Luxury—seeking out the unusual or the exotic for its rarity and prestige—has always been a global affair. International trading in luxury goods is an ancient practice that dates back as early as the first century BC when textiles and other goods were brought to Europe from China. But as globalization has made lifestyle luxuries faster, cheaper, and accessible to everyone, we are witnes-sing a new consumer mindset that challenges the definition of the luxury, and creates entirely new categories of modern distinction. We have selected 3 lifestyle trends, we think will lead the way for the 21st century.
Luxury - the quest for exotic and prestigious products - has always been a global affair. International trading in luxury goods is an ancient practice. As early as the first century BC, textiles and other goods were brought to Europe from China. By Medieval times, precious commodities such as cotton, silk, spices, and coffee were traded to the West by a complex sequence of international transactions with merchants of the Byzantine Empire at its centre.
Since globalization has made lifestyle commodities faster, cheaper, and most importantly, accessible to everyone, the majority of people in the Western world currently live a life of ‘democratic luxury’. The developments of global trade during the past decades has helped bring significant economic benefits to consumers worldwide with lowered prices on goods once considered luxuries—from big screen TVs to peaches during winter—and increased the purchasing power of low-income consumers. For the Western world, trade has helped keep inflation in check, provided new markets for goods and services, and allowed countries such as China and India to dramatically reduce poverty.
Yet, along with the positive effects on the economic scale, the luxury-for-everybody economy has also raised the issues of meaning and value. First of all, the impact of global brand communications and marketing with its ready-made brand experiences has challenged the very definition of luxury as a concept —luxury is no longer for the chosen few. Secondly, increased competition has resulted in higher consumer expectations, faster fashion cycles, and shorter product lifetime—leaving conspicuous consumption in an unstable position only heading towards confusion, exhaustion, and ultimately collapse. The Western world has already witnessed the first consequence —a crash fuelled by the global financial crisis—and now faces the challenges of a new reality where natural resources have become severely limited. Suddenly, the Western world is at a turning point in consumer history, where there simply is not enough supply. After fifty years of enjoying a seemingly endless supply of lifestyle commodities, Western consumers have to deal with the complex consequences of their former patterns of consumption.
The Western world needs to find ways to embrace conspicuous consumption. According to the Financial Times, a Citigroup report says that American consumers are turning towards conscientious consumption and focusing much more on thrift.
Further, during the past ten years there has been a massive move towards consumer concepts that are taking this change of conscience into account. With markets such as the food, skincare, and travel industry as frontrunners, it is clear that the combination of wealth and eco-awareness of the Western world is creating entirely new categories of conscience-driven luxury that allow individuals to solve the complexity of their lifestyle and find a new balance of living. We have taken a look at the emerging lifestyle trends we think will lead the way for the 21st century and re-define the concept of luxury.
POST-MATERIALISM - THE 21st CENTURY MINDSET
’Postmaterialism’ is known as a value orientation that emphasizes self-expression and quality of life over financial and physical security, gradually liberating individuals from the stress of basic acquisitive or materialistic needs. Postmaterialism places little emphasis on traditional cultural norms, especially those that limit individual self-expression and well-being, including both religious and bureaucratic authority. Instead, top priority is given to goals such as environmental protection, freedom of speech, and gender equality. In the early 1970s, political scientist Ronald Inglehart developed the notorious theory of Post-materialism.
Prior to that, consumers in general tended to prioritize so-called materialist values such as economic growth, individual security, and maintaining order. However, the introduction of the welfare state and levels of prosperity that were unprecedented in human history, lead to a feeling of security that caused an intergenerational value change, particularly among citizens living in Western countries. The shift towards Post-Materialism, also referred to by Ronald Inglehart as “the silent revolution”, has occurred as a gradual process in which the materialistic values of industrial society that tend to focus on economic accumulation, social advancement, and prestige have been replaced with post-materialistic values that stress the importance of self-development, quality of life, civic participation and meaningful work.
In his blog, Swiss lecturer and business consultant Christopher H. Cordey describes the profound changes that the Post-Materialist culture shift has created in the luxury market. Quoting a report from 2009 with surveys conducted among affluent luxury consumers, Cordey describes how the lifestyle of luxury indulgence synonymous with self-gratification, excessiveness, and wastefulness is no longer the American ideal. Luxury consumers now subscribe to a desire to do good and give back, often taking concrete steps to make the world a better place. “When the current recession is over, the luxury market is going to be very different from the way it was before the current crisis. The next generation of affluent consumers are thinking about the impact of their consumption on future generations and learning that conspicuous consumption is not the way to grow wealth, to achieve happiness or to make their lives more meaningful.”
According to Cordey, luxury brands must understand and address the needs of new affluent ethical consumers. They cannot afford not too. “The question is not to make profit, but rather how they make profit.” Adding an extra P to the triple bottom line, future luxury, Cordey states, is about Prestige, People, Planet, Profit.
SLOW FASHION - THE ANTIDOTE
Sandy Black, author of the extensive volume ‘Eco-chic- the Fashion Paradox’, envisions a world of ‘slowing’ fashion that chimes with the slow-movement in the food industry and in culture generally, as an antidote to our consumer- and technologically-driven society. Black states that the clash of the fast fashion paradigm of cheaper and faster clothes has called into question the fashion industry as a whole as well as consumer practices that enable the situation to perpetuate. Thanks to fast fashion such as the two dollar t-shirt or six pounds jeans, ‘Disposable’, Black says, is becoming a euphemism for ‘use once and throw away’ in contemporary society, describing items that are made from cheap materials, but which have lasting impact on landfill waste. Black’s fashion vision resonates in t
he industry with a new focus on today’s value chain and a strong desire to do things differently. Similarly, in an interview, Leyla Piedasyesh, the designer behind German label Lala Berlin, proclaims that she hopes fashion consumers will demand quality and treat their clothes better. “Right now, the masses don’t care, and labels supply a market of overproduction in order to offer cheaper prices. The situation is similar to the financial crisis. At some point it will crash, and something has to happen to the fashion industry. I just don’t know what exactly.”
According to Black, the emerging concepts of ‘slow fashion’, presented by bespoke and longer-life products, new definitions of luxury, and appreciations of craftsmanship directly contrast fast and cheap ‘no value’ disposable fashion. In ‘Eco-chic- the Fashion Paradox’, Black takes a look at the UK fashion market and uses case-studies to prove how conscience consumption and responsible luxury are now buzz words in the fashion arena. The mainstream fashion industry, she claims, has recognized the need to adopt a more transparent and philanthropic attitude to its indulgent lifestyle in tandem with the luxury sector. The fashion sector has been somewhat slow to respond to the zeitgeist and to the potential influence of luxury brands in terms of responsibility, integrity, morality, and ethics.
The only threat, Black argues, is that having previously been associated with excess rather than discreet consumption, the concept of responsible and conscientious luxury consumption is somewhat paradoxical in itself. The hard part is separating superficial conscience from a genuine change in attitude from the super rich minority—a ‘green is the new gold’ attitude. However, according to Black, renewed consumer expectations and a general demand for durability put a new perspective on things. In the ‘90s, people were willing to compromise durability for style. Things have changed: even if the Slow Fashion movement does represent a lifestyle trend rather than a long-term consumer paradigm, buying long-lasting craftsmanship, high quality, and unique items means they will be treasured for a long time and become heirlooms of the future. In that way, the movement contributes to a lower rate of consumption and waste and has thus served its purpose.
GREEN ESCAPES - TIME TO GROW
The shift in consumer focus—from the ostentatious high-speed lifestyle to superb quality and long-lasting values—shows that luxury in the 21st century foregrounds the appreciation for intangible qualities that stem from experimental and sensory experiences. The new mindset among Western countries, and the fact that materialist luxury is gradually being replaced by a post-materialist consumer movement focused on sustainable living, social justice, and personal development, affects most global industries. During the last decade, Ecotourism proved itself to be a growing industry with room for supreme personal luxury and unique experiences. Voluntourism, Zero Carbon Hotels, organic lodges, and Agro-ecotourism are all new categories of a green travel trend. This trend serves as a post-materialist rebellion against a homogenized high-end travel style with impersonal white-on-white minimalist hotels. Ecotourism is rooted in the environmental movement of the late 1970s. By the early 1990s, it was the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry, expanding globally between 20 and 34 per cent per year. In 2004, eco- and nature tourism were growing three times faster than the global tourism industry as a whole. According to Travel Weekly, sustainable tourism could grow to 25 per cent of the world’s travel market by 2012, and UNCTAD—the UN United Nations Conference on Trade and Development—estimates the value of the sector to be approximately $240 billion.
The Travel Philanthropy trend strongly indicates that time and personal space have become the ultimate post-materialist luxuries. With inspiration from Mother Nature and the process of the naturally ripened crop, post-materialist consumers are striving towards a more balanced way of living, favouring the pace of quality and dedicating spaces for growth. Whether going to remote eco-islands or stepping into the green bounty of our own back garden, travelling has become a mental journey with an inner destination and a catalyst for finding peace. On the individual level, it means nurturing our instincts and dedicating time to reflect, mature, and grow. A process that enables us to set down roots and embrace the joys of simply—living.
WORDS by Sidsel Solmer Eriksen
- 1 Financial Times, April 8, 2009
2 Post-Materialism and Socially Conscious Affluents
US Consumers On The Rise, Sustainable Luxury Forum
3 Fashionforum.dk, November 11, 2011
4 UNWTO, 2011