The Butterfly Effect: Harnessing the Power of Information to Promote Sustainability in the Luxury Industry

I am very pleased to announce that my first article contributing to the London Entrepreneurship Review has been posted on the online publication's homepage this afternoon! I haven't written any new blog posts since early March (check out my most recent post here) because I have been focused on expanding my freelance writing contributions to the larger London community, but I can finally announce that the article is in circulation! While this style of writing is somewhat of a departure from my typical blog, I really enjoyed discussing the luxury industry from a business perspective rather than a personal one. Of course this in no way means that I will stop blogging here at Joie de la mode, in fact I've recreated the article below for your convenience. To see it live at the LER's website, please click here.  

To many consumers, the words “sustainable” and “luxury” mentioned in the same breath seem incongruous, almost an oxymoron. After all, how can a high-end brand selling beautifully crafted products to the wealthy possibly make a positive social and environmental impact in the world?

Changing this perception is the driving force behind Positive Luxury, the three-year-old brainchild of serial entrepreneur and sustainability advocate Diana Verde Nieto. Last week I sat down with Diana at Positive Luxury’s headquarters in Shoreditch, where we discussed not only her vision for the future of her company but also how far the industry has come with respect to taking corporate social responsibility seriously. Though she acknowledges that the path to a sustainable luxury economy is a journey and that each brand is on its own path, Diana also believes that we as consumers have more power than we may think when it comes to reinforcing the sustainability agenda. 

Can you tell us a bit about the mission of your organization, and how Positive Luxury began?

I believe that every person wants to do good and to make the right choices. However, this isn’t often the consumer’s frame of mind, typically because they have no way of knowing where their products come from and how they are made. Three years ago my co-founder and I began Positive Luxury to address this gap in the market. We wanted to make sustainability accessible to the consumer and to enable better buying decisions by equipping them with the right information about which companies are incorporating positive social and environmental practices into their core business.

We accomplished this by building an online platform that connects brands and consumers, thus opening the channels of communication between the two parties.  Every brand within Positive Luxury’s network applies to join the platform, and we screen each company to ensure they meet our criteria before they are awarded the globally recognized Butterfly Mark. We do the homework so the consumer doesn’t have to – all they have to do is look for the Butterfly and discover for themselves all the ways in which a brand is committed to sustainability. It’s all about transparency. 

What is the message behind the Butterfly Mark? Why a Butterfly?

About five years ago I sat next to Sir David Attenborough at the 2010 International Green Awards where he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award. It was there that he told me about the British “Blue” butterfly, a species that was all but extinct in 1979. Yet thanks to the dedication of several conservation agencies, this species was successfully reintroduced into the wild.

David’s tale of the blue butterfly resonated with me completely. It represents the fragility of life, and reminds me that as a human race we not only have the power to destroy, but also the power to create and to sustain. For me, this is what Positive Luxury is all about – empowering the collective people to do good by trusting and supporting businesses that are dedicated to creating a lasting positive impact in the world. 

As the topic of sustainability becomes more popular within the luxury sector, how are brands responding to Positive Luxury’s message? Where do you think we are in the process of becoming a “sustainably aware” industry?

I would say that most luxury brands are committed to bettering their social and environmental sustainability. The challenge is making these business practices known to the end consumer in a credible way, when they tell their own story.  With respect to brands themselves, Positive Luxury has received an incredibly enthusiastic reaction, because we enable brands to showcase their positive steps towards society and the environment, at the point of sale and in a jargon free language.

The biggest hurdle at this stage is that consumers do not have a true understanding of what it means for a brand to be sustainable. It goes beyond sourcing materials, and encompasses the entire supply chain and production operations. In order to really become a sustainably aware industry, the knowledge transfer must happen from both ends. As we introduce Positive Luxury to the global market, it is crucial that consumers come with us and adopt the practice of purchasing from Butterfly brands. 

How does Positive Luxury ensure that the brands you accept to the platform are credible, and that they maintain the adequate levels of sustainable business practices required to be a member?

What we don’t do is audit, as it doesn’t work in the long term. Put simply, if you planned to come to my house it would of course be really clean because I know you are coming, but as soon as you leave I’m going to open the closet where I’m hiding all of the mess. Instead, we leverage our in-house technology to double-check the facts given by the company and its publicly available information. We do this in real time, so that if there is ever a discrepancy, we are able to spot it and address it right away. We also recognize that sustainability is a journey and not a destination, and so if a brand does not comply with the requirements to be awarded the mark, we work with them towards this point and beyond. 

As CEO, you have visibility across all aspects of the business. What is your favorite part of the job? What is the most challenging?

My favorite part of this job is working with the brands and helping them to tell their story. The most challenging aspect is the speed at which we are scaling from a consumer perspective. I would love for every consumer to recognize the Butterfly trademark and have an intuitive sense of what it represents, but I am also conscious that this will take time. If every person who reads this interview shares it with a friend or goes online to their favorite brands and looks for the Butterfly, they will be contributing to a movement where brands that are investing in social and environmental responsibility are awarded with consumer purchases. In this way, we as consumers can make our voices heard, by voting for positive brands with our money.  

If you could give one piece of advice to current and future entrepreneurs, what would it be?

Never ever, ever, give up. You may be rejected on a daily basis, and people may tell you that you’re crazy, but if you love your product and you hold that vision nearest to your heart, just keep at it. Imagine a world without the platforms you use every day, such as Facebook and the like button - most were told that their ideas would never work. Prove those people wrong by loving your product and staying committed to your vision. 

I would like to acknowledge and thank Diana Verde Nieto, CEO of Positive Luxury, for her willingness to participate in this interview.