Sustainable Luxury – Does it have to be Ethics VS Aesthetics?

By Oliver Burns

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October 3, 2013|Luxury Design

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  • re luxury and sustainability mutually exclusive terms or can they go hand in hand? This is the question that fuelled an interesting debate between Joe Burns and an esteemed panel of guests last week at Decorex 2013, and here we explore the issue further. We know that luxury and sustainability don’t have to be opposing concepts, however there are challenges that are holding back the change in behaviour that we need to realise in the luxury industry before the two can work well together. The most important obstacle to achieving sustainable luxury is the distinct lack of high quality product with sustainable criteria at the very top end of the market. Whilst other sectors are blazing a trail with sustainable initiatives, the luxury industry has a way to go.
Image sourced via Oliver Burns – Maya Romanoff Sustainable Capiz Shell Tiles

Oliver Burns work in some of the most beautiful homes in the world; we want to specify ethical alternatives for our clients that don’t compromise on quality or style. Because we don’t manufacture, we don’t have a value chain to trace back for each of the products we specify and rely on transparency from our suppliers. We are excited by the innovative potential of this challenge; and want to work with responsible, forward thinking brands that understand the impact of the products and materials they supply and the opportunity to design products that will drive built-in behaviour change.

Image sourced via Top Gear

The other key issue is around perceptions. The majority of people don’t perceive a sustainable lifestyle as desirable. In fact, in some ways it is seen as a sacrifice, in contradiction to the lifestyle of the high net worth individual where there is a direct correlation between wealth and carbon footprint.

Image sourced via Net-A-Porter

This is where we can really make a difference. Luxury brands have huge influence and resonance worldwide, and have the ability to create a step change in perceptions and ultimately make sustainable behaviour aspirational. A good example of this is the Green Carpet Challenge project, which is dedicated to raising the profile and highlighting the issues of sustainability within the fashion industry, which has historically had poor green credentials. Having worked with all of the iconic fashion houses, their latest collaboration is a partnership with Net-A-Porter to create an exclusive sustainable capsule collection featuring five British designers – Christopher Bailey, Victoria Beckham, Christopher Kane, Erdem and Roland Mouret, which marries luxury and sustainability and brings sustainable style to the mainstream.

Image sourced via Design Rulz

With these challenges in mind, we need to look further than the conventional notions of sustainabilityin luxury design and development. Due to the nature of the super-prime market, a large amount of our work is in historically significant buildings, and as such we believe that restoring and preserving architectural features is just as important for sustainable development.

Image sourced via Oliver Burns

Many of the clients that are drawn to our approach are not driven by overt displays of wealth or conspicuous consumption, but look to us for best in class, thoughtful designs that will endure.Designing with longevity in mind is also part of the bigger picture that needs to be considered when discussing sustainability. Quality and durability is key and therefore materials have to be specified with this delicate balance in mind. A rapidly renewable bamboo carpet would work well in a bedroom, but in a high traffic area such as an entrance hall we would recommend a natural stone such as marble (responsibly mined) that is timeless and will last for many years.

Image sourced via Aiveen Daly

Where possible our team creatively works towards reducing, reusing, recycling and upcycling. We aim to do more with less, from using thin veneers that create luxurious effects to ensuring that carpets are templated to minimise waste. Using antique pieces within a scheme or upcycling is a particular favourite of ours, when unloved vintage fabrics, furniture and accessories are transformed into beautiful objet d’art, such as designs by Petit h from Hermès or furniture from Aiveen Daly.

As part of our internal Environmental Management System (EMS) we aim to source goods and services locally where possible, and our little black book is full of highly skilled local artisans & craftsmen. Externally, we also offset our carbon emissions and are a Certified CarbonNeutral company.

Image sourced via Hermès

The last consideration that makes up the bigger picture is that it shouldn’t just be about sustainability. It’s about social responsibility. At Oliver Burns we believe that luxury should transcend the purely aesthetic and reflect deeper values and meaning, which we call Thoughtful Luxury. Thoughtful Luxury goes beyond sustainability as a concept – it permeates everything we do and informs how we act as a brand- from the people we work with, to our environment and the wider society.

Ultimately, we would like to see a Thoughtful Luxury industry with deeper values expressed through social and environmental excellence. Sustainable Luxury fundamentally has to be design led, but luxury brands have the ability to make sustainable behaviours aspirational. If we all work towards this goal, in ten years from now we won’t be talking about luxury and sustainability as opposing concepts, moreover sustainable criteria will be integrated within our designs as standard, transparent across the industry and expected as the norm by our clients.

Written by SL

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