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Can Sustainable And Luxury Ever Go Together?

Sustainable lifestyle startup wants to make eco-luxury shopping as decadent as, well, luxury shopping. But in a market troubled by complexities, can they really crawl the same catwalk?

In the grand scheme of serious shopping, the quest for beautiful, sustainable products represents a relatively new appendage. But for all its newness, eco-fashion’s clamorous entrance into an industry defined by excess has developed a very significant following, thanks in no small part to the sustainable design and lifestyle movements that propel it.

Yet unlike the search for a neighborhood yoga studio, the hunt for "sustainable luxury" that truly meets luxury’s standards isn’t easy, in terms of everything from quality to accessibility to actual supply. Despite consumers’ building desire for high-end fashion that sidesteps toxic textiles and unethical production, the young and evolving market—troubled by everything from sourcing to scalability issues—still refuses to serve them much of it. Especially on the same gilded platter they’ve come to expect. Just ask anyone hoping to drop a few hundred dollars on a sustainable handbag to rival their neighbor’s Ferregamo satchel; save skinning your backyard cow and importing an Italian leathersmith, your options are dismally limited.

A Boulder-based e-commerce startup called Beautifuli wants to solve this problem by becoming "the leading online boutique for sustainable lifestyle products," a coup that will entail mastering much more that its inventory. This female-led startup, which is launching in 2013, aims to create the first home for luxury products that play to the unique demands of this audience without asking for any compromises in return. In doing so, they also hope to apply positive pressure on the industry itself, raising expectations so that even non-sustainable players try to do better. So what are they up against? We spoke to founder Denise Horton and Director of Curation Kecia Benvenuto for a candid look at the challenges ahead.

Consumer Expectations

As lamented by many small businesses even outside of the sustainability sector, today’s demands on designers and their retailers are harshly set by mammoths in the industry. High trend turnover, availability, competitive pricing, overnight shipping, and impeccable customer service are just a few of the expectations that create challenges for small or emerging companies. With budgets that barely cover the production of seasonal collections themselves, designers devoted to sustainable luxury struggle to offer a shopping experience that rivals that of their competition, and the puritanical intent of fickle consumers is often overridden by the allure of convenience. Beautifuli’s Horton believes they can "help designers become more competitive by offering some of these services on their behalf," allowing them to focus on growth.

Textile and Embellishment Shortages

A typical, non-sustainable garment can make use of over 8,000 toxic chemicals in textile-creation processes. However, these same processes are what we can thank for many of the materials that have come to define luxury fashion. Designers committed to sustainable processes face a severe lack of options in terms of the actual goods used to make their products, with everything from fabric to embellishments being in short and expensive supply. This results in two major dilemmas: First, creative concepts become casualties of an inability to source the right materials to see it through to execution. And second, attempts to creatively source those materials, by direct trade or other means, result in a product so costly the idea must be canned.

Fashion Sustainability summits, like one recently held in Copenhagen and attended by over 1,000 key stakeholders in the industry, are working to create solutions for these significant channel problems. But the supply of (and prices for) sustainable fabrics won’t budge without significant pressure from the demand side, something Beautifuli will work alongside their designers to increase.

Teams and Mentorship

The fashion industry is notoriously difficult to succeed in, especially in the luxury sector, where entry items like wallets and accessories often bankroll the whole business. But no matter the industry, success depends on much more than the idea itself. A common killer of upstart designers is a tendency to focus solely on the products, often at marketing and finance’s expense. Without a well-thought-out marketing and sales strategy, even the best of designers struggle to rise above the noise—and by the time they realize what they’re missing, the money has run out.

Horton and Benvenuto were quick to point out that designers’ strengths most often sit with product ideation and development, but a balance in all areas of business—attained by smart and diverse hires and good mentorship—is crucial for growth. Until sustainable designers learn to think about business in the same way their non-sustainable competitors do, they’ll lose, even to inferior products.