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Everyday luxury – something for all?

I have always enjoyed reading Jim Butcher’s analyses of the relationship between tourism and culture. So of course I was eager to read his blog piece entitled In defence of luxury in which he defended the tourist search for luxury against criticism that  luxury travel is “greedy, bad for the environment and culturally decadent.”

Jim argues that rather than pouring scorn on those who want to enjoy a luxury cruise, we should think a bit more deeply about what luxury means. The idea of luxury is contextual – things that might have been seen as luxuries in the relatively recent past, such as mobile phones or colour TVs, are now everyday items – some might argue necessities.  So Jim argues that what we should be seeking is ‘luxury for all’, rather than the lucky few.

In one of those weird coincidences that we stumble across every now and then, a day later I happened across the book Luxury for All in Architectura & Natura, a great architectural bookshop in Amsterdam. Subtitled Milestones in European Stepped Terrace Housing, the book examines the development of high-quality housing in a variety of settings, including the “Sundecks for All” tourism development of La Grande Motte in southern France. The idea is that stepped terraces provide an urban model of densification that contributes to a greener city – a luxury for the residents as well as being better for the environment.

La Grande Motte is a classic example of the democratisation of holidays that Jim Butcher defends staunchly. The once luxurious forms of holidaying that were limited to the upper classes until relatively recently have now been made available to millions through the expansion of the tourism industry. Of course, the growth of tourism has negative externalities that impact on the environmental and the host cultures and societies that should be limited and controlled. But the point is that travel, along with many other areas of consumption, have become permeated by the concept of ‘everyday luxury’. As Banister et al (2020) point out, the growth of consumer markets and the experience economy have shifted the definition of luxury from the producer to the consumer. Many things are now perceived as everyday, affordable luxuries by consumers in advanced economies, and everyday luxury consumption is  growing fast. Just look at the number of nail salons, massage parlours and boutique coffee purveyors in major cities these days.

In fact, what many people think about as a luxury no longer relates to expensive products or high design, but rather experiences that provide different qualities, values and opportunities. Together with Wendy Morrill we have been doing research for WYSE Travel Confederation on youth splurging on a range of travel ‘luxuries’, including music festivals, food experiences and airline upgrades. The data from the forthcoming New Horizons V research indicate that spending on many of these items is now fairly widespread, and that many young people apparently manage to combine luxury spending and sustainable travel in the same trip. In fact for many, the ability to splurge drives an increased level of travel happiness.

As Forbes recently noted, the concept of luxury is shifting towards particular values, and towards resources that might be scarce for many, such as time. The idea of quality time, or time for ourselves, is equated by many with a feeling of luxury. In today’s harried world, having the leisure to spend some time as we please, or with whom we please, can be seen as a luxury. Viewing luxury this way enables us to decouple the concept from money, and therefore to imagine that there might be a possibility for ‘Luxury for All’. Luxury viewed this way is not a product, but a practice that many can develop and utilise to add value to their lives and to the lives of those around them.

This should also be seen as the task of design – taking products and experiences that were once the preserve of the few and making them accessible for the many.  This is one strategy adopted by IKEA, for example, whose furniture often features in design museum exhibitions and at Milan Design Week. Using good design, we can provide ‘luxury’ homes, even for disadvantaged groups in emerging economies. Good design should also increase the luxury of product longevity, therefore aiding sustainability. My Alessi  juicer, produced as a mass market product in conjunction with Philips, is still going strong after 30 years.  

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