24 August 2023

Does the sense of luxury and opulence disappear when an exclusive item is marketed as green or sustainable? A research collaboration between LiU and Kedge Business School in France reveals that European luxury brands downplay their environmental and sustainability efforts to avoid losing customers.

Luxury fashion store front in modern shopping mall
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"The luxury industry is full of trade secrets, both concerning products and customers. But what surprises me the most is how much they do that's green and sustainable – without talking about it. I don't know of any other industry where companies choose to stay silent about such matters," says Christian Kowalkowski.

Two men standing ans smiling towards camer on the  street in France.Jonas Holmqvist och Christian Kowalkowski.

Christian Kowalkowski is a professor at Linköping University focusing on business-to-business marketing. He has conducted a research study on luxury products from a green and sustainable perspective. His co-researcher is Dr. Jonas Holmqvist, a leading luxury researcher at Kedge Business School in Bordeaux, France.

Christian Kowalkowski defines a luxury item as something that "many people wants to own, but very few can afford." These items are expensive, sustainable and often produced under favourable conditions, using carefully selected materials that allow tracing the origin.

Green hushing­ - to conceal environmental efforts

The study is based on interviews with 13 luxury brands in fields such as clothing, jewellery, perfume, champagne, and luxury yachts. The results show that there is an intriguing balance when it comes to what companies can actually be open about.

“Consumers want to know exactly where the raw materials come from. It's important to them that the item has a good origin. At the same time, they can be openly critical of the green and sustainable aspect, believing that the feeling of luxury is lost and suspecting the product lacks high quality,” says Christian Kowalkowski.

At least three luxury brands in the study openly admitted that a sustainable material has negative connotations for customers. That is why they remain silent about their environmental and sustainability efforts; this is referred to as "green concealing" or "green-hushing."

It doesn't become as appealing, it doesn't feel like luxury and opulence if you suddenly start discussing environment and sustainability.

Importance to know the item's origin

To understand why a well-known origin is crucial for consumers, Kowalkowski refers to the so-called horsemeat scandal in 2013, where it turned out that beef was actually horse meat. Similar scandals also occur within the luxury and fashion industry, which makes traceability increasingly important. For example, one of the world's most exclusive champagne houses is implementing “complete traceability” to allow future customers to trace each step of their champagne from the farmers and harvesters.

“Another example is diamonds. Customers want to know the origin, no one wants so-called Russian blood diamonds. They also want assurance that there's no child labour, unnecessary emissions, or poor working conditions – above all, they want to know that they are purchasing a genuine item," says Christian Kowalkowski. 

The irony is that luxury customers are environmentally conscious without even realising it. Many of them buy expensive products and use them for a long time, which ultimately benefits the environment.

Fashion is a large industry. Luxury brands are quite green in comparison to cheap clothing brands. These are expensive items made in Europe, from sustainable natural materials. Companies are purposefully working with these issues.

The better the treatment of the animal, the higher quality of the leather or wool. Yet many luxury houses remain reluctunt to communicate about this.

"This is one of the insights I've gained from this study," says Christian Kowalkowski.

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