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“Everything is Wrong”: A Search for Order in the Ethnometaphysical Chaos of Sustainable Luxury Fashion

“Everything is Wrong”: A Search for Order in the Ethnometaphysical Chaos of Sustainable Luxury Fashion

"By everything is wrong I mean EVERYTHING.” [1]

It might seem strange to begin an examination of sustainable luxury fashion by quoting Richard Hall (a.k.a. Moby), yet, in many ways I feel that this comment captures part of the ill-fitting juxtaposition of marketing sustainable luxury fashion. Throughout this brief study, I will raise several issues related to the idea that “all” sustainable luxury marketing communications invite criticism and cognitive dissonance, as part of a search for sense and order out of chaos. Importantly, I am not too interested in what items are being sold, or how they are visually branded, but more about the overarching tensions between sustainability and luxury, alongside how marketers develop rapid strategies to help consumers deal with this cognitive dissonance. In doing so, I embrace contradiction, uncertainty, and cultural turmoil by stepping away from more ephemeral concepts of traditional luxury and move into the transcendental netherworld of sustainable luxury.


The paradox of sustainability within luxury fashion

When I reflect on luxury fashion, one of the last things I tend to think of is sustainability. This is not uncommon though, as while luxury fashion organizations commonly seek visibility and attention, sustainability is often not part of their raison d'être, or marketing campaigns. [2] This does not mean that sustainable luxury is not an important part of luxury fashion, or is not without a number of research gaps, desperately waiting to be filled. It is more that sustainable luxury is a small part of luxury, which is itself, part of the much larger (and rapidly changing) field of fashion.

If we are to address sustainable luxury, we must at some level try to come to grips with not only what might be considered sustainable, but also what can be viewed as luxury. There is however, little in the way of agreed upon definitions, but for brevity and ease, I shall paint with broad strokes. Thus, “sustainable fashion is typically used to encompass a scope of fashion production or design methods that are environmentally and/or ethically conscious.” [3] And can be considered akin to eco, green and/or organic.[4] Sustainability on the other hand is oriented toward “correct[ing] a variety of perceived wrongs in the fashion industry including animal cruelty, environmental damage, and worker exploitation.” [5] Beyond the difficulties of how to look at sustainability and luxury, there is a potentially much larger problem in that “fashion and sustainability are oppositional. Fashion as concept and as industry is based upon excess, and not conservancy.” [6]

While a lack of sustainability can certainly be a stick with which to hit luxury organizations with, the suggestion has been made that while consumers are happy to complain about a lack of sustainability, most seem happy to keep on purchasing, irrespective of this issue. [7] [8] For luxury organizations, moving towards sustainability is a potentially fraught act full of commercial dangers, as we can see from the case of Hermès, which made a minor shift to using recycled materials. Unfortunately for Hermès, this led to a decrease in sales due to poor consumer perceptions of recycled materials (i.e. that recycling might be sustainable, but is not luxury).[9] We must be very careful about the conclusions we draw from such studies though, as it seems highly likely that consumer practices might vary between overt luxury brands maintaining sustainability and those dipping their toes in the water as demonstrated by Hermès. Or more to the point, that there are many consumer demographics for luxury, demonstrating a variety of behaviors, practices and attitudes.


Ethnometaphysics and Sensemaking

We all make decisions for what to purchase, but with it being unlikely that many of us really know much about the complexity of supply chains, how materials are sourced, alongside a gaggle of other such ethical issues that are made about products on their journey to the marketplace. Either overtly or covertly, marketers are often the source of what we know about products with marketing communications typically being in a state of flux, intertwining and jostling with what the market says. There is an increasing desire to better understand industrial marketing, and the challenges marketers face, with sensemaking being an increasingly common approach to explore this arena. [10]

Briefly, sensemaking seeks to better understand how people communicate and share knowledge about who they are, what they are doing, why they are doing it, alongside what a product is, and whether it should be bought or sold. [11] [12] With these and many other common questions, it is not surprising that individuals may end up holding two or more conflicting beliefs about a product, which is known as cognitive dissonance. [13] When dissonance occurs, attempts to reconcile conflicts can be emotionally charged, where expectations and the experience of reality collide, but ultimately need resolving to allow internal consistency to be restored. This study is focused towards understanding how sustainable luxury marketers navigate conflicts and attempt to give sense to their consumers about the paradoxical concept of sustainable luxury.

When we look at how people give and make sense, it is much to my dismay that ethnometaphysics has not received much attention from any field, never mind fashion. I believe that this is a shame since through ethnometaphysics there is much we can understand about how cultures shape and encourage others to engage in claims about the nature of their realities. [14] As such, it is not so much objective reality that is of interest, but more how subjectively plausible knowledge plays a part of how sense is given and made between people. [15] Or more specifically, how marketers seek to influence the sensemaking of their consumers in a contested marketplace. Yet, and as we shall come to see, notions of objectivity and subjectivity are all parts of how ethnometaphysical sense is made for sustainable luxury, where numerous knotted cultural philosophies, ideologies, and tensions continually bubble to the surface in the form of cognitive dissonance.


Methodological considerations

It is fair to say that sustainable luxury is a niche sector, with much still to understand about how and why industrial marketing practices and sensemaking are undertaken. Taking an interpretive ethnographic approach, I spent several months with sustainable luxury fashion marketers, collecting information via informal conversations and semi-structured interviews.[16] As might be expected, the sample was small but purposive, consisting of six marketers, herein referred to as participant I-VI, from three sustainable luxury fashion organizations. Strict conditions were placed on confidentiality and anonymity so as not to identify the organizations, brands, or individuals with whom I engaged. Having said this, I generally felt welcomed as a guest, and was encouraged to speak freely about marketing and selling practices. On the whole, it seemed that these organizations were keen to better understand their own problems relating to the conflict of sustainability and luxury. Being a natural and social scientist, and specializing in the world of marketing, I was able to use contacts I had in this sector to gain high-level access. Throughout this empirical study, I took a social constructionism stance to bring to light the discursive practices related to how meaning is shared.[17] For each conversation and interview, data was recorded, transcribed, and underwent subsequent content analysis, discourse analysis, and warranting.[18]

Spending several months in these three organizations allowed me to gain a much deeper understanding of the shaky and conflicted ethnometaphysical foundations upon which these organizations operate and project into the marketplace. Throughout this time, much of my musing concerned the seemingly immiscible notions of luxury and sustainability and the practices marketers carry out with this regard. Throughout the following sections, I present my findings for how cognitive dissonance is perceived to arise, as well as how it is dealt with, predominantly through an ethnometaphysical lens.


Sustainability: Why bother?

Perhaps most critical to the effort of physically, visually and discursively constructing luxury products as sustainable, is, why bother? A number of participants shared with me their doubts that there would be a serious problem faced by the luxury sectors as a whole if sustainable luxury ceased to be; the marketers, however, were eager to correct such confrontational claims. Being future focused, all marketers saw sustainability as (1) a means to remove the poison from within luxury, (2) a selling point, and of course, (3) a brand differentiator. Discussing this, participant III said:

Criticisms against the waste and destruction of luxury are legitimate. Luxury is the fairy tale, the real waking dream of pure potentialities, but as with all fairy tales, it is dark, wasteful, hurting peoples, animals and the planet. Consumers are waking up to this, slowly, oh so slowly, and we are here to innovate and make luxury what it should have been all along. The real utopian fairy tale.

This theme of luxury fashion being corrupt and needing saving from itself was common and, at times, almost appeared to be a quasi-religious quest for sustainability to save luxury from itself. Problematically, the materialist inside of me screamed, “But all things have a cost, and there is little to be found that is utopian about manufacture or product life cycles.” Reflecting on this however, I was drawn to speculate that “perhaps such things are more about marketing claims, than a serious attempt to make a product without ‘sin’.” As we shall come to see, the answers to these questions are not exactly clear cut.


Inviting criticism through sustainable luxury

It seems to me that marketing sustainable luxury is an open invitation for brands to be analyzed and criticized by consumers. Indeed, every marketing communication has the potential to lift the veil of sustainable luxury, exposing all acts, materials, and supply chain practices as anything but utopian, anything but fantasy, and instead, very much embedded within the physical world of sustainable industries. Explaining these aspects, participant I said:

Our luxury competitors don’t need to worry about the physical aspects of what they produce beyond being high-end and how they can create fantastical marketing stories in line with their brands. We on the other hand have to get involved in the nitty gritty of is it ethically sourced? Can it be recycled? What are we trying to say about this material?

As pointed out by this participant, it very much seems that while luxury organizations can thrive in stories devoid of much of the physicality of their products, sustainable luxury organizations must give sense to themselves and to the market about the often-unmentioned physical aspects of luxury.


Sustainable Luxury: A Marriage Based on Dissonance

There is clearly an ethnometaphysical gulf between luxury and sustainable luxury, where the former is predominantly associated with ethereal branding and ephemeral stories, and the latter, using stories to negotiate fantasy and the physicality of manufacture and supply chains. Commenting on this, participant V argued:

Creating a singular message of opposites isn’t easy, and we are massively scrutinized. Whatever we do we are questioned about. The questions go on, and on. And let me tell you, whatever we do, some will love, but others will come and complain that we didn’t do enough of whatever. We are always being threatened with boycotts unless we use a different supplier, different material, or different model. Everything we do reflects on our and their ideology, and this is an increasingly ideological marketplace. Customers are much keener to create a sense of self through consumption and to link it to politics, the environment, and where they see themselves in this universe. Now, while luxury fashion gets abuse this is usually not from their customers, but for us, we are challenged by our customers, and this can be very worrying.

It seems that sustainable luxury marketers perceive a much greater challenge in satisfying their consumers, with failure at this task being a risk to profits and market share.

I pondered on this issue at great length, and particularly on sustainable luxury consumers who might encounter cognitive dissonance about whether their products are really sustainable or not. But can products ever really be completely sustainable? Or sustainable enough? These are not easy questions to answer, and certainly necessitate further work with consumers in future research. However, and seeking to better understand this from a marketing perspective, I would like to draw to your attention to a comment by participant II:

We approach product launches, and continuous selling with some degree of trepidation. The market is just so volatile. Every day the market shifts to what is acceptable. One day it is all about using plastic instead of leather, then plastics are bad, or should be recyclable, and then what was the ethnicity of our model? Or how many models had a certain hairstyle? I actually think that we get more criticism from our customers than they give our competitors who sell hugely wasteful product lines, and that are one hundred percent hurting the planet.

 Considering the last statement, I wondered if each marketing communication is not only an invitation, but an ethnometaphysical challenge to consumers who have the opportunity to reconsider their place in the consumptive universe.


Star Crossed Lovers: Creating Order From Chaos

Set against rapidly changing consumer demands and attitudes, giving sense to remove cognitive dissonance seems beyond a Sisyphean task; however, marketers are keen to meet this challenge and save this troubled marriage between these “star crossed lovers” of luxury and sustainability. For example, all marketers were of the opinion that such criticisms were the ‘nature of the beast,’ and consequently, necessitated continuous marketing research feedback of consumer perceptions, while still attempting to set the agenda for what customers should buy. Commenting on this, participant III said:

“We are trend setters, market innovators, but we have to be responsive to growing concerns about a variety of issues. It isn’t just about materials, but the way we treat people, show respect to other cultures. This is a fluid marketplace, and with quick changes, we will get things wrong, but part of getting it wrong is to respond. We are not after praise from society, nor do we seek their criticism, but what does matter is how our customers view us.”

Attempting to mitigate stigma from rapidly changing consumer desires was all part of the job as far as the participants were concerned. There is no doubt that pushing sustainability sells, but stipulates very rapid response by marketers, allowing ongoing consumer expectations to be better managed and coped with. The participants seemed optimistic about this challenge and argued that confusion is a means to not only reconfirm their sustainable status with current customers, but to attract more typical luxury customers, who could be drawn into the ethos and culture of sustainability. Thus, the risk of tarnishing themselves and their brand may all be offset through the promise of what may yet be realized. As participant VI speculated:

We can never be perfectly sustainable, but we offer a better option than not being at all. I hope that other luxury customers move to see that sustainability is the way forward. We are at the vanguard of this conversation and revolution in luxury fashion.



If ever there was an odd couple, it is sustainable luxury. As mentioned many times throughout this essay, there are clear and demonstrable conflicts for marketers and consumers. Yet, and for all of these difficulties, sustainable luxury is a sector that moves on, guided by marketers to continually highlight brand innovations, while attempting to maintain as well as expand their market share. There is no doubt that positioning a brand as sustainable luxury is a double-edged sword, inviting criticism and conflict, while having the potential to demonstrate real physical benefits to supply chains and the environment. Rapid changes for what the market considers sustainable is no small challenge though, where what is considered sustainable today, may no longer be considered so tomorrow. With potential cognitive dissonance waiting for customers at every twist and turn of the market, there is much for marketers to give sense about. Perhaps there is no more pertinent area deserving of marketer attention than the collapsing ethereal fantasies of sustainability and the cognitive dissonance experienced by customers as they reassess their place in the world through what they consume. Moving customers out of cognitive dissonance and into preferred organizational sense seems to be through marketers adjusting their campaigns to address previous shortfalls in communication, and suggesting that luxury can be a physical reality, purchased through their brands. These aspects, like many others, require further research—particularly for how customers make sense related to their ideological and philosophical sense-based structures, alongside how marketers explicitly try to influence the market towards their preferred views of what is sustainable. As a final comment, however, I believe that examining sustainable luxury is perhaps one of the most intriguing arenas of industrial marketing, where explosive collisions between physicality and ethereal storytelling are all part of day-to-day marketing.  



[1] Richard M. Hall, ‘Moby.’ 1998. Everything is wrong. London: Mute, New York: Elektra, Essay, 1.

[2] Miguel A. Gardetti. 2014. Sustainable luxury: Managing social environmental performance in iconic brands. London: Greenleaf Publishing.

[3] Jennifer F. Gordon, and Colleen Hill. 2014. Sustainable fashion. London: Bloombury, xv.

[4] Jihyun Lee, and Yuri Lee. 2015. “The interactions of CSR, self-congruity and purchase intention among Chinese consumers.” Australasian Marketing Journal. 23, no. 1, 19-26.

[5] Louise Lundblad, and Iain A. Davies. 2015. “The values and motivations behind sustainable fashion consumption.” Journal of Consumer Behavior. 44, no. 3, 309-323.

[6] Jean-Nöel Kapferer, and Anne Michaut. 2015. ”Luxury and sustainability: A common future? The match depends on how consumers define luxury.” Luxury Research Journal. 1.1, 3-17.

[7] Jean-Nöel Kapferer, and Vincent Bastien, The Luxury Strategy: Break the Rules of Marketing to Build Luxury Brands (London: Kogan Page, 2012).

[8] Tian Y. Chan, and Christina W. Y. Wong, “The consumption side of sustainable fashion supply chain: Understanding fashion consumer eco-fashion consumption decision,” Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management. 16. 2 (2012): 193-215.

[9] Mohamed A. Achabou, and Sihem Dekhili, “Luxury and sustainable development: is there a match?” Journal of Business Research. 66. 10 (2013): 1896-1903.

[10] Andrew K. Dean, Nick Ellis, and Victoria Wells, “Science ‘fact’ and science ‘fiction’? Homophilous communication in high-technology B2B selling,” Journal of Marketing Management 33.9-10 (2017): 764-788.

[11] Karl E. Weick, Sensemaking in Organisations (California: SAGE Publications, 1995).

[12] Richard Fellows, and Anita Liu, “Sensemaking in the cross-cultural contexts of projects,” International Journal of Project Management 34. 2 (2016): 246-257.

[13] Leon Festinger, A theory of cognitive dissonance (Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson, 1957).

[14] Marc Blainey, “Towards an ethnometaphysics of consciousness: Suggested adjustments in SAC’s quest to reroute the main(stream),” Anthropology of Consciousness 21.2 (2010): 113-138.

[15] Nick Ellis, and Gillian Hopkinson, “The construction of managerial knowledge in business networks: managers’ theories about communication,” Industrial Marketing Management, 39 (2010): 413-424.

[16] John D. Brewer, Ethnography (Philadelphia: Open University Press, 2000).

[17] Robert P. Gephart, “The textual approach: Risk and blame in disaster sensemaking,” Academy of Management Journal 36 (1993): 1465–1514.

[18] Linda A. Wood and Rolf A. Kroger, Doing Discourse Analysis: methods for studying action in talk and text (London: SAGE Publications, 2000).

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