Luxury firms push ‘eco-posh’

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

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

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.

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“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.

“Consumers are beginning to demand a difference,” she writes. Just look at the choices of Hollywood A-listers. Stars like Angelina Jolie and Eva Longoria favor Los Angeles-based NorthStar Moving when they need to relocate. The ecoluxury company’s vans run on biodiesel and use battery-powered lift gates that can be used while the engines are turned off. New celebrity mommies Nicole Richie and Jessica Alba swaddle their little ones in 100 percent organic cotton fleece blankets by Robbie Adrian (that retail for $86 to $270 a pop).

Companies that go green find that ecoluxe can add to their prestige and bottom line.

For San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels, the largest operator of exclusive boutique hotels in the United States, being green was always part of the business plan. Kimpton was the first hotel company to introduce in-room recycling bins companywide. The hotels offer organic food and beverage options in their in-room mini bars. With four hotels already certified by Green Seal, an environmental standard for lodging properties, Kimpton is opening this fall an even more environmentally friendly property in Philadelphia certified by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

What’s changed is how the company communicates its green commitment to its customers, travelers in their 30s and 40s with an average income in excess of $100,000.

“We started to realize through surveys that 16 percent of our customers were coming to us because they were aware we were environmentally friendly,” says Niki Leondakis, Kimpton’s chief operating officer. “We realized we needed to do a better job of letting people know what we were doing.”

Ecoluxury has other benefits, too. Kimpton’s switch to nontoxic cleaning supplies – a big hit with its sophisticated customers – also coincided with fewer sick days for the housekeeping staff, she says. “It’s a win-win for the environment and investors when you operate with lower energy costs or with savings on water.”

But it’s a fine line. While Kimpton has used energy-efficient light bulbs (infamous for their harsh glow) in its back offices for years, only recently has it installed them in guest rooms, now that soft-light versions are available.

Ecoluxury is also making inroads in the food industry. The word “organic” is already synonymous with exclusive eateries the world over, but the Glazier Group, owners of the Strip House restaurants nationwide and two exclusive catering outfits in New York City, has taken it a step further. Most noticeably, the catering arm of its Bridgewaters facility, Bridgewaters To Go, opened in 2008 using biodegradable flatware and attractive delivery containers made of recycled pressed paper wrapped in twine that are compostable. When diners are finished, Bridgewaters To Go staff can pick up the meal’s waste in a specially provided bag to make sure recyclables are responsibly disposed of while organic material is composted.

The catering company’s main business is corporate meals, mostly for Wall Street and fashion types in New York City. The green theme seems to be helping business, especially in today’s economic climate when every move of corporations and the affluent is under public scrutiny, says Chris Siversen, executive catering chef for the Glazier Group. “You get the sense that people feel, ‘OK, we can’t spend big money, but the fact that they’re green puts us in a good light. So we can hire a green caterer and we aren’t just randomly spending money, we’re helping a good cause at the same time.’”

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