Get off the highway at Manesar and trundle past sleepy villages, navigating through the Aravalli ranges and out of nowhere, quite literally, rises a palace-like structure replete with domes and royal pavilions. This is ITC Hotel's lavishly laid out 300-acre golf retreat - the ITC Grand Bharat - which showcases a slice of all that is rich and fine in India, and pampers guests with a taste of uber luxury.
All for a cause: English supermodel Cara Delevingne, a self confessed lover of lions, auctioned her personal Tag Heuer watch raising USD 14,430 for conservation after the news of Cecil the Lion
So imagine the sense of shock as we sit down to dine at the Pavilion restaurant here, and notice warning alerts on the menu. There are traffic signal lights against the fish, indicating which Piscean species are overfished (red light), which are under threat (orange light) and which are in abundance (green). For instance, the Indian salmon is red-lighted as overfished, anchovy, pomfret, mackerel and red snapper are flagged as under threat while sole fish and tuna get an approving green light. The choice is left to the diner.
The new logo of Gucci has the word Responsibility weaved into it
The "Choose Wisely" programme in tie up with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) piloted at this property is just one of the examples of the ways in which ITC introduces "responsible luxury" to its guests. Incongruent though luxury without waste may seem at such an opulent setting, ITC Hotels has been riding on this philosophy in all its properties. But it's at the recently opened Grand Bharat, that responsible luxury is being showcased to the hilt - whether it is in ingredient sourcing, its effort to minimise carbon footprint, its recycling initiatives (plastic bottles from here go on to a company in Rajasthan that recycles them as garments) or the way it provides sustainable livelihood to the locals. "We believe that values are shifting at a deep level due to the curse of the excess and the need to endorse luxury that is deep-rooted and meaningful," says Nakul Anand, Executive Director at ITC, in charge of hospitality, describing how the chain decided to move from a business as usual approach to 'business that cares' some years ago.
ITC is not the only one. A whole host of luxury brands is now moving into this positioning. The names differ - some call it ethical luxury, others sustainable luxury and still others responsible luxury. But the idea is to connect with the luxe consumer on a deeper moral plane. From Gucci to Yves St Laurent (YSL) to spirits brands like Johnnie Walker to hotel chains such as Starwood and car makers like Tesla and Mercedes, brands are all adopting this positioning.
OBEETEE CARPETS' RUDRA CHATTERJEE (L) AND GAURAV SHARMA: Carpets from Obeetee provide sustainable livelihood to thousands of independent artisans
Take the way Florentine luxury brand Gucci has begun promoting the "made with integrity" tagline, adding the word Responsibility to its green and black logo. From taking a stand against sandblasting denim for jeans (sandblasting can cause an acute form of silicosis among workers) to committing to not using paper from forests that are at risk of deforestation, Gucci has initiated a whole chain of activities. It's doing research on packaging from alternative fibres made from corn, bamboo and cotton for its shopping bags. A couple of years ago it launched a Sustainable Soles collection, made from bioplastic - a biodegradable material in compost used as an alternative to petrochemical plastic.
Discreet luxury brand Bottega Veneta has also moved in this direction by creating a state of the art eco-friendly headquarters for design.
The drive probably comes from Gucci and Bottega Veneta's parent Kering, which also has YSL and Boucheron in its portfolio. Kering has just published its first Environmental Profit and Loss report which tries to capture the monetary value of going sustainable. From the supply chain to the production line, almost all brands are putting in place environment-friendly practices.
"Being green, sensitive to environment is no more a nice thing to do, it is an essential thing to do," says Dilip Puri, Managing Director of Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which is turning all the brands in its portfolio socially conscious. Its Element brand, in fact, was created with an eco-friendly positioning and has floors that feature carpets with 100 per cent recycled content. Art on the walls is mounted on a base made from recycled tires. And it uses low volatile organic compounds paint to improve indoor air quality for guests and staff.
There is, of course, an imperative for this as in the West, increasingly luxe consumers are asking questions on how ethically and sustainably a product is made and how socially conscious a company is. Gone are the days of being seen with crocodile leather bags or textiles made of fabric from endangered animals. Catchphrases like conscientious consumption are doing the rounds. Several outfits conduct social accountability surveys to find out which brands flout ethical standards and name and shame them stridently. Rather than get caught in a negative crossfire, it makes business sense for luxe brands to grab the initiative and be part of the ethical movement or conservation causes.
Automakers like Mercedes have been forced to go up a gear on sustainable vehicles after Tesla Motors got into the luxury space with its fully electric sedan - the Model S and its landmark Roadster sports car and started capturing mindspace of the socially conscious set.
Or look at the way Swiss watch brand Tag Heuer rushed in to extend support to the cause of conservation after the recent killing of Cecil the Lion. Tag Heuer ambassador English supermodel Cara Delevingne, a self confessed lover of lions (she has a lion tattoo embossed on her fingers) auctioned her personal Tag Heuer watch raising $14,430 - and the Swiss brand matched that figure. The money was donated to Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU).
But are these ideas percolating to India yet? Well, for the luxe consumer here, it may not be a big thing yet, but a host of brands is already adopting this positioning. If ITC was one of the early ones to get on to this tack, there are plenty of others too, working in different ways. Top fashion designers in the country are working with local craftsmen to promote and sustain their heritage. Dinaz Madhukar of DLF Emporio points to the way the Fashion Design Council of India recently took a team of fashion designers to Varanasi to work with Banarasi saree makers in a bid to boost the craft.
Enkereri village & school projects in Kenya to preserve natural resources is part of Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy
Liquor companies are doing their bit too. Abanti Sankaranarayan,** Business Head for Luxury and corporate relations at United Spirits Ltd (USL), says: "Thoughtful luxury for us starts with recognising that alcohol misuse is a problem for some individuals and society, and hence, we believe that for a sustainable business we absolutely have to actively advocate responsible drinking." USL runs a national Road Safety and Anti-Drink Driving Program through workshops for truck drivers, traffic police personnel and college students.
But nowhere is it as visible as in the travel industry which has grabbed bragging rights for this positioning.
The Conscious Traveller
If in the Swiss Alps there are five star hotels such as Lenkerhof where tourists sleep on beds of straw in Alpine huts to get an authentic experience of local life, then here in India, down south hospitality firm CGH Earth's CEO Jose Dominic has been offering bare bones luxury to those among the swish set who choose not to flaunt it. Luxury has to go hand in hand with sustainability, he stresses. "Sustainability is seen as being inconvenient and more expensive. But this is not true," he says. Sustainability requires responsible tourism, which includes local community as well as responsibility of consumers. Luckily, this is the era of the conscious traveller, adds Dominic.
Abercrombie & Kent Vacations India's MD for India, Ratti Dhodapkar, endorses this. She points to the luxury volunteerism vertical that the travel firm runs. Increasingly travellers want to make a personal connection and a positive contribution to the places they visit and that was the thought that led A&K to set up Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy. Every local office of A&K identifies grassroots organisations and travellers can make donations to these. Guests travelling on A&K's tailor-made programmes can visit the projects in person.
While it's too early to say if the age of hedonism will draw to a close, an increasing band of luxe consumers and brands are certainly making it fashionable to be simple and responsible.
*An earlier version of the story carried incorrect spelling of Ratti Dhodapkar. Also, she is the MD of Abercrombie & Kent Vacations India.
**An earlier version of this story carried the spelling of Abanti Sankaranarayan incorrectly.