corporate conscience is much more than a vague website section, mushed at the bottom and largely regarded as a sleek PR trick. As more and more brands are beginning to consider – and care for – the individuals, materials and practices that shape their products, LuxuryFacts reached out to two pioneers of sustainable luxury – Kiehl’s, which has turned it into a wont from its very inception, and Gemfields, which is bringing it to precious stone mining, a field known for its longstanding social and environmental impunity.  


Indian Actress Neha Dhupia for Kiehl's campaign

Kiehl’s dedication to philanthropy and sustainability stems from its peculiar history. For almost a century, American skincare company Kiehl’s offered its exquisite concoctions at its sole, old-world apothecary in East Village, New York. As a neighborhood venue, the label embraced the concerns and needs of the community. Kiehl’s innate social emphasis, coupled with a clear charity outlook, has posited it among the most forward-thinking brands on L’Oreal’s portfolio, which it joined in 2000 and has since stretched to around 1,000 locations in some 50 countries. 

“In 2013, the L’Oreal Group committed to completely transforming our business model into a more sustainable one, factoring in developments such as climate change, biodiversity loss, water shortage, poverty, and many more,” said a spokesperson for the skincare label. 

Nevertheless, even prior to that, Kiehl’s was already spreading its ethical corporate roots through its Kiehl’s Gives initiative, which rests on three pillars – HIV/AIDS research, environmental issues and children’s wellbeing. Although it has donated some $3.5 million over the years, the company still admits that “the challenge for us is to identify a cause that is sustainable and one that can make a true impact in the community.”

1997: when everything started 
Two decades ago, Morse–family run Kiehl’s, set off on a quest that may have appeared rather quixotic for the then relatively small label. It launched its Hand Care for a Cure line, with all the proceedings directed to the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR). As of 2014, Kiehl’s has contributed more than $1 million to six cure-related research endeavors – not a small feat for the “corner pharmacy,” whose annual revenue hovered around the lower tens of millions at the time of its acquisition by powerhouse L’Oreal. 

Indian Actress Neha Dhupia for Kiehl's

2009: then came the environment  
Seven years ago, Kiehl’s took the leap from at-large philanthropy to local sustainability with its Recycle & Be Rewarded program that currently covers over 100 stores worldwide. It gifts patrons with complimentary balms for every 10 returned clean containers, which it recycles for future packaging. 

“Through the Recycle & Be Rewarded program, Kiehl’s collects empty bottles every month. Since 2009, the brand has collected 2 million empty bottles around the world, thereby diverting over 95,000 pounds of waste from landfills and incinerators.” a company representative cites the statistics. 

Currently, a range of skin and hair collections come in post-consumer reused vials, the simple, unassuming design of which aligns with Kiehl’s quiet yet assertive environmentalism. “Kiehl’s has always believed in no-frills packaging, instead putting resources towards the ingredients,” a spokesperson says. 

This minimalistic approach has propelled Kiehl’s to foster a green production that goes beyond the contents of its formulas. In the span of a decade, according to the label’s data, its New Jersey manufacturing plant has seen a 69% decrease in carbon emissions and 35% reduction of water usage per product. 

Despite the brand’s far-reaching advancement of sustainability and responsibility, it does tread under fire. Pundits have clobbered it for greenwashing, or meshing natural with synthetic components. 

To an extent, those allegations stand their ground and the label is not reticent to acknowledge them, but  “sustainably-sourced and fairly traded ingredients are used in Kiehl’s formulations wherever possible.” Turning green opens a treacherous, meandering path, the navigation of which requires a business overhaul that is often slow and painful. For now, Kiehl’s seems to more than compensate for its still-not-fully-organic creams with its communal engagement. 

Kiehl's products for children's education

2016: the old brand looking toward the future  
In March this year, the brand rolled out its Kiehl’s Gives project in India, where it bestowed about $105,000 – all of the month’s profits from a special edition of its coveted Ultra Facial Cream – to a local NGO that teaches technology to unprivileged kids across the country. The campaign follows past initiatives centered on children and young women, such as the label’s 2010 cooperation with the Koons Family Institute to fight child exploitation, its collaboration with New York artists to create safe spaces for the little as well as its initial support for the historic The Lower East Side Girls Club.    

It is the brand’s devotion to society – celebrating its diversity and tackling its predicaments – that has dictated Kiehl’s business model for generations and that, nowadays, truly sets it apart from its kin. The brand’s future appears to loop back to it – to the rationale that Kiehl’s could only grow through assisting the development of others. 

Gemfields Farming InitiativesTales of rampant corruption, escalating conflicts, inhumane treatment of miners and unimaginable environmental degradation in the gemstone industry are as old and bleak as its mines. Extracting and trading colored stones dates back to centuries ago, observing long-entrenched practices that counter the sustainability mores of the last several decades. Largely ensconced in Africa, mining is often artisanal, fragmented and elicit, bent by local profiteers. Cut-and-polish processes, on the other hand, regularly take place as far away as Thailand and India. 

“Lack of formalization makes [the mining and processing of colored stones] hard to fit into [the] conventional business strategies and traditional business improvements such as sustainability,” says Jack Cunningham, group sustainability manager at Gemfields. 

Yet, Gemfields – the world’s largest supplier of responsibly sourced Zambian emeralds and amethysts and Mozambican rubies – has proven it is doable. As luxury jewelry makers have spiked their demand for gemstones, Gemfields has responded, constructing its operations around the integral principles of legitimacy, transparency and integrity. 

Social license to operate
When impoverished societies see mining as a stable trickle of income, it is inconsiderate – let alone, almost impossible – for international companies to dig head-strong in their gemstone-rich tracts. Gemfields is finely attuned to this reality. Its success and growth stem from a social license to operate. It runs Zambia’s Kagem emerald mine – the world’s biggest – and the Montepuez ruby deposit of Mozambique. But what may be more worthy to marvel at, is its hefty communal engagement and investment that legitimize its business undertakings. At each of its mining locations, Gemfields deploys teams of social workers who help local civic and public organizations to establish and manage farms, schools, medical centers and more.  

Gemfields' Anti-Rhino Poaching Aircraft

“In Zambia we have invested close to $2 million over the last five years in local community projects and in Mozambique we are working on a long term strategy that will be a balance of infrastructure, health, education and agriculture livelihood projects,” says Mr Cunningham. “We are particularly proud that in a few short years in Mozambique, even when the operation was still very small, we have been able to provide access to clean water to the local community, provide basic health and education infrastructure and recently started a farming cooperative which now has over 90 members that grow vegetables to sell to our operation.”

Opaque transparency 
While the responsible gem supplier exerts stringent control over its own enterprises – from providing just and safe working conditions in mines to developing local communities to auditing its customers for sustainability – it cannot possibly do so over the industry at large. Transparency is – paradoxically – an opaque concept, difficult to secure, once Gemfield’s stones leave its custody. 

Gemfields Schools in Zambia“The wider mining sector has been building sustainability practices for many years, but even the closest sector to ours – diamonds – does not have a very long history of sustainable practices,” says Mr Cunningham. “There are some that are unconvinced by what Gemfields is trying to achieve and this requires [repeating] our [brand’s message], being clear about our objectives on sustainability and finding willing partners who can work with us.

“Often the first conversation [with prospective partners] is about sustainability; either what we are doing at the mine, or how we are influencing the wider supply chain. Our jewelry partners recognize that while Gemfields doesn’t have all the answers, we are making real progress against the grain. We work very closely with luxury brands on developing new standards, including for sustainability, and we talk regularly with jewelers of all sizes because this is of vast interest and import to them.”

That intense interaction does appear to be shifting the tides. High-end mavericks such as Tiffany & Co and Cartier are now sparkling up their ornate creations solely with sustainably sourced diamonds and precious stones. A bevy of international organizations such as the Responsible Jewelry Council, the International Council for Metals and Mining, and the Alliance for Responsible Mining, to list but a few, have sprung up to nudge and guard an industry-wide corporate conscience. Still fledgling, those initiatives hold a sincere promise and a strong commitment. 

So the next time you apply your favorite facial cream or slip into that flattering gown or clasp your beloved gem locket around your neck, you know that corporate sustainability and opulence do belong to each other. 

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