Real Leaders

How Sustainable Luxury Can Save The Planet


  • The CEO of a luxury jewelery company joins an ocean conservation organization and realizes that business should have a social conscience.
  • She creates a yearly award for luxury goods manufacturers that practice sustainability, in the hope that it will influence the entire industry.
  • While luxury has always been associated with wealth, it’s discernment that is actually more important today.
  • Maria Eugenia Girón devises clever marketing ideas to raise awareness around the environment and to get consumers to change bad habits.

“I didn’t start my business to just make money for myself, I started it to change the world.” These are the words that inspire Maria Eugenia Girón of Madrid, the co-founder of the IE Award for Sustainability, an annual event that honors entrepreneurs who produce premium and luxury goods with a conscience. She was told this by one of the award winners many years ago, and it’s proof that she’s on the right track.

After running a premium global jewelery company for seven years and focusing solely on growth and making it more valuable she sold the company and was invited to join the board of Oceana, a global organization dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans. It was a turning point in her life. Through her work at Oceana, Girón began to see how things could be changed for the better, especially through science, regulation and by making the consumer more aware. Ironically, the environmental lessons she learnt turned her right back to a sector she’d just left behind – luxury goods.

“My business experience as executive and CEO, my expertise in building global brands and my current involvement with several companies as a board member, provided the best platform to drive change. Sustainability, business and brand value reinforce each other within luxury. The sustainable use of resources and social responsibility have become the new competitive advantage in building long term value,” she says.


The luxury industry typically conjures up images of opulence and wasteful extravagance, but each year Girón has found a handful of brands that are proving otherwise, and not delivering short on their promise of luxury either.

“The more information consumers have about the impact their purchases are having on the planet, the more discerning and aware they’ll become about making choices,” she says. The awards that she and co-founder Miguel Angel Gardetti hand out every year aim to show how luxury brands are making progress with sustainability, in the hope that it will inspire others into action.

Girón feels that true luxury has certain criteria, that lend itself well to sustainability. “Historically, products were made to last forever, by people who were dignified because they were craftsmen,” she explains. “They saw their work through from beginning to end and were respectful to the raw materials they used.”

The great news for luxury is that there’s a renewed interest in how a product is made and where it’s from, something that has pointed many consumers towards luxury goods. The rise of technology has also allowed us to personalise products, much like our grandparents did, and thanks to the internet, we now have one-to-one service – just like the old days.

“The reality of luxury is keeping the supply chain, waste and labor very austere internally when producing the goods, while portraying an image of abundance and playfulness when building an image on the outside,” says Girón.

You don’t have to be wealthy to enjoy luxury either, according to Girón.

“Discernment is more important,” she says. “This will allow you to enjoy a well made product, good service and an appreciation of the history behind it, with knowledge about the craftsmen who made it or the precious materials that were used.”

The 2015 winners of the IE Awards for Sustainability in the Premium and Luxury Sectors.
The 2015 winners of the IE Awards for Sustainability in the Premium and Luxury Sectors.


The world seems to be divided on luxury. Many emerging economies have rising middle classes who want to flaunt their new wealth with obvious adornments that they have “arrived.” The “old money,” that have enjoyed generations of financial wealth don’t feel the need to show off quite as much, and prefer to buy goods that give them personal enjoyment. One country that’s flaunting its new money right now is China. Yet, Girón feels that nearby Japan will influence China towards a deeper and more sustainable view on luxury. “After the tsunami and nuclear crisis we’ve seen a definite move by Japanese consumers towards brands that are more healthy and traceable,” she says. “Japans luxury goods sector is expected to grow by five percent in 2015, mostly from Chinese tourism. Japan’s new values will definitely have an influence on Chinese visitors, and help align consumer attitudes in a more responsible way.

Every year, Girón measures ten things that have the biggest impact on the luxury goods industry – according to CEOs, investors and analysts. Last year the key word to emerge was “experience.” It’s a tough ingredient to capture, but the data has shown that some of the experiences include personalization, human touch and a “wow factor.” Millennials especially, are looking a product that delivers the unexpected. This trend favors businesses with social impact because these types of companies always have great stories around how their products are made and are meaningful.

One example of experience marketing is a Spanish jewellery company that has collaborated with a museum to explain their gems to tourists using works of art.

Another is restaurants and chefs that have teamed up with an opera house to create experiential dining experiences around a theatrical production. Owning a product is not enough any more. People crave a meaningful experience that goes beyond the expected.

As a board member of Oceana, Girón has a vision to help generate enough protein from seafood to feed the expected 9 billion people on planet earth by 2050. Rather than trying to change billions of people’s eating habits, Girón inspired Oceana’s team to chose a more focused route. Realizing the power of role models, they brought together 20 of the world’s leading chefs at the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastian where they pledged to become ambassadors and leaders for sustainable seafood cooking.

“This is an example of how luxury cuisine is going beyond the normal delivery of good food,” says Girón. “It gives a new meaning to luxury goods: sustainable, healthy and responsible.”

Read more about the Luxury Awards here

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