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Luxury & sustainability – a contradiction in terms?


Luxury & Sustainability - do they go together or is it a contradiction in terms? I was asked this question a while ago in Von-Magazin, an Austrian lifestyle magazine for the upper class. The editors wanted to look behind the luxury goods. Since the contents are still up to date, they can be read again here.

February 2020
Online translation of the original text with DeepL.

Luxury & Sustainability. Does this go together or is it a contradiction in terms? An interview with the Austrian Von Magazine that is still valid today.
December 2018

VM: What does the overused word "sustainability" actually mean?

SP: The concept of sustainability has its roots in the 18th century. It was already recognized at that time that you can only take as much wood from the forest as can grow back, so that resources don't run out. A more recent definition is that of the UN in the 1980s: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". It all seems very logical. Especially when we think of our children. We must give them a world worth living in. But we don't act on it.

VM: How long have you been dealing with this topic?

SP: For 20 years. My newborn daughter had a wild rash from the injected strawberries I had eaten. You have to imagine that. She got a second one from the branded diapers, which is why I switched to organic food, organic diapers and natural care products. At that time, all this was already available, but it was still sinfully expensive. Professionally, in 2013, a customer's desire for a green event - a sustainable event - was the occasion to delve deeper into corporate sustainability or, in other words, "corporate social responsibility". Since then, I have been training myself in this area, and in the fall I will begin my master's degree course in Sustainability & Responsible Management. But then that's enough learning!

VM: To get to our big question: Is it still possible to afford luxury today and is it sustainable?

SP: The question is what luxury generally means in our time. Is it the Louis Vuitton bag that I can buy in any chic shopping street in the world with the appropriate change, or is true luxury something completely different? Maybe it's the custom-made bag of a small Viennese manufactory, where all the value creation takes place in the region and the material comes from an environmentally conscious tannery. Where I can go to the workshop, get personal advice from the designer and have the good piece repaired if necessary. That has become priceless today. This would be a sustainable and highly exclusive bag. With the added benefit that no one in Milan would come to me with the same piece.

Basically, the one does not exclude the other. I just have to take a closer look. We make a decision with every purchase, every trip and every investment and thus always support a system. This can be a good or a bad one. Not long ago, H&M, Zara and Marks & Spencer were in the media because their viscose factories in Asia are causing massive environmental pollution and poisoning their people there. If I negate this and continue to buy there, I approve of this system and promote it. But if I boycott the company and confront it on the social media channels, then I am helping to make the world a better place. A shitstorm can be infinitely powerful.

And that applies in all areas. My big topic is wine. Take a conventionally produced Australian Syrah for 3.90 euros and an organic Blaufršnkisch from Burgenland for 15 euros. One has travelled halfway around the globe, the other not even 70 kilometres. Which one is more sustainable and probably better by classes? You only have to think for a moment, then everything should be clear.

And that can be applied to everything, right down to jewellery. I can always ask my jeweller if he works with certified gold, because only this guarantees that the workers in the mines are treated properly. If his customers are interested, at some point his business future will depend on it. We consumers have an incredible amount of power and it is great fun to use it for the right things.

VM: If I understand it correctly, sustainability basically encompasses just about every area of our modern life?

SP: Exactly. Food is of course a huge issue, but so is the investment of money. Building and living and our way of travelling. Diesel, gasoline, electric car, or will the old Audi actually do it for a while? Does it have to be the new iPhone or does this whole system of eternal updating not get on my nerves infinitely anyway? These are the decisions I make every day.

But very important: Not everything is always and for everyone feasible, you would go crazy. Just start thinking and acting accordingly in any area. That would be a great start. Above all, luxury also means enjoying life.