Sustainable Luxury--Oh, Dear

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The NYTimes ran an item linking luxury and sustainability. The reporter, at the least, recognized the irony in conflating the two concepts.

To many people, “sustainable luxury” is a term that might best be found in the dictionary under the entry for oxymoron, right alongside “postal service” and “military intelligence.” … After all, luxury often carries with it connotations of excess and waste, and it is associated with fashion, an industry prone to fads that change at least as quickly as the seasons.

It is not just the matchup with luxury that is troublesome; it is the use of sustainable as a modifier of anything. I always argue that this grammatical construction focuses attention on the noun and loses the real meaning of sustainability. But pairing sustainability with luxury has its own particular problem because it implies the desirability of maintaining the idea that wealth can and does create privilege. Attempting through acts of corporate social responsibility to offset social harms historically created in the production of luxury goods is meritorious but fails to recognize a deeper-seated issue. Luxury goods are defined by reference to great disparities in income or wealth that is in itself a pervasive symptom of unsustainability.

Increasingly, consumers are demanding that the goods they buy be made in ways that do not harm the environment or the workers who make them. They are often willing to pay more for “green” products or “fair trade” goods. And in the current economic downturn, luxury brands are searching for new reasons to persuade consumers to pay for their high-priced products… In essence, the sales pitch has gone from “treat yourself; you can afford it,” to “the planet can’t afford for you to spend less.”

Marginal practices labeled as corporate social responsibility cannot wash away the harms done in pursuing a company’s basic business, whether it is dealing in luxury goods, like diamonds, or more basic commodities, like oil or bananas. Claiming that CSR is something their clientele demands and that then responding makes everything else all right just doesn’t parse for me. Something is dreadfully wrong with this logic.

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