Diana Verde Nieto is the co-founder of Positive Luxury, the company behind the Butterfly Mark – awarded to luxury lifestyle brands in recognition of their commitment to a positive impact on people and the planet. Nieto was trained at Al Gore’s Alliance of Climate Change, before launching a sustainability communications consultancy. Positive Luxury was a silver winner at this year’s International Corporate Social Responsibility Excellence Awards. Josh Sims speaks with her
What convinces you that there is need for the likes of the Butterfly Mark?
I’ve worked in sustainability – trying to integrate it into business practice – for 20 years and there’s still little progress as to understanding what sustainability is. Consumers are confused. But I do believe there’s a space between catastrophe and utopia and that’s the space I want to breach – to bring people at their point of purchase to an understanding of what the brand they’re buying is doing in terms of their environmental and social responsibility. And by that I don’t mean looking at the supply chain, but at the company itself – its employment practices, its philanthropic efforts, governance, social and environmental frameworks, innovation and so on.
Don’t we have enough information about brands already?
The problem is that we’re constantly misled. People are unsure what they should actually believe, since one day we get one bit of information and the next something else entirely. Historically, as a brand you could put out a press release and just say what you want. Brands have taken advantage of the lack of information out there. Obviously the internet now provides more info than ever before. The business world is now much more transparent. Attitudes are changing too. I wouldn’t say that consumers are making the effort to find out about the ethical standpoint of the companies they buy from – but they do care about specific issues, whether that be discrimination, thinking locally, attitudes to animal welfare and so on.
A skeptic might look at, say, fast fashion and wonder if consumers really have any interest these issues….
I don’t hope that people are interested in these issues – I know they are, millennials especially. That’s why so many companies are struggling to keep them in their employment, because they’re not offering this group more than a salary. The companies are not offering them the chance to be part of a bigger purpose. And, as some predicted, millennials are not adopting the attitudes of older generations as they age.
Is making ‘sustainable’ consumer choices still the privilege of those with the time and money?
Of course money is a factor in having the freedom to express an interest in these ‘sustainability’ issues, but I think you can see that wider interest is growing in the fact that more and more companies are trying to differentiate themselves along these lines. Older generations are changing attitudes too – they want to leave a positive legacy to their kids and grand-children.
Why focus the Butterfly Mark on luxury goods, rather than on more mass-market brands?
Luxury – which I see being defined more by behaviour than price – sets the tone for the rest of the market. It’s aspirational. And if change can be brought in that part of the market then the rest of it will follow. Luxury is big and broad in terms of the number of brands anyway – if we can convert just 10,000 of them around the world then I’ll feel that we’ll have done our job. But we’re some way off that yet. That said, the response has been phenomenal. Companies want to be part of this conversation.
Why do you think the Butterfly Mark will work?
It’s a simple means of communication. It says what standard a company maintains in relation to these issues, much as the Kite Mark was used as a signifier of a certain quality standard. We look at all the other accreditations that the company might have in relation to specific areas, then do a lot of data-mining to get as rich an assessment and a verification of the company as possible. Auditing helps understand the likes of supply chain issues, but obviously we can’t be in on every interview to see if a company is discriminatory.
Is there more brands could be doing to bring focus onto ‘sustainability’ issues?
Brands certainly need to have a better offering to shift consumer behaviour more broadly. Consumers like brands and typically buy what resonates with their values. But there’s not enough variety out there [to chime with those values]. I don’t think the blame can just rest with consumers. It’s the brands too. It’s a matter of push and pull.
Do you agree that the landscape of ‘sustainable’ brands is richer than it might seem?
I do think there’s a failure on the part of many brands to communicate their standpoint too – so, yes, there are many more ‘good’ brands out there than most people know about. It doesn’t help that the media tends to have this agenda of catastrophe – it’s all about when brands go wrong. More positive reporting on the brands that do well would be a good step. Brands are fearful of making claims because there’s this idea that ‘sustainable’ equals a perfect record, rather than excellence or just a pursuit of best practice.
You’ve spoken about brands. What should consumers be doing to improve matters?
I’m not here to preach to consumers. It’s like smoking. If you want to smoke, smoke – but at least choose cigarettes that do you least harm. And the same goes for shopping. I’m not a conscious consumer myself. I’m just a consumer, a selfish one – if I buy a pair of jeans, for example, I want the pair that makes me look great. But I do want the product that does least harm in relation to those issues that are important to me – that’s about fairness, having a social mission, packaging. I hate throwing packaging away. For someone else the issues will be different. I’m certainly aware that sometimes I’ll compromise for convenience. I usually end up regretting those choices. But we have to be realistic.