To Kering, Luxury Means Trashing ’s Death Wish

A week before I was scheduled to visit the Kering offices in Paris to talk sustainability, I was warned my “green tour” wouldn’t be like any others. There would be no peek inside a recycling center. No collection of slick reusable dishes or mugs in a cafeteria. Kering had no compost heap, solar panel rooftop, nor office furniture made from scavenged scrap lumber. In fact, its innovation lab was hundreds of miles away in northern Italy, and closed to the media. “I’m sorry,” PR representatives apologized when I asked about places and props to photograph that might tell a story about Kering’s sustainability strategy. “There’s really not much we can offer. It’s not necessarily tangible.”

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And yet Kering’s building is among the greenest in the world. For its long-term upkeep of environmental performance, worksite environmental impact, and innovative techniques to treat water quality, the building was awarded a BREAM certification and the French HQE environmental label, two hard-won distinctions. The building itself is an exercise in recycling. Established in 1634 as a hospice for “incurables,” the building treated the poorest and sickest Catholics in Paris, who could receive care in exchange for all their possessions. Reimagined as Kering's new home, the offices were built upon sustainable principles, with sustainable intentions, for a sustainable future. The fact that it was all invisible might seem like a problem. For Kering, it was the point.

Sustainable has always been something of a paradox. On the one hand, we are in the middle of a certifiable emergency: According to an analysis put out by The Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group, fashion is one of the world’s most polluting industries (after electricity and heat, agriculture, and road transportation). On the other, sustainability is dull. It’s often ugly. It interrupts the dreamscape and the fantasy that fashion, especially luxury fashion, promises. It asks regular consumers to be more vigilant, more ascetic, more considerate, and feel more guilt than the brands selling to them. This is all while being okay with looking like a scarecrow in drawstring hemp pants and up-cycled patchwork jackets. Besides, what does it mean for a business — whose entire existence is based on getting people to buy more — to engage with sustainability, which seems to be hinged on getting people to consume less?
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Both stereotypes assume that companies creating the vast majority of clothing do not care. Their thirst for next season’s windfall blinds them from the next century’s downfall, so it goes. Not at Kering, which is one of the few fashion companies that have made sustainability part of its core mission, that does not believe that green fashion and consumerism are fundamentally at odds. According to CEO Francois-Henri Pinault, protecting the planet and its inhabitants and protecting its shareholders are one and the same. The other side of the same coin is just as modern: sustainable fashion is luxury fashion. Which is why Kering is arguing that truly sustainable companies shouldn’t look any different from the outside.

Marie- Claire Daveu wearing a blue suit at Kering Headquarters

Photographed by Hugues Laurent.

The person who Pinault appointed to enforce this mission was Marie-Claire Daveu who spent decades working in the public sector in ecology and sustainable development. “Luxury was not a sector I identified with in the past,” Daveu admitted to me while pulling on her cobalt-blue blazer — beautifully made and striking, but a far cry from the slickly puffed blazers that were designed in the Kering-owned Balenciaga offices just a few hundred feet away. “I wanted to join a company where sustainability would be really important; where sustainability was not a ‘nice to have’ but rather a ‘must have.’”

Much has been written about the changing definition of luxury, but that may be missing the point. Luxury is “the best.” It has always meant, and still means making products with the best materials, with the best craftspeople and practices, to serve the best promise, and leave the longest legacy.

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But what’s changed is how we qualify that.

“Francois-Henri Pinault is convinced that you can’t speak about luxury if you don’t take care of the planet and the people,” Daveu tells me. “For him, sustainability is inherent to quality when we are speaking about luxury.”

Today, materials of the best quality do not necessarily have to mean ones that are the worst for the environment, like leather or wool. Take organic cotton, for instance. Not only is it 80% less impactful than conventional cotton and has been shown by non-profit organization Global Textile Exchange to provide farmers with more diverse sources of income and a better lifestyle — it can also be exquisite.

“Way back, I remember somebody at the brands saying to me, ‘Ugh, but it’s just so banal, and H&M does it. We’re luxury,’” recounted Cecilia Takayama, the director of Kering’s Materials Innovation Lab, which acts as a textile library, research unit, and advocacy group to provide a resource for its brands and suppliers. “People have this image of what you might get in a Whole Foods bag when they think of organic cotton. They never actually think of some of the most beautiful cotton that’s made is organic — we can get them the exact same quality at the exact same caliber.” Takayama remembers negotiating with one of her major suppliers about Kering’s sustainability intentions with organic cotton. “I remember they said ‘Sustainability is a trend. It’s going to go away.’ I said, ‘Look — this is our mission. If you want to tell us there’s nothing you can do, we’ll look elsewhere to find what we need. That’s your choice.’ They called us two weeks later and came around.” Now, Daveu tells me that organic cotton accounts for a big proportion of the cotton that Kering brands use.

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To the consumer, an organic cotton T-shirt or blouse looks no different than one made of conventional cotton. If Daveu and the Kering sustainability team have negotiated with their suppliers well, there’s no difference in price or availability either. But the impact on the environment is clear.

Daveu is looking for dozens — thousands — more swaps like this one where the end result is invisible for consumers, is not a burden on designers, and makes good business sense for Kering’s shareholders. Eventually, Kering wants to completely decouple the company’s growth from the use of natural resources, to create a circular economy that relies on recycled resources instead. As guideposts in the journey to bio-resiliency, Kering has established a 2025 goal that aims to reduce the company’s carbon emissions by 50%, and reduce the monetary value lost to unsustainable activities across the supply chain — a proprietary rubric called an Environmental Profit and Loss account, or EP&L — by 40%.

To give you an idea of the challenge ahead of them, Kering literally needs a miracle to make that happen — “some really disruptive innovations,” Daveu calls them. Without that, Kering would only be able to reduce its EP&L by 20% by that time, even considering the resources and pull that Kering already has.

But that would come, Daveu knew. Technological leaps would happen. The real challenge was a cultural one. When I ask Daveu about the most important thing she’s achieved in her six years at Kering, she does not mention a tech innovation or a top-selling sustainable product. “Journalists love to try and identify one event,” she jokes,. “For me, the most important thing is the fact that at every level inside the company, people are really convinced that sustainability is a necessity, not just an option. It’s a cultural change.”

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By providing the data, establishing the resources, and establishing support from the very top management at Kering (and proving it via a series presentations for brands during a roadshow that Daveu and Pinault went on), Daveu has cleared one of the biggest, most invisible first hurdles: She’s made sustainability as important as turning a profit or creating a must-have item within a luxury company. Kering has incentivized individual brand CEOs and top management by tying a portion of their year bonuses to sustainability achievements. Creative directors do not have this incentive. But Daveu assures me that all are on board, from Alessandro Michele at Gucci to Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga. “We did not have some bad question marks of designers who didn’t want to go this way. It’s not a constraint to their creativity."

Daveu tells me that this means that brands have clear-cut sustainability goals they must hit every year. Every brand has a sustainability lead (some have full teams), who reports in to Daveu's own sustainability team of 50. In theory (and, according to Daveu, in practice, too), this means brands look to Kering to help them find sustainable and ethical alternatives to materials, suppliers, and producers that won’t compromise cost, quality, or availability. “It’s what we call ‘freedom within a framework,’” explains Daveu. “They reduce their environmental footprint, they pay attention to the social side, and they take into account animal welfare. After, if they want to communicate [externally], it depends on the brands.” I confirmed with two Kering brands that their individual sustainability goals do mirror Kering’s 2025 plans, and are enforced.

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But brands don’t seem to be jumping at the opportunity to talk about their own efforts. This presents a unique philosophical challenge for Kering. As part of the sustainability industry, Kering knows that it needs to espouse transparency in order to institute widespread changes. But as part of the luxury fashion industry, Kering knows that secrecy and exclusivity are core principles that allow their brands to build cultural cache and desirability. This comes to a head when you take a look at how their individual brands choose to communicate their sustainability initiatives that they’re all tasked with undergoing.

I can use one hand to count the number of brands who even touch on sustainability. We can literally talk about Stella McCartney…and then there’s a pause.

Bandana Tewari

While Gucci has taken the initiative to talk about its ban on fur and mentions products that contribute to its reduction in EP&L, the majority of brands have chosen to treat sustainability in a passive way that’s more in line with the secrecy of traditional luxury marketing. Bottega Veneta and Balenciaga mentions its abidance by environmental sustainability standards at the very bottom of its About Us pages. Alexander McQueen, YSL, and Christopher Kane do not mention it on their websites at all. Though there are one-off sustainability initiatives (Kane’s Disney capsule collection, YSL’s couture training programs), these smaller projects do not hint at the massive paradigm shift that’s happening behind the scenes, and are counterproductive to the transparency and collaborative spirit that sustainability initiatives rely on. One source within a major Kering brand told me that this radio silence is due to a lack of time and resources on the communication side. Regardless, this disconnect attracts criticisms of “greenwashing” — that brands are more focused on marketing their “conscious” clout than actually implementing practices and standards.
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For years, Kering relied on one of its star brands, Stella McCartney, to prove that luxury and sustainability could be one and the same. “I can use one hand to count the number of brands who even touch on sustainability. We can literally talk about Stella McCartney…and then there’s a pause,” said Bandana Tewari, editor-at-large of Vogue India, when asked about the lack of enthusiasm among fashion designers toward sustainability at the 2018 Global Change Awards put on by the H&M Foundation (who paid for my transportation and accommodations to attend the conference). In March, Stella McCartney reported that she had brought back the 50% stake in her brand from Kering, which ended her partnership with the conglomerate, though she remains involved with the Kering Foundation that works to end violence against women. “’It’s true that Stella McCartney was a kind of role model, because she was one of the first designers really involved in the sustainability field,” says Daveu. “I’m sure that we will continue to exchange [ideas] with Stella. But at the same time, we now have the team at eye-level with hers inside Kering and our brands.”

While Stella McCartney’s sustainability was conspicuous, Kering is hoping that the work they and their brands are doing behind the curtain are as effective, even without communicating their actions every step of the way. Part of their challenge is training consumers to understand that sustainability is a process, rather than a signifier. It is too simple to think about brands as being sustainable or unsustainable, green or not green — what matters is how much work they’re doing to transform a system that is resistant to change. It explains why, despite Kering’s mission, they still use leather (cattle farming is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions for the fashion industry). Hardline critics argue that to be truly sustainable means abandoning animal byproducts completely and immediately, but Daveu's strategy is to convince current suppliers to switch to sustainable cattle farming techniques while looking for new technology that’ll replicate the look, feel, and durability of leather through lab-grown proteins or recycled materials. New technologies cannot be adopted if they they not meet Kering’s strict quality standards.

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“At the end of the day, you have to have the same quality,” Daveu explains. “Today, there are some startups that are developing some really interesting mushroom technology, but we are not able to use it for our luxury products. We have to have the same standards of quality.”

For thousands of years, luxury has meant attaining something that’s precious to you. That will never change

Julie Gilhart

For us as shoppers, this monumental effort might not look like anything. We may not even notice. A bag made with the upper limits of durability, creativity, and quality should not look or feel any different to the consumer. “For thousands of years, luxury has meant attaining something that’s precious to you. That will never change,” says creative consultant and retail expert Julie Gilhart, who advises fashion brands on sustainability. “You can’t change consumerism. The better bet is to go back into changing yourself, your materials, your supply chain, and your products.”

Kering is uniquely positioned in the fashion industry to transform consumerism into a circular economy — to make sustainability “a must-have,” not just a “nice-to-have.” If the fashion industry is driving itself off a cliff, finding the brakes isn’t necessarily the best and only option. Out of all other fashion brands, Kering may be best situated to figure out how to grow the industry a pair of wings.

I ask Daveu whether or not she feels the urgency of her job. “You know, this used to be the emergency level,” she laughs, waving one hand around her office that’s built in the middle of a long stone corridor of the former hospital, waving at the metaphor built in the stone bricks around her. She winks: “You’re the storyteller, not me!”

Still smiling, she glances at her watch, and lets me know she has another meeting. As I pack up, she tells me about the series of beehives that Pinault installed in a green garden on the Kering grounds. The first year, the bees didn’t produce any honey, because they were acclimating to a new environment. But in the second year, the bees were fruitful. Kering groundskeepers collected the honey and bottled them in jars to hand out as gifts. Daveu grabs a jar from her bookshelf and slips it into a paper bag and attempts to tie it up for me, laughing at how messily she does it.

“I have to be conscious that the work I do will never be perfect. But, I still have to do it. That is the reality,” she says, switching gears. “But to not change? That’s not an option.”

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