The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The climate for luxury

President Biden and John F. Kerry, the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, attend an event on action and solidarity at the U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, in Scotland. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool/Reuters)
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The president took a moment during the international climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, and apologized for the United States pulling out of the Paris climate accord at the direction of his predecessor. President Biden hesitated as he considered his words about the 2015 multination agreement aimed at addressing global warming. At first, his gaze was cast downward, but as he plowed ahead, he looked up and his brow furrowed slightly. “I guess I shouldn’t apologize, but I do apologize for the fact that the United States and the last administration pulled out of the Paris accords and put us sort of behind the eight ball a little bit,” he said. The statement was a political gesture — another instance in which Biden sought to differentiate his time in office from the past four years. But it was also a moment in which a flourish of humility was entwined with a statement of might. The United States is essential because climate action needs to trickle down.

It wasn’t a heavy lift to apologize. It was a luxury to even be in the position to do so, and a reminder that the planet has yet to fully succumb to an environmental meltdown.

World leaders have gathered at COP26 in Scotland to try to agree on a path forward to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, stop the planet from warming and essentially save humanity from a catastrophe of its own making. In addition to the presidents and prime ministers, the summit has also attracted activists and experts who are able to engage on the minutia of emissions and who have been clanging the alarm on global warming for decades — or even just a few months.

Coming in from the tippy-top of their profession are celebrated chef Daniel Humm and award-winning designer Gabriela Hearst. They will be part of a panel Thursday discussing the ways in which creative industries can create business models that have less of an environmental impact. In short, they’ll talk about how food and fashion can do better.

Hearst and Humm have been friends for several years and see themselves working in kindred industries. Both of them launch new menus or collections multiple times a year. Both must consider the environmental impact of the raw materials they choose. And, perhaps most important to their upcoming conversation: Both sell consumers something that is more than the sum of its parts. They sell us luxury, desire and aspiration. They help us define ourselves within our community. And even though their overall economic footprint might be relatively small, their influence can be significant.

Humm recently shifted Eleven Madison Park from an omnivore’s menu to one focused on plants, a change that took effect this summer after his restaurant reopened from the coronavirus pandemic shutdown. Hearst has focused much of her energy on reducing waste in the New York design house that bears her name, as well as at Chloé, the Paris-based luxury firm where she is creative director. In October, Chloé became a certified B Corporation, which means it meets independent standards for environmental and social performance, as well as transparency.

“It’s not only about climate change, but it’s also about what does luxury mean,” Humm says about their upcoming conversation in Glasgow. “I think we both realize that, you know, not everyone — or only a few people — have access to our restaurant or Gabriela’s clothes. But we do have these incredible resources and this incredible platform that people are actually paying attention to.”

“Some of the ideas of luxury are old ideas that have to be refreshed,” Humm continues. “For example, we are still celebrating caviar as a luxury ingredient … and there is nothing luxurious about caviar. It’s farm-raised. It’s flown in. It’s not rare at all. And it doesn’t even taste good. This is an old idea.”

“You can go into all these ingredients that we once thought, or once were actually rare and luxurious and delicious. And, you know, I wish the world had not changed, and I wish we could just keep on doing, you know. I used to love to cook with these ingredients,” Humm says. “But if I’m celebrated as a chef that’s innovative and at the forefront, I can’t just have my eyes closed.”

Hearst has been a champion of using, as often as possible, yardage that already exists instead of having fabric woven anew. She chooses linen over cotton because the latter requires large amounts of water to grow and is also associated with extreme pesticide use. She’s aimed to have Chloé decrease its reliance on industrialized production, turning attention to the beauty and lower environmental impact of handcrafted products. But she’s also looked at the bottom of the luxury pyramid, which is most often made up of accessories, working to introduce a sneaker whose production uses 80 percent less water.

“When I’m asked, ‘Is sustainability important for you?’ I am shocked because it’s very simple for me: Is survival important to you?” she says. If you’re not in a fight-or-flight mode, [then] where you are really able to help, you have a duty to do so.”

The 1 percent, the 10 percent, the 50 percent have the luxury of considering their actions and the ways in which they reverberate beyond their front door. After coming through the darkest days of the pandemic when he and his staff cooked for struggling New Yorkers, Humm says he didn’t know if he could go back to cooking for the elite. “It seemed so outrageous to obsess so much about a certain dish in a city where there are people who have no food,” he says. After reopening, Humm does both. He cooks plant-based tasting menus for the rarefied, while also feeding the less well-to-do.

Both Humm and Hearst work in industries that can make fundamental changes to their products on a relatively abbreviated timeline. They aren’t aiming to put all of the country’s drivers into electric cars or to power the whole planet without fossil fuels. But when they speak in Glasgow, they will be attempting a mind shift that’s almost as daunting as any global accord.

They will argue that luxury is not what we’ve come to believe it to be. With apologies to the past, it can be something better.