Why green is the new black

Chief executive of Kering Francois-Henri Pinault and his wife, actress Salma Hayek.
Chief executive of Kering Francois-Henri Pinault and his wife, actress Salma Hayek.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON • While most of fashion has its eyes focused on the couture shows in Paris this week, Mr Francois-Henri Pinault, chief executive of Kering, the luxury goods group that owns labels including Gucci, Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, has been thinking about something a little more grimy in nature.

Specifically, waste.

After sharing the results of Kering's 2012-2016 sustainability report at the end of last year, Mr Pinault last week released a secondary phase of targets to meet by 2025.

The targets, in line with United Nations goals for sustainable development, include cutting carbon emissions by 50 per cent and reducing Kering's environmental impact by at least 40 per cent, largely from production of raw materials.

Carbon emissions, water pollution, cotton production and cattle farming contribute the most to Kering's environmental footprint.

Some efforts are already under way and ready to be scaled up, most notably Gucci's adoption of a metalfree leather-tanning process, which costs 25 per cent more than conventional techniques, in part because more skins are wasted.

Mr Pinault said Kering is in talks with auto companies to see if they might buy the surplus material. The company has also approached other clients of tanneries to see if they would also adopt the process, to lower the cost difference.

"We see our efforts as strategic long-term investments, not shortterm costs," he said, rebutting the idea that sustainability and luxury cannot go hand-in-hand because the industry is built on consumption.

"Real luxury is based on authenticity and sincerity - product is almost secondary to the experience. But if your products are not in sync with a higher set of values, then you aren't going to survive in this business."

Fashion is second only to the oil industry in the amount of pollutants it emits.

Many of its best-known high-end names have long been vocal proponents of the sustainable fashion movement, but without necessarily clarifying what that means.

According to Ms Diana Verde Nieto, chief executive of Positive Luxury, which awards a "trust mark" to brands that have a positive impact on society and the environment, luxury players have stepped up social and environmental issues in recent years, in part to protect their resources.

But, she added, companies also face greater scrutiny from those who buy their products, as well as occasional accusations of "greenwashing" - spending more time and money on marketing environmental credentials than on actually putting sustainable business practices in place.

Mr Pinault did not entirely agree. "The standard for today's consumer is that everyone is sustainable, so they aren't really going to buy more from you just because they see you as normal," he said. "They will absolutely penalise you if they think you don't care, but they certainly won't reward you for being first in class."

While Kering may be the most vocal in the luxury pack about its sustainability efforts, it is not alone.

With its Life (LVMH Initiatives for the Environment) programme, and the establishment of an internal carbon fund in 2015, LVMH has arguably been more consistent in spreading its efforts across brands and product life cycles, Ms Verde Nieto said.

Mr Pinault said Kering was already taking steps to monitor the environmental impact of its products from cradle-to-grave (that is, from source to final disposal) rather than from cradle-to-gate, or through the supply chain from inception to purchase.

Last October, Kering introduced an app called MyEP&L, which allows fashion designers to see the potential environmental impact of a hypothetical creation.

An item can be tracked and priced from source to retailer, with calculations for different production methods or provenance of raw materials.

"It's amazing to see how a designer's creative visions can alter," Mr Pinault said, noting that Tomas Maier, creative director of the Italian leather house Bottega Veneta, lowered the use of PVC in its products to less than 1 per cent in less than two years.

Kering is creating an index of external suppliers to ensure that all independent raw materials meet standards on traceability, chemical use and animal welfare. A Materials Innovation Lab for watches and jewellery is also in the works, after the success of a similar textiles venture that engineered more than 1,500 fabrics.

"In a decade, we could be wearing leather made from animal stem cells or mushrooms - all the technology is there, we just need to scale it up," Mr Pinault said. "Our generation's responsibility is to ensure that the next generation will do it differently."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 02, 2017, with the headline 'Why green is the new black'. Print Edition | Subscribe