Between Brad Pitt's new biodegradable body wash for Kiehl's and recent green issues of glossy magazines like Vanity Fair, it's easy to forget that eco-consciousness hasn't always had upscale cachet. When I was growing up in the 1980s, it consisted mainly of hippie-dippie products like Birkenstocks and hemp T shirts, along with annoying tasks like recycling. Now that saving the earth has become trendy, entrepreneurs have begun to brand green products across all price points—including the highest ones. For the carbon-footprint-erasing jet set, this translates into a new breed of luxury products that allow them to indulge in the kind of excess to which they've become accustomed, while still feeling virtuous about their impact on the planet. The age of the eco status symbol is upon us, even at a time of worldwide financial crisis.
The automobile provides one of the most obvious applications for green technology, but until recently it didn't get much more exciting than Toyota's electric hybrid, Prius, which isn't exactly competing with Mercedes for clientele (except perhaps in some Hollywood garages). Luxury consumers with more-traditional tastes can take heart, as some of their favorite gas guzzlers are being retooled to meet SULEV (super ultralow emission vehicle) standards. Lexus's 2008 LS 600h L features a 438-horsepower V-8 engine that delivers V-12 power, with an additional high-output, electric-drive motor. Packed with the same over-the-top options as its gas-only sibling, the LS 460—including a reclining rear seat with a massage function and an automatic parking-guidance system—it comes at a much steeper base price: $104,900, compared with the LS 460's $62,900.
BMW is looking past electricity to hydrogen as an energy source, with the advent of the Hydrogen 7, a modified version of its top-of-the-line 760Li sedan. The V12 engine can run on either liquid hydrogen or gasoline, and spokesmen have been quoted as saying it could be sold at a "manageable premium" over the standard $125,000 for the 760Li (the Hydrogen 7 has not yet been released). For wealthy auto enthusiasts, the sticker shock isn't an impediment. If anything, it's the opposite—the extreme price tag makes these cars seem even more appealing as a way to stand out while making a progressive statement.
For those who wear their planetary concern on their sleeves, the fantastical creations from Franz Gräbe Flower Couture are the ultimate expression of conviction in both sustainable, and conspicuous, consumption. The series of outfits recently unveiled during the Auditions show at Sanlam South Africa Fashion Week were constructed exclusively from natural materials like twigs, leaves, flowers and reeds, accessorized with more than $775,000 worth of avant-garde gold jewelry. No chance that these frocks will sit unworn for years in your closet; within hours the blossoms begin to wilt, and by the following day your dress is literally dead. As they say, in fashion, what's in one day is out the next.
Diamonds have a much longer shelf life, but many also come with a controversial pedigree that involves being mined in a war zone and sold in order to finance nongovernmental military action. Additionally, the industrial processes used to mine gold include destructive large-scale machines and toxic chemicals like mercury. A company called GreenKarat offers a solution by manufacturing its pieces with recycled precious metals and either recycled or lab-created stones. The company states "there is enough gold above ground (already mined) to satisfy all demands of the jewelry industry for the next 50 years. Much of it sits in bank vaults and in the form of old and unused jewelry." Maybe Grandma's ugly engagement ring isn't so useless after all.
For those who have acquired all the trappings of an environmentally elite life—a tricked-out sedan, grass skirt and recycled gold earrings—there's one more major purchase yet to make: a home. A minimum of $1 million will buy a manor in Florida's Sky real-estate development. Set in the state's northwest foothills, the project promises to redefine the planned-community paradigm around environmentally sound initiatives. With its own recycling center, composting yard, extensive organic gardens and orchards, and a farmers market, Sky aims to encourage a local food cycle. Homes will incorporate solar technology, and amenities will include equestrian stables, hiking trails, a wildlife sanctuary, electric community transportation and natural spring-fed pools. In an era marked by unease about the repercussions of our ecologically unsound decisions, Sky will allow its residents to lead the good life in more ways than one.
Fortunately for the lovers and purveyors of old-fashioned luxury standbys—like 30-carat canary yellow diamonds and Lamborghinis—the market for ecofriendly luxury is still in its nascent stage. Its cost premiums require buyers to appreciate the idea of sustainability in order to accept higher prices. But in the coming years, especially if economic hard times improve, the market will likely boom as luxury consumers express their concern the way they know best: with their credit cards. There's nothing like a fat bank account to make it easy being green.