As we leave behind a year of record-breaking environmental events, the trade-off between luxury and sustainability couldn’t be more important. To understand it we first have to determine what we really mean by luxury. 

I spoke to a few of my team and clients when writing this and it was apparent that luxury is completely subjective. What’s luxurious to one person may not be to another. What is clear, though, is that luxury generally means rare and costly, much like our planet’s resources. Diamonds are an obvious example, in which De Beers once infamously controlled the supply of rare stones in an effort to increase demand and raise prices. 

But does that mean that rhino horns, elephant ivory, shark fins and tiger bones are also luxury because they are rare and expensive? The historical answer would be “yes”, but I hope these days we can agree that to say so would be utter bollocks and, as intelligent, problem-solving people with the ability to influence change, that it’s time to redefine what we view, and sell, as luxury. 

As a marketing specialist, I see this as a process of simply listing all the conventions of “luxury” we currently use across products, branding and marketing, and reviewing how sustainable they really are. 

Take weighty wood, metal or cardboard packaging, or thick, custom-made glass and layers of premium wrapping. We know deep down all this isn’t really necessary, but we have all come to understand the symbolism around these sensory cues as meaning luxury. By definition they are all markers of luxury – and come at great expense to the consumer, the producer, the retailer and the planet – but what if branding and marketing experts across the globe clubbed together to place higher value on other luxury cues? 

The culinary expertise of a revered chef, or the palate of a master distiller or sommelier at the top of their game, could be a luxury brought to life by using them as ambassadors of a product’s flavour. The notion of novelty – enjoying the previously unseen, untasted or unexperienced – could be defined as a luxury, lending itself to the exclusive discovery of limited editions, providing they don’t reinvent unsustainable packaging every time. Just having more time is a luxury to many: the opportunity to savour a product properly rather than being constrained by it. 

Let’s face it, we’re all dying and our time is finite, and maybe luxury brands can improve our use of it. It’s said that knowledge is power, but I’d say it’s a luxury too. Brands in the luxury market can use heritage and storytelling (marketing buzzword bingo alert!) to pass on knowledge to their consumers, allowing them to retell it as their own. 

There are many more examples, but my point is essentially that luxury and sustainability can co-exist, but not in the way that we currently view luxury. We collectively need to review which signifiers of luxury should and shouldn’t be held in high regard, re-engineer which symbols we assign value to, and then educate consumers to come around to our point of view.

Before anyone says “but my beautiful heavy bottle is reusable”, note that luxury is subjective enough to re-engineer our perception of it, but sustainability is not. Before long consumers will have cupboards and garages full of lovely “reusable” bottles and premium packaging that will just end up in recycling centres or landfill.