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Luxury firms push ‘eco-posh’

Handbag-makers to hotels are luring a new kind of luxury consumer.

By Christianna McCauslandContributor / August 12, 2009

The lobby of Firesky Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz. Parent company Kimpton Hotels is known for luxury and ecoconsciousness.

Zuma Press / Newscom

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Somewhere in an Amazonian rainforest, an indigenous person is tapping a rubber tree. Two small cuts extract its latex. The tree is left untouched for two years so it can fully heal, while the rubber, once refined, is sent to Italy. There, a craftsman fashions it into a handbag, lines it with recycled Italian cotton shirting fabrics or canvas salvaged from Swedish and Italian Army fatigues, then outfits it with nickel-free hardware.

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The result? A new line of luxury handbags called AmazonLife, which have the sumptuous feel of leather but are created with sustainably harvested rubber. AmazonLife is launching now in the United States through AP Bags USA. Bags retail for $200 to $500.

The luxury market has been slow to hop on the green bandwagon, partly because the cachet of high-end goods and services are their quality, which can be hard to replicate with a “green”
alternative. Burlap and hemp don’t exactly scream Armani. Nevertheless, some leading-edge luxury companies are finding a niche in ecoluxury, the marriage of preservation and posh.

“This trend isn’t going away,” says Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, a market-research firm. “On the contrary, it will only grow, and luxury consumers will expect their favorite luxe brands to go green along with them.” Last year, her company in Stevens, Pa., found that 74 percent of the luxury consumers it surveyed stated that a company’s environmental practices influenced the products they buy, while 68 percent said it influenced where they shop.

Of course, what people say they’ll do doesn’t always translate into sales. Successfully wooing affluent consumers takes finesse and an offering of impeccable quality, ecoluxury companies say.

“As much as people want to support the environment, it still needs to be something they want,” says John Wilson, president and CEO of AP Bags USA, a subsidiary of Italy’s Antichi Pellettieri, which is best known for high-end brands like Missoni Shoes. “We’re trying to present a product that reflects ‘back to the rainforest’ and ecologically friendly things. But by the same token, it showcases the Ital-ian craftsmanship and attention to detail.”

In 2008, Kate MacWhirter walked away from a career as an hotelier to start Eco Chic Consulting with partner Olivia Boon, previously a consultant specializing in business change at Accenture. The London-based company advises high-end businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, on how to make their operations environmentally friendly.

“I ... became disillusioned about how much waste there was, how irresponsible operators were towards the environment,” Ms. MacWhirter explains in an e-mail. “There was a real belief that behaving more responsibly about our impact on the environment would reduce the standards, quality, and luxury that we offered to the guest.”

Her own experience suggested otherwise. While managing a five-star boutique hotel in London, MacWhirter found that guests were starting to request that their sheets not be washed every day and that the hotel turn their room lights and air conditioning off when they were out.