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Luxury in the new normal: Leadership and innovation in 2020 and beyond

Business as usual for the luxury industry is over. 2020 brings with it the end of a positive growth cycle, as analysts expect global luxury sales to contract 25-45 percent in 2020, with a recovery that could take up to three years.

And yet, the coronavirus pandemic, for all the havoc it has wrought on the industry, has pushed the sustainable business agenda even further, forcing business leaders to reevaluate their role in society and better articulate their value, not just in terms of money, but also in terms of corporate purpose and the way they contribute to the world.  

Recent months have revealed several fragilities and also several strengths as the luxury industry navigates its future. Companies demonstrated the depth of their commitment and a certain financial resilience by shifting production lines to manufacture hand sanitizer and masks or forgoing government aid to demonstrate social solidarity. Brands have reimagined design and distribution of products in a context of lower sales volumes and digital acceleration. The crisis also has multiplied the insecurity of some workers and left some precious material supply chains, such as cashmere and exotic skins, even more vulnerable.  

As luxury fashion brands adapt and survive in the “new normal,” they can drive a renewed vision of the luxury business that demonstrates how to decouple volume growth from value growth. They can seize opportunities to strengthen resilience and further set the example when it comes to long-term value creation, business transformation and progressive leadership.

To drive innovation and demonstrate leadership in the years ahead, luxury leaders should consider these three opportunities:

1. Deepen luxury’s value proposition

Luxury brands can deepen their value proposition by further embedding efficiency, sustainability and inclusion into business models and practices, building on the new approaches that the pandemic accelerated. Designers are streamlining collections, focusing on evergreen best sellers and incorporating upcycling, regenerative materials and use of dead stock (French) in collections.

Meanwhile, digitization is accelerating efficiency and agility. Design teams are working together online and using virtual sampling. Showrooms and fashion weeks have gone digital. And brands are hurrying to transfer business to online outlets.

Supply chain experts argue companies can make less product and increase margins as they reduce waste (via better inventory management), better connect supply and demand (via strengthened omni-channel programs) and optimize understanding of client needs and trends (via enhanced client data). For an industry on the receiving end of considerable finger-pointing for its destruction of unsold merchandise, the win-win of increased embedded efficiency and sustainability is substantial — less environmental impact, more financial resilience and, potentially, redistribution of investment across the supply chain to benefit primary raw material producers and workers upstream.

For an industry on the receiving end of considerable finger-pointing for its destruction of unsold merchandise, the win-win of increased embedded efficiency and sustainability is substantial.

Optimized distribution of value creation is important in a context where the pandemic has rendered raw material and manufacturing workers more vulnerable. For example, the Sustainable Fibre Alliance raised the alarm of COVID-19’s considerable consequences for the economic security and well-being of cashmere goat herding families. In the case of exotic leather, a controversial material prior to the pandemic according to animal rights activists, conservationists recently have raised their voice about the necessity of protecting the benefits to species, people and ecosystems generated by this trade.

At the moment, luxury brands are still struggling to develop the business cases and financially support all of these actors. One promising mechanism to explore is a “reverse-sourcing” approach whereby value chain actors for a specific raw material pilot interventions to drive positive change and then connect the dots to create a traceable, sustainable supply chain.

In one example, this approach allowed vulnerable suppliers who committed to improved environmental and social practices to broker a long-term contract with a global beauty company at a premium — enabling investment in long-term sustainability while the beauty brand achieved the security of a traceable, sustainable supply chain.

Additionally, luxury brands can leverage sustainable finance mechanisms and growing investor interest in ESG to partner on long-term value creation. Following on the heels of Prada, Burberry, Moncler and other players outside the sector, Chanel made its first public offering on the Luxembourg Stock Exchange in September. Its sustainability bond will support business transformation including raw material extraction, regenerative agriculture and innovation across its supply chain. This announcement is notable as it signals the emergence of a deeper value proposition and the importance of communicating this value to key stakeholders.

2. Build on luxury’s predisposition for circular and regenerative practices

Over the last several years, the industry has adopted several circular economy initiatives, such as the CEDRE recycling platform (French) initiated by LVMH, support for innovation via Fashion for Good and training designers on circular economy principles.

Yet huge barriers still exist to scaling an efficient luxury fashion circular ecosystem — whether it’s closing the loop on certain product categories such as luxury leisurewear and sneakers, which have shorter lives than typical luxury items; acquiring sustainable, regenerative materials in sufficient quality and quantity (such as leather); or fully embracing the idea of producing fewer new items, including encouraging the multiple lives of products and brand-controlled secondhand markets (as Gucci has just done with The RealReal).

Further, as luxury companies make their way in the “new normal,” there is a strong rationale to focus on the third leg in the circular economy stool: regenerating the natural and agricultural systems they rely on for their high-quality natural materials.

With 60 percent of species and ecosystem functionality lost, the clock continues to tick. In 2021, the Convention on Biological Diversity will launch a new 10-year strategic plan with the Business for Nature coalition driving business support for policy changes and new targets. Additionally, late last month, an informal working group, Task Force on Nature-related Disclosure, was launched. The work will take several months but signals an expectation of increasing accountability for companies and investors related to their impacts on nature. Luxury brands are well-poised to demonstrate leadership on this and other aspects of the circular economy.

Luxury brands also can explore two newer areas: first, assessing their performance against a comprehensive set of circularity indicators to focus on circular economy practices across entire operations and increase robustness of efforts. Second, brands can explore how to take a people-centered approach to circular fashion systems which ensure that as new infrastructure and business models are created, they are inclusive and fair for people from the outset.

3. Demonstrate socially progressive leadership

As described above, in the urgency of initial responses to the coronavirus, luxury companies relied on their financial resources and business infrastructure to contribute to their workforce and local communities. Against the profound upheaval transforming our world, luxury leaders have significant opportunity to continue using this power to drive positive change. Doing so will help to preserve the social acceptance of luxury and create the stable operating environment needed by all businesses.

Earlier this year, BSR published a report discussing five principles for business action to contribute towards creating a 21st century social contract that supports economic prosperity and social mobility. While the luxury industry can contribute to all principles, it is well-placed to focus on contributions to developing stakeholder capitalism, an approach to business strategy focused on long-term value creation and based on a multi-stakeholder model.

Specific actions luxury companies can take include: ensure that corporate governance structures, including board and executive leadership, are inclusive and consider the interests and perspectives of all; pay their fair share of taxes; and align policy advocacy, participation in industry associations and monetary contributions with environmental and social objectives.

What’s next

Given luxury’s outsize influence on society, luxury brands and their leaders have significant opportunity to build on their efforts and demonstrate the behaviors we need to drive resilient and thriving societies.

When will we see every luxury CEO’s bonus dependent on achieving Scope 3 climate targets, paying a living wage in supply chains and achieving zero product destruction? Thriving in the “new normal” will take nothing less than bold leadership such as this.

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