Is China more environmentally responsible than the West imagines the country to be? One thing is certain: the luxury industry must make ecology a key part of its strategy in the market, according to panelists at The Emergence of Sustainable Luxury in China, a conference hosted this week in Paris by digital communication agency Hylink.
“Environmental awareness may have emerged later in China than in other countries, but it seems to have developed much more quickly, if we go by studies* on the subject,” commented Eric Garcia, Director of the Luxe Beauté division at consulting group CSA (Havas) at a conference on China and environmental awareness in Paris this week. Since 2019, 85% of Chinese consumers say they have adapted their lifestyles to account for climate change, compared with 69% of the global population. Chinese consumers also appear to be more demanding, with 70% favoring biodegradable and environmentally friendly products, eco-designed packaging, traceability, and certification, to name a few.
These expectations also apply to the luxury sector, which is duty bound to set an example: 85% of Chinese consumers believe the sector should promote environmental values within society, while 85% are prepared to pay a little more for a luxury brand with environmental values. However, if a brand does not make an environmental commitment, 92% say they would reduce their purchases, while 63% report they would purchase significantly less or stop buying the brand altogether.
Fashion in particular is seeing an increase in designers committed to environmental values. The haute couture brand Guo Pei, for example, is noteworthy for having released a collection in which leather was replaced by Piñatex, a material made from pineapple by-products. And long before that, in 1997, Icicle, positioned as a sustainable clothing brand, was founded in Shanghai. The company has since expanded beyond its own borders and is preparing to open a third retail location in Paris.
Looking out for local Chinese luxury
“China is becoming an innovation lab, even though it remains the world’s manufacturing hub,” says Isabelle Capron, International Vice President of Icicle Carven China France. Noting the emergence of a “new made in China,” she believes that we will see the emergence of “new Chinese brands offering novel concepts, like French, English, Italian, and Japanese brands before them.” Eric Briones, director of Le Journal du Luxe and author of Luxe et Résilience, points to the phenomenon of Chinese brands waking up to their own creativity. “More than 60% of the projects presented at China’s Fashion Week emphasized sustainability,” he affirms.
The conference speakers agreed that “green” prospects on China’s luxury market have much to offer alternative brands and start-ups. French online jewelry brand Courbet, whose offer is comprised of synthetic diamonds and recycled gold, is launching in China this month. “We could have gone to the US,” explains the company’s President, Manuel Mallen, “but China was the obvious choice. There, we are able to engage with a new generation of environmentally aware, digital consumers who appreciate luxury.”
Communication will play an important role in the success of sustainable luxury. Yuan Zou, Hylink Director of Development, Europe Mode & Luxe, was quick to point out a “sheep effect”: “Chinese consumers tend to follow along with everyone else, and not just influencers, but also family members and colleagues. They buy sustainable because there’s a story to tell that they’re proud of.”
This makes for a striking contrast with the West, where a critical eye dominates—as well as a depressive spin on the issue of sustainability. “The new generation thinks they are living the Chinese dream,” says Capron.
Of course, the Chinese population is not single-minded. The concept of consuming less is also making inroads. Regardless of the form it takes, the rise of environmental awareness in China is good news for the planet—the impact of every initiative China undertakes will be proportional to its status as the world’s most populous and polluting country. And there are dichotomies: China remains the leading producer of coal-powered energy, but is also the world leader in solar and wind energy, following massive investments in the technology. Nathalie Bastianelli, author of Quand la Chine s’éveille verte, (When China Wakes Up Green) notes that the country has pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 and that penal measures will “force” polluting companies to meet that goal.
For a focus on packaging and sustainability in China today, download LUXE PACK's 2021 White Paper here.
*Figures cited were provided by CSA/Havas