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British Luxury Wants to be a Sustainability Leader—Here’s How It’ll Get There

The British luxury industry wants to be at the frontlines of the sustainability movement.

Last week, Walpole, a trade body that represents more than 270 British luxury brands and retailers, including Burberry, Harrods and Mulberry, unveiled a “sustainability manifesto” to help its members prioritize both people and planet in their businesses.

Worth 48 billion pounds ($62.5 billion) to the U.K. economy, British luxury is flourishing at an annual rate of 9.6 percent and employs 156,000 people across the country in “long-term, sustainable jobs,” according to Walpole. If the sector is to achieve its target of 65 billion pounds ($84.6 billion) over next five years, however, sustainability must be “at the heart of every brand’s strategy,” CEO Helen Brocklebank noted.

With millennials and Gen Z projected to account for half of all luxury sales by 2025, “true sustainability” must come with a clean conscience, she said.

Indeed, 90 percent of Walpole members surveyed by McKinsey & Company last year pegged sustainability as a business priority because of a growing focus on social responsibility and changing consumer expectations and purchasing behaviors.

Roughly 30 percent of millennials and Gen Zers, McKinsey found, are willing to pay more for sustainable products. Similarly, investors and shareholders are increasingly demanding sustainable investments, with a third of global assets now managed using sustainable strategies. Governments and regulators are also “setting the pace” for change through legislation, McKinsey added. And a 2019 Swytch survey found that 70 percent of employees would rather work for a company with a green footprint.

Walpole’s manifesto, which aligns with the United Nations Sustainability Goals, seeks to inspire industry best practices in sustainability based on four overarching principles: leading the transition toward a circular economy, safeguarding the environment and natural resources, guiding partners and suppliers toward sustainable practices and advocating “equal and respectful” working conditions.

The organization is advising members to transition 100 percent of their plastic packaging to be reusable or “widely recyclable,” with at least 30 percent post-consumer recycled content. It’s also encouraging brands and retailers to halve their Scope 1, 2 and 3 greenhouse-gas emissions, source 100 percent of their energy from renewables, reduce water use across own operations by 30 percent and aim for zero discharge of hazardous chemicals.

U.K. luxury trade body Walpole has unveiled a “sustainability manifesto” to help its members prioritize sustainability in their businesses.

Shoppers queue outside the luxury department store Harrods in Knightsbridge ahead of the opening of the Boxing Day sale in 2018.

Other targets include zero waste to landfill and incineration across own operations, 100 percent traceability across full supply chains and paying living wages.

No deadlines have been assigned as yet, though several brands have their own internal goals. Burberry, for instance, has pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 95 percent, with respect to a 2016 baseline, by 2022. Mulberry intends to become net-zero by 2050, and Stella McCartney has promised to eliminate single-use and unnecessary plastic packaging by 2025. All three are signatories of the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, which aims to limit global temperature increases to a further 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Still, there will be challenges. In McKinsey’s survey, the majority of Walpole members cited responsible sourcing of raw materials, waste management (including recycling and reuse) and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions among their biggest obstacles. Collaboration, particularly with supply-chain players and peers, they have acknowledged, will become increasingly vital.

“The luxury industry needs to collaborate and enact policies and programs at scale to protect the environment, implement more sustainable practices and support workers in its supply chains,” Pam Batty, vice president of corporate responsibility at Burberry, said in a statement. “While there is no quick fix, we are hugely supportive of Walpole’s British luxury sustainability manifesto, which will bring together established and emerging U.K. brands to implement systemic change and build a more sustainable future for our industry.”

Walpole’s role now, it said, will be to provide ongoing directional guidelines for the “sustainable journeys” of its members and to support brands and retailers with resources, forums and tools.

“As an industry that has always been upheld by the highest standards, British luxury has an obligation to lead from the front when it comes to sustainability,” Michael Ward, chairman of Walpole and managing director at Harrods, said. “There is no doubt that the commitment to quality and strong values that define our industry must now incorporate measures that prioritize sustainability within our individual businesses.”

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