Is Sustainable Luxury An Oxymoron?

It’s an illogical pairing of words only a marketing executive could love (or tolerate), a rival to our all-time favorite: army intelligence. But perhaps we’re overreacting—let’s back up and consult the dictionary. Merriam-Webster’s defines sustainable as “a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” Luxury is described somewhat hedonistically (thank god) as “a condition of abundance or great ease and comfort…something adding to pleasure or comfort but not absolutely necessary.” So what are we talking about? More important, what are they selling—heedless consumption by guilty liberals, or quality products with a social conscience?

“Eco-luxury” is the punchier slogan for this phenomenon, and our first inclination upon hearing about it was to swat it away like a pesky horsefly. But then—channeling the spirit of Bill McDonough and chanting “waste equals food” in a low, soothing hum—we thought: everybody (except perhaps the Amish) indulges in a little nonessential shopping from time to time. We don’t obsess over it or organize Harvard symposiums on the subject, but buying things occasionally provides us a small measure of joy (or what passes for joy here in New York City—a retailing mecca, by the way). Take a look at some products currently promoted as “sustainable luxury” and decide for yourself whether they represent upscale enlightenment, eco-remorse, marketing gall, or some peculiar combination of all three. Most of this stuff, incidentally, is out of our price range. °

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