Are luxury and sustainability polar opposites? We pondered this question over a fireside chat on sustainability with female Bentley executives and an international group of women.
As unique as this question was to be the focus of a discussion for a motoring event, being in a “women-only” motoring event was a unique situation by itself. I am often one of few women among male motoring journalists, yet there I was surrounded by females who came from various backgrounds including a former lifestyle magazine editor from Taiwan and a YouTuber from Japan. And rather than test driving a car, Bentley’s Harmony of Polarities event in Thailand had us doing yoga early in the morning and eating vegan protein balls.
Bentley is trailblazing a new path. It is not just breaking stereotypes by holding an all-women, wellness-style motoring event. Bentley is initiating a difficult conversation on the role of corporations and people in achieving sustainability for the planet. “How can you convince the market to like recycled materials when Bentley is associated with high luxury and buying a special car to reward yourself?” asked a Taiwanese TV host sitting next to me during the fireside chat. The idea of recycling or more appropriately “repurposing” (terms commonly associated with sustainability) seems to be in contrast with luxury. But reconciling that contrast is a challenge Bentley has taken on. As a luxury car brand, it is redefining luxury in the process.
Bentley recently introduced the Flying Spur Hybrid, but its journey to sustainability goes beyond churning-out hybrid or electric models as other brands have done.
Susan Ross (Bentley’s Lead Designer for Colours, Materials & Finishes) shares that the company ensures that its leather comes from a sustainable source by working with a non-profit organization that checks and certifies that at all stages of producing the leather is sustainable. Susan also researches on the next generation of materials and works with curators to engineer them into something that can be used in a Bentley car. Bentley’s collaboration with an Italian couple involves a plant-based “wine” textile concept made from stalks and other byproducts of the wine-making process. Other non-leather textiles for Bentley’s seats and door trims include a 100% organic cotton manufactured by a company that supplies textile to the royal household, and a 100% tweed made from British wool as a tribute to Bentley’s British identity. The high-wool tweed is now available in limited-edition Bentleys.
New variety veneers include materials that were repurposed from something else, then handmade by craftsmen for Bentley’s interiors. Some of these materials are not only exotic but also memorable for their backstories. A limited edition Bentley concept car in 2019 incorporates wood from a tree that fell 5,000 years ago. Options for custom-order Bentley cars from Mulliner include stone veneers and a veneer that contains metal from antique poles in Venice. There are more interesting materials in the works, such as a concept veneer made from a blend of walnut and recycled paper. The process of developing materials can sometimes take up to seven years, a recognition by Bentley that sustainability is a “journey” that requires several steps and long-term investments of time and resources.
Apart from being sustainable, Susan Ross (who also leads Bentley’s Sustainable Material Research) emphasizes that new generation materials have to be as “beautiful and durable” like the leathers and wood that are traditionally used in Bentley cars.
At the fireside chat, model and sustainability guru Nadya Hutagalung shared her personal definition of luxury as “choosing products that last a long time and that can be enjoyed for generations to come.”
Interestingly, Longevity has been part of Bentley’s history even before it embarked on a path to sustainability. Eighty percent of the cars ever produced by Bentley are still on the road today. The ability of Bentley cars to endure and be passed on to future generations reflects a dimension of luxury that is consistent with sustainability. A lasting product is in stark contrast to the concept of “fast fashion” (clothes worn only a few times then thrown away) or products that are cheap but require frequent replacement, thereby generating more waste for the world.
Beyond longevity, Bentley is redefining luxury through the look, feel, and even smell of its cars. A specialist interviewed Susan Ross and other Bentley personnel about what Bentley meant to them and then created scents to infuse into the car’s materials.
The choice of finishes and colors (like satin gold) also reflects Bentley’s perspective of sustainable luxury. There is an effort to give more subduedness to the interiors, to reflect luxury as less glittery, and to induce more mindfulness to anyone riding a Bentley.
Why should a car company like Bentley be concerned about mindfulness?
In the two days that I spent at Bentley’s “Harmony of Polarities” event in Thailand, the mindful attention to every detail allowed us to experience a type of luxury that engages all senses. We didn’t just eat to fill our hunger. We engaged in mindful eating with a nutritionally calibrated dinner from locally sourced ingredients prepared by Chef Ruslan S of Four Seasons Hotel. We didn’t just listen to music, we immersed in the purity of sound through the “Naim and Focal for Bentley” sound points (Bentley’s collaboration with high-end audio manufacturer Naim). We didn’t just exercise, we engaged in holistic wellness through yoga and meditation with instructor Khun Jirawan Sittiso.
Mindfulness is at the core of sustainability because being “sustainable” is not a switch that happens overnight. Rather, it’s a conscious effort to make mindful choices and stay the course. When we are mindful (and anyone who has tried yoga and meditation can attest to this), we heighten the experience of our senses—what we see, hear, or breathe—allowing us to experience luxury at its finest.
Thus, “sustainability for Bentley is a mindset,” says Calista Tambajong (Bentley’s Head of Marketing & Communications for Asia Pacific). It goes beyond the product (where electrification of cars is part of the conversation) and includes ensuring that the business itself is sustainable and that its employees are also sustainability advocates.
At Bentley’s 100th birthday, a reflection on what’s important to the company resulted in the Beyond 100 Strategy: Bentley’s path to sustainability. Jo O-Brien (Head of Sustainability Communications) saw a transformation where the focus shifted from just the product or car itself to the bigger picture. While the Beyond 100 strategy involves Bentley’s vision to be the leading maker of luxury electric cars, Jo O-Brien adds that “it’s also about being environmentally friendly: investing in its site, its people, and the community. There’s a whole side to our business that we should be talking about, to bring out the big picture.”
10 years ago, Bentley covered its factory in Crewe with solar panels and has now achieved carbon neutral status. Beyond producing electric cars with sustainable materials and interiors, Bentley continues to explore how to make its business more sustainable & energy efficient. It’s these kinds of long-term investments that drive positive change and result to other achievements, such as Bentley being the first company to be awarded South Pole’s Net Zero Plastic to Nature accreditation.
Adrian Hallmark clearly lays out Bentley’s vision: “Within a decade, Bentley will transform from a 100-year old luxury car company to a new, sustainable, wholly ethical role model for luxury.”
Bentley’s vision clarifies that luxury and sustainability are not mutually exclusive, and that the two polarities can be perfectly harmonized. By creating a future driven by new technologies and materials, Bentley is proving that the highest levels of luxury can be achieved with sustainable methods.