One of the few exceptions is Kering, which is inspiring its own house designers with forward-thinking corporate practices and, in a move of surprising transparency, enlightening the entire fashion industry. Its chief sustainability officer, Marie-Claire Daveu, works from the company’s headquarters, two miles to the south of the Gucci and Saint Laurent stores, in St.-Germain.
“I’m not a fashionista, but I am interested in beautiful clothes, yes—I am French,” says Daveu with a smile, settling down in a meeting room on a basement level beneath the honey-colored stone complex, home to Kering’s corporate offices and Balenciaga, where lavender gardens are tended to avoid overuse of water and five beehives produce honey for the Kering canteen. The immaculately restored 17th-century former Laennec Hospital is symbolic of the Kering brands: Inside the exquisite historic building is a modern, resolutely efficient interior.
Wearing a black Saint Laurent pussy-bow blouse, black leather pants, and silver sneakers, fingers circled with Pomellato rings, her Deneuve-blonde hair tucked in a chignon, Daveu looks like a fashion executive but is also a former senior civil servant who advised two French cabinets on ecology matters.
She wasn’t looking to join a luxury fashion company when she arrived in 2012, Daveu remembers, but during her first interview with Pinault, his convictions about how Kering had to make social and environmental changes to its business won her over. “When I met François-Henri, I understood that sustainability was something he had put at the core of his strategy. I wanted to join a company where sustainability was not greenwashing, was not ‘Speak but don’t act.’” Even his rivals would allow that Pinault has been a man of action during his 12 years in charge of Kering, pushing both eco-initiatives and measures supporting women.
The Kering Foundation, a separate charitable arm, drives women-empowerment campaigns, including Chime for Change, a global campaign that peaked with a London concert by cofounder Beyoncé in 2013, and the White Ribbon campaign, which fights domestic violence. Pinault credits his wife, actress Salma Hayek-Pinault, a Kering Foundation director, for his support of gender issues, telling the guests at a New York City Anti-Defamation League dinner in 2015 that his consciousness was raised by “two women in my life—my mother’s and my wife’s refusal to accept violence against women.”
But aside from the purely philanthropic motive, Pinault has consistently emphasized that protection of scarce natural resources is, for him, essential to the survival of his business. “We see our efforts as strategic long-term investments, not short-term costs,” he has said repeatedly. Daveu, his closest counsel on the subject, echoes the thought: “Sustainability is not an option but a necessity; he believes it stimulates creativity.”
The idea of transparency—being open with both customers and rivals—is a new one for luxury brands, which have typically been more secretive than sports giants like Nike and Puma or mass-fashion chains such as H&M. Even as the age of scandalous YouTube clips and citizen journalism has made secrecy obsolete, modern luxury maisons still tend to hide behind sepia-tinted marketing images of craftsmanship and savoir faire while claiming the necessity of confidentiality—for example, many won’t reveal the exact location of their factories.
By contrast, Kering is disclosing its practices, even if they aren’t yet quite as blemish-free as Daveu would like: “You have to be honest; people know. For instance, we made a commitment to remove the most harmful chemical products by 2020. Today, we’ve done that for some products. But for the others, we don’t have the alternative solutions yet. It’s better to say, ‘We’ve tried but may not reach our target.’ It’s better to explain.” A publicly traded company, Kering makes all its sustainability targets public in detailed reports alongside its financial results. Both investment analysts and shareholders are taking a closer interest in, say, how ethically sound a luxury brand’s snake farm or cotton field is.
adapted from Departures
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