Speaking series

Diana Verde Nieto – Positive Luxury

Start by telling us why you are so passionate about sustainability that you built a brand based around it?

I was born under a dictatorship so I have always been very passionate about what’s fair. In my opinion, the purest definition of sustainable development was given by Harlem Bruntland in the 1980s at the UN Convention. She defined sustainability, or sustainable development, as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” That really resonated with me because it touched this idea of fairness, of the physical, social, and environmental impact we have on the world. So, Positive Luxury is about how to help companies look at running their business in a responsible manner to maximise their impact in society and minimise their impact on their environment; running their whole business holistically in a responsible manner.


Prior to setting up Positive Luxury you had already gained prominence in the world of sustainable branding, particularly after founding Clownfish in 2002. Can you tell us more about your work in developing the consultancy, and what it taught you about sustainable branding?

Back in 2002 nobody thought about sustainability. There were a lot of conversations, however, about ISO certifications and different management systems that companies must comply with to run better operations. It was clear to me when we started Clownfish that there was no way that we would be able to grow without taking account of all these management systems. So back then we did a lot of ISO certifications. We used them to help companies embed the principles of sustainable development into their business processes.

Around this time, the idea portrayed in Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ changed the sustainability agenda by taking difficult issues about the environment that no-one really understood and putting them into the hands of the consumer. But of course, when consumers were handed the inconvenient truth they didn’t know what to do with it. Brands didn’t know how to maximise profits and be more sustainable.

Although Clownfish grew from one person in the UK to five markets globally (China, USA, Italy, Spain, and London) whilst I was there, after selling the company and stepping down as CEO I really felt that the job wasn’t done. I still felt consumers were confused about sustainable development. A lot of people interpreted it to be about not flying, not going on holidays, and giving things up. Positive Luxury came about after many conversations with Karen, the co-founder, on responding to this challenge by reframing sustainability to make it more accessible to the consumer.

So, Positive Luxury is a shortcut for sustainability. Our goal is to inspire people to buy better and for brands to do better. Instead of looking for perfection, for complete carbon neutrality – which does not exist – it is about striving for excellence, having a positive impact and minimising your negative impacts, and using innovation to approach these challenges

The Butterfly mark is central to Positive Luxury’s branding. Why did you choose The Butterfly mark as your brand’s image?

Before we launched the Butterfly mark, I had the privilege of giving David Attenborough his lifetime achievement award. He and I got talking about the fragility of the world, and how to close the supply gap that has been created by taking too much out of the world and not replenishing it.  He told me about the British Blue butterfly, which was hunted to extinction but then became the most successful insect re-integration ever attempted. I remembered this story when creating Positive Luxury, as it represented to me both the fragility of the world but also how we, as humans, can re-write the story and change our fate.


You describe the Butterfly mark as an interactive trust mark. What does this mean?

The Butterfly mark is a trust mark, completely interactive, and the first of its kind. You can click on it and discover what the brand does in a very simple way, with a breakdown of information such as whether the product tests on animals, where it comes from, and employee wages. We assess the brands annually through a very rigorous process. If the brand meets 80% of the criteria, they are awarded the Butterfly mark and are then able to put it on their website and enable their consumers to see their sustainable credentials interactively.

Does maintaining the mark for all your brands take a lot of work?

To maintain the quality control of the mark we have a sustainability council comprised of academics (including at MIT and the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership) and brands, all of whom work to develop and change our framework. This includes looking at social and environmental factors, governance, philanthropy, and innovation. With the academics, we annually assess our brands and ensure legal compliance and develop the framework in other ways. With the brands, we work together to better understand the barriers that they would experience in implementing our framework, and how we can overcome them. Through this, we help to make a business case for sustainability and enable brands to unlock that value.

Much of Positive Luxury’s identity is about promoting sustainability and ethical living through branding and brand platforming. In your experience, how can a company develop a brand which focuses on sustainability when introducing themselves into a marketplace?

First and foremost, they must look at the governance of their business, and think about diversity, inclusion, and transparency. This can very much be low hanging fruit, such as paying taxes. Secondly, they must think about innovation. This involves ensuring that in whatever they do, they work to reduce their environmental footprint and increase their social footprint by adding value to communities. Thirdly, a company should look at what cannot be enhanced through innovation, and what they want to do to give back philanthropically. Finally, a company should look at the processes involved in making their products or deliverance of their services, and think about how to make them more sustainable and fairer to everyone involved.

A company’s values must be dedicated to sustainability. The best advice I can give is to really live the culture that you are trying to foster in your company through your daily actions and practices. Unless you do this, you cannot successfully pass this onto your employees of today and tomorrow. In today’s changed world, what you do is more important than what you say.


It is interesting how Positive Luxury, as a brand, influences and reshapes other brands. How are you approaching this in your work with Selfridges?

Selfridges, which was named as one of the most sustainable retailers last year, have adopted our Blue Butterfly mark. I worked very closely with my trademark attorney, Carrollanne Lindley, in preparing this. We had to think about how a third-party retailer – which sells multiple brands – can adopt the mark, showcase it on their website, and exploit our Intellectual Property for good. This was a real challenge because it had never been done before. This whole process took three years in total, but anything good takes time to achieve. We are being a service to Selfridges so that they can be a more responsible service to the consumer.

It must be difficult when a big brand comes to you but does not meet the Positive Luxury criteria.

No, not really. We have almost 300 brands outside of the community and only about 170 inside the community. All the others are working to get in. If they have been rejected by us, they will generally try again the following year. My most satisfactory case study is Steven Webster, the jewellery designer. They did not pass in the first instance, and almost 18 months later he called and said ‘We’re ready. I’ve listened, I’ve done it, can we try again?’. And they had changed everything, which really was inspiring.

Every brand, especially multi-nationals that work in various markets and have a fragmented supply chain, will mess up. The challenge comes when brands really care about the mistakes they make and take the time to look at what to do to mess up less.