Luxury in the age of sustainability
In the mid-90s through the early 00s rapid market growth and diversification brought luxury products to the mainstream, middle-class consumer. This development was largely imbued with the signifiers of “Old Luxury” such as excess, opulence and status — visual codes that had been financially, geographically and culturally inaccessible to the general public before this time. So, as luxury became more available and diffused into the mainstream, it’s defining codes needed to re-scripted to maintain their exclusivity. This period of reform for the Luxury market coincided with an era of mass-market imitation, global counterfeiting and a financial crisis which called on Luxury to evolve into its next form.
Today, New Luxury paradigm has shifted from being about the product to being about the process and experience. New Luxury embodies the concept of closed-loop design, with an energy efficient and zero-waste manufacturing, retail and disposal chain. Environmental and human ethics guide the formation of a circular economy, through a holistic supply, production and disposal process, with innovation informing every step. According to a Gemic report on the Rise of New Luxury, Luxury has been transformed from the “Gilded Object” coated in gold to the “Optimized Object” designed for functionality and innovation. The aspirational Luxury product of today should satisfy all possible renditions, replacing thousands of other temporal designs with the all-in-one membership: The optimization of utility, quality and iconicity. Using the luxury food industry as an example, where in sustainable farming all parts of a slaughtered animal and its by-products must be used, luxury food producers understood that by establishing a philosophical brand narrative they could promote value and market differentiation and secure consumer loyalty. As such, New Luxury can also be defined by appealing to a new type of consumer, who sympathizes with a greater holistic narrative and zero-waste, circular economy.
In the post-recession age, the new luxury consumer is mindful and future-oriented, looking to remove themselves from outdated models of mass consumption. The new luxury product should address this modern consumer temperament. Designed for function and longevity, new luxury should reduce excessive production to fewer, better-designed products using more efficient operations.
It is up to the consumer of luxury today, to define their own criteria and imbue their own sense of meaning within the luxury experience, and to buy accordingly. New luxury has moved away from the hegemony of Paris, New York and London towards addressing the profound challenges of our fragmented reality. Today, it is the task of informed designers to combine philosophies founded in sustainability with a deeper knowledge of materials, processes and economies to contribute to societal change. The role of the designer is vital in changing our previous models of innovation and manufacturing, as the issues we face today are largely a result of poor design the past. The solution is to re-think unsustainable models into self-sustaining ones, to re-assess our rate of consumption, and to communicate not only the issue but more importantly the solution to the end user.