If there is a choice between share prices and sustainability, most global companies will pick the former. Sorry environment, we’d love to help, but we’ve got annual bonuses to think of and all that. Which is why Kering — the French luxury house that owns illustrious brands such as Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and Stella McCartney — surprised the world when it voluntarily surrendered itself to a series of ambitious sustainability targets in 2012.
Launched to reduce the group’s sizeable impact on the environment, and covering areas such as carbon-dioxide emissions and the way the company sources gold, leather and other animal skins, its sustainability programme was a bold new step for the fashion industry. And in May this year, its major progress report came out — the first time a luxury group had released any kind of analysis on the environmental side-effects of its supply chain.
“It is all thanks to François-Henri Pinault, who believes that we not only have an ethical responsibility to embed sustainability across our group but that it also just makes good business sense to do so,” says Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer for Kering. “Our targets were purposely ambitious. We set them to be challenging in order to help drive rapid change inside our company and across our supply chain. This is because we knew we couldn’t reach them without collaborating with our suppliers, our industry peers, NGOs and governmental agencies. Although it takes time, this type of transparent collaboration is essential to catalyse change across our industry, and beyond.”
The report reveals an unstable but undeniably promising mix of success and failure. On one hand, Kering has only achieved 15 percent of its target to source gold from responsible sources, but, on the other, in just four years it has managed to make all of its collections PVC-free and buy 80 percent of its paper from verified, sustainable forests.
Home to Stella McCartney since its launch in 2001, Kering’s pioneering role in the environmental field has been substantially strengthened by the presence of its outspoken British designer, who has been campaigning for environmental issues long before they were considered fashionable.
“I design clothes that are meant to last. I believe in creating pieces that aren’t going to get burnt, that aren’t going to landfills, that aren’t going to damage the environment,” says McCartney. “For every piece in every collection I am always asking what have we done to make this garment more sustainable and what else can we do in the future.”
Fashion is an industry built on creativity, which means it is very well placed to innovate — after all, luxury design is about reinvention and embracing new approaches. However, although high-end brands and environmental lobbies could be natural bedfellows, the former have at times been reluctant to proclaim their green credentials, an issue McCartney takes umbrage with.
“‘Eco should never be a word that conjures up images of oatmeal-coloured garments lacking in any sort of luxury or beauty, or detailing or desirability,” says McCartney. “I don’t think that things have to look ugly because they’re organic; why can’t they be beautiful as well? You can’t ask a consumer to compromise. I don’t think you can say: ‘Here is this jacket that looks terrible but it’s organic, and here is a really beautiful jacket that’s cheaper but don’t buy it because it’s not organic.’ My job is to create beautiful luxurious things. I love that people come into the store and don’t even know that something is organic or in faux leather. That’s the biggest challenge: having people not notice.”
Although both McCartney and Daveu know greener policies are the ethical choice, their commitment to them is not about simple charity, it is also about readying Kering for an uncertain future. “In my view, companies that do not embed sustainability across all their business activities will not maintain success in years to come,” says Daveu. “Already, we are seeing the results of climate change, be it loss of biodiversity or the degradation of natural resources, and this will only increase. Business is dependent on these resources and we all must take action to become more resilient to address the inevitable. At Kering, we rely on access to high-quality raw materials, such as silk and cotton, which are already being impacted by climate change. The companies that think of these things now are the companies that will succeed in the future.”