Forces of nature: Diana Verde Nieto and Karen Hanton MBE

Fresh from the inaugural Positive Luxury Awards 2020, the entrepreneurs and co-founders of Positive Luxury talk aspiration, inspiration and masterminding the 'Oscars of sustainability'

People 27 Feb 2020

Positive Luxury co-founders Diana Verde Nieto and Karen Hanton MBE

Positive Luxury co-founders Diana Verde Nieto and Karen Hanton MBE

What are your backgrounds?

Diana Verde Nieto: I set up Clownfish, the first international sustainability consultancy, in 2002 and then I sold it to a media agency in 2008 and stepped down in 2010, which was when Karen and I put our brains together. Sustainability goes from something people love to them falling out of love with it. It’s always been this way. When we set up Positive Luxury in 2011 it was very challenging because nobody wanted to know about sustainability. And now people are in love with it again, and hopefully the love will last because time is not on our side. We are now in an urgent state.

Karen Hanton: Our goal with Positive Luxury is to make sustainability normal. We are co-founders but Di [Diana] is very much the sustainability visionary. We have known each other for about 25 years, and were introduced around the time that I was launching TopTable at the beginning of the dot-com bubble. I’ve always quite liked making things – and it just ended up being businesses. I grew up in a croft in Aberdeen. We lived as a family of five on this 35-acre smallholding and so I had always been conscious of my consumption. I didn’t realise it until much later, until Di and I had that conversation in 2010, that I was really passionate about sustainability.

What is the relationship between sustainability and the luxury industry?

KH: When you think of luxury, people that buy luxury tend to be leaders and influencers and there’s a massive amount of money spent on luxury items. So we felt there was an opportunity here and that we could make an impact.

DVN: Also, luxury is a leader from an aspirational perspective. It’s emulated all the time; on the catwalk, in beauty, jewellery. We have a verification programme [the Butterfly Mark] that can verify brands that are doing sustainability in an integrated way. It’s not about doing one single thing, it’s about properly implementing sustainability within business processes. What is the business doing from a leadership perspective and how is sustainability embedded into every single part of the business? The reason why it’s important is because as luxury is leading the way in hotels, fashion etc, you can get just about any company in any industry to emulate that. We thought about that aspiration and that’s when we said “OK, let’s focus on the luxury sector” and lead the way with that and hope that everyone else will follow.

What is the Butterfly Mark?

KH: It is the core of Positive Luxury. It was so important to create a trust mark to communicate what brands are doing in a clear, simple way. By being part of this programme, it sends a message to potential employees and consumers about what the company stands for.

What are the criteria?

DVN: First we look at the governance of the business: diversity, inclusion, women’s agenda etc. We then look at the social and environmental frameworks, innovation and community investment. Innovation could be materials, packaging, different business models and how you look at research and development to really remain relevant in the next 50 years.

KH: It was quite difficult in the beginning to get brands to trust that our motives were positive. What I used to slightly resent about sustainability, before we started this, was that the language was totally unapproachable. I think people thought we were the green police and investigating them, so we had to make it clear that we were on a positive mission and that we wanted them to get on that journey with us.

Sustainability is such a complex issue – how do you define it?

DVN: The reality of sustainability is that there is only one definition and it was coined by Gro Harlem Brundtland back in the 1980s. It’s: ‘meeting the needs of today without compromising future generations’. That is the only definition of sustainable development. When you take that and realise how you can internalise it into the business, it’s very clear what you have to do. That’s your research and development lens; you just focus every function of the business through that and keep coming back to that point.

Tell us about the Positive Luxury Awards 2020

DVN: We had a fantastic panel of judges: Paul Polman, co-founder of sustainability consultancy firm Imagine; Amber Valletta, Arizona Muse, Simone Cipriani from the UN – we are very privileged with these incredible brains that have helped us to go through hundreds and hundreds of applications. We had almost 500 applicants from brands all over the world, across 10 categories. We also had fantastic partners that helped us make this a reality, such as Bentley, Net-a-Porter, IWC and Delta Global. We aspire to be the Oscars of sustainability. When I say that, yes it’s the glitz and the glamour, but really it’s about the integrity of the awards and celebrating leadership in sustainability. It’s been a very exciting year.

Finally, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your careers?

DVN: For me, kindness. Being open to change, open to criticism and being able to fail while remaining generous and kind to everybody as much as you can.

KH: It’s quite hard to tread the right balance, showing kindness and compassion without being walkovers. As a leader you have to lead; and quite often you’re not sure if that way is the right way, but they follow you, which is a big responsibility. But I think you cannot succeed in anything as a single being; you have to have your team with you. Ask people for their opinion, be open about what you don’t know – and have a sense of humour.