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The Sustainable Luxury Myth

Josh Dorfman is CEO of Vivavi, a provider of contemporary, sustainably designed furniture and furnishings, and Host of The Lazy Environmentalist talk radio show.

LO_Sheets_1.jpgI hear both excitement and concern these days about the rise of the sustainable luxury lifestyle. Some are for it. Many are against it and fear that marketplace environmentalism is only possible for celebrities and the super wealthy. Neither point of view is relevant.

Equating sustainability with luxury is like equating technology with luxury. Thirty years ago when Bill Gates was tinkering in a garage and Gordon Moore was still refining his law, personal technology devices were a luxury because few could afford the initial prototypes. Today items likes PCs are a commodity and while some technology is expensive, much is affordable. Sustainably designed products are moving down the same path.

True, prices for today’s best sustainably designed consumer products are out of reach for most consumers. Yet, consider that it is only within the last two years that the vast majority of high style, environmentally conscious products entered the marketplace. Two years ago there was no Loomstate, Edun, Delano Collection, Scrapile, Loop Organic, Material Furniture, Brave Space, Argington, Rhubarb Décor, Voltaic Systems, Anna Sova, Qcollection or el. The green design marketplace was sparsely populated, almost barren. Consider what is happening now. Many design-entrepreneurs are starting to manufacture, achieve economies of scale, drive prices lower and push sustainable design into the mainstream.

Two years from now there will be no more talk of aspirational/out-of-reach sustainable luxury. Sustainable design-entrepreneurs are on the cusp of the next phase of economic growth where scale is achieved and prices begin to fall. As this transpires and more consumers articulate their demand through their purchases, multinational corporations, fueled by the profit motive, will respond to market signals and employ their vast economies of scale to drive prices for sustainably designed products even lower. Millions of consumers will be the beneficiaries as will be the planet. Sustainability might still take the form of luxury goods but it will also be found in more affordable products.

We are entering the most exciting phase of the environmental marketplace evolution. The implications for our lifestyles and our environment are enormous.

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The computer analogy isn't very strong, since there's no way costs can come down and performance go up to a similar degree with basic, everyday items like couches, pants, etc. If you look at organic and natural foods, you can see that despite years of maturing that market and growing its scale, there's still a very large amount of price discrepancy compared to conventional products - across the board.

Price/performance will improve, for sure, but there's limits to how far it can go.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 9 May 06

I don't think the market can work fast enough.
For example, I don't think we have 30 years to wait for sustainability.

Posted by: Ben Wendt on 9 May 06

I think that sustainability is partly also about honoring the work of others, not going to exploit them. Thus I encourage higher energy prices and an ecological fiscal reform. The "energy slaves" are not taxed high enough and thus human work gets quite expensive compared to the work of energy slaves.
There's one story from school which I allways like to tell: A girl throwing a biro through the classroom and just letting it lie, where it falls down. She comments her behaviour with the following words: "I got 10 of them for 0.99€, so I can afford". I think that higher prices are OK and part of the reinvention of our values. With higher prices you just don't throw your stuff away but you try getting things repaired and by this way you even support (human) labor intensive work, giving you (combined with a ecological fiscal reform) more and better paid jobs.
Maybe this thinking is a bit European, but so what :-)

Posted by: Daniel on 9 May 06

I hope that soon, the "environmental marketplace revolution" will be about flows of services instead of about products. We rarely want a product - usually, we want a service. When we can have satisfying experiences and daily lives through ultra-efficient, elegant means, without exploiting other people or damaging ecosystems - well, then we'll really have done something. Meanwhile, we're just putting "green" mustard on the same old sandwich.

Posted by: David Foley on 10 May 06

Mr. Dorfman's piece makes a few important points, yet also perhaps an error. As someone else noted, computers – a commodity – is probably not the best analog for luxury goods or even sustainable furniture. A better example is the automobile industry, and specifically, the evolution of hybrids. These are luxury goods, which are striving to reach a part of the mainstream market. While we could analyze the prices and corresponding market share of hybrids compared with traditional cars, the fact is: these new models are making a world changing / environmental impact while equally important, forcing executives to change the way they think about the market and us (their customers).

Two additional points worth noting:

For executives reading this… we (the buyers) aren't just old and balding hippies; the market – and especially Generation Y – is big (quantifiable) and seeks sustainable, world changing, thoughtful products.

The concern, though, from a manufacturing-retailing-consumer standpoint is this: corporations may be inclined to push products to market fast with the best possible spin. “Greenwashing” is the fear and that may the biggest barrier to a few products becoming the iPod of the sustainable marketplace and creating real change and a real impact.

Posted by: Daniel Helfman on 10 May 06

I see this from another perspective.

Rich people exist and will continue to exist.

Rich people are at the top of the consumption heap
and they consume more than anybody else.

So if rich people don't go for haute green, we then perish.
I don't think social justice can work fast enough.
We don't have 30 years to wait for a wave of
proletarian equality.

This means MORE talk of aspirational/out-of-reach sustainable luxury, because luxury is what the luxury market does in order to look luxe compared to the rest of the social order. When you're biting your lip in envy and pressing your nose to the window, that's the whole point of a luxe market. If you
ratchet up toward that through economies of scale, it'll just ratchet up toward something else that the middle-class can't reach.

That's as elementary as tying a stick with a carrot to the neck of a mule. And what's the real story here? The story is: two years ago there was no Loomstate, Edun, Delano Collection, Scrapile, Loop Organic, Material Furniture, Brave Space, Argington, Rhubarb Décor, Voltaic Systems, Anna Sova, Qcollection. Look, the mule is moving! Just a little, and not at the breakneck gallop we need to avoid a general calamity, but the mule is moving! I'm thrilled!

Posted by: Bruce Sterling on 10 May 06

After seeing the headline I imediatly thought of "Sustainable luxury" as in the luxury of being able to eat fresh tomatoes in the winter (at least where I am from). This is a "sustaianble luxury myth" it is not possible. The big myth is that we can have luxury *and* sustainability.

Or maybe it's not such a myth if every one changed their concept of what luxury is. I personally have not problem eating potatoes or canned tomatoes in the winter, but so long as people still want the luxury of fresh tomatoes it is always a choice between that or sustainability.

The same goes for the luxury of being able to travel across the globe in a day (to attend a conference that will help us to save the world).

The "luxury" of being able to drive across town t oget to work.

The luxury of staying up past sundown, watching TV, playing a social networking computer game or writing on a blog, or some other electrically powered device.

The luxury of taking a crap in a sustainable way with 6 billion people crapping each day in an ecosystem that can't handle 6 billion people's worth of crap.

Posted by: Guliko on 11 May 06

well said Guliko.

Posted by: Ben Wendt on 11 May 06

Very good points Guliko makes. I'd like the luxury of deciding for myself what luxury is, avoiding those who'd like to colonize my mind with manufactured desires- because I'm a person, not a mule.

When we change our view a bit, many luxurious opportunities await.

Although I live in a cold place, I eat fresh vegetables all winter, grown in a simple greenhouse with no heat other than the sun. They aren't tomatoes, but they're delicious, nutritious and fresh.

I look forward to a life where it's okay for my travel across the globe to take a week or two, by bullet train, ship or dirigible, because there's so much of interest along the way and because I have the luxury of time.

I look forward to no longer needing to own a car, because I can travel locally by bicycle, on the tram, minibus, Zip Car, or other elegant method.

I look forward to replacing my 15-watt compact fluorescent with an efficient 3-watt LED sometime in the next 5 years. I look forward to my next computer using 1/3 as much electricity as my present one. Right now, I'm burdened by needing about 7 to 8 kilowatt-hours a day to run my household and business - I look forward to reducing that to 4 or less, and obtaining the power from local renewable sources.

I look forward to the luxury of walking through a park with wetlands, ponds, flow-forms and picnic sites, where the water, despite being defecated in by several hundred people, reaches the sea clean enough to bathe in - as I've seen in Jarna, Sweden.

I long for the luxury of a life rich in friends and experiences, unencumbered by superfluous crap - the luxury of not feeling like Jacob Marley's ghost.

Posted by: David Foley on 12 May 06

Why do we keep waiting for multi-national corporations and politicians to fix everything in favor of spirit. Is this really what they're set up to do?
The article is called the sustainable luxury myth, but what about the myth of vast economies of scale that only multi-national's have the ability to tap into. "Economies of scale" are usually achieved by exploiting human effort or natural resources well below their natural and sustainable cost. Are there examples of economies of scale that haven't hurt some human aspect of a system? For example, the recent popularity of organic foods has led multinational corporations to "employ their vast economies of scale" to the market. The result is that goverments have been lobbied to reduce the standards applied to organic labelling and small producers that follow the highest standards are left with no way to differeniate themselves to the consumer and sustain their business. I agree with Daniel that we should all get used to paying a fair price for the care and human effort that goes into bringing a socially responsible products and leave the Walmart mentality that everything needs to cost less so we can consume more out of it.

Posted by: Gaurav on 14 May 06



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