‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’ Could this be the best way to describe the predicament that luxury brands find themselves in when it comes to corporate social responsibility?
In an industry that champions fur coats and crocodile bags – and creates revenue in the billions – luxury brands have become a natural target for animal rights activists and environmental campaigners, who condemn the heavy use of rare materials and lack of transparency in the supply chain.
Successful social and environmental initiatives that have been launched in luxury are often overshadowed by press coverage condemning animal testing or chemical usage or the amount of packaging used in everything from perfume to marketing.
And indeed as the industry moves into a period of mass-industrialisation, luxury conglomerates are having a more significant global impact on energy use, CO2 emissions and waste creation, alongside water consumption and even deforestation.
“ Increasingly it is argued that luxury and sustainability, and CSR, are natural bedfellows ”
Yet, increasingly it is argued that luxury and sustainability, and corporate social responsibiliy, are natural bedfellows, despite the fact that the concepts seem utterly paradoxical.
Jean-Noël Kapferer, co-author of The Luxury Strategy, explains, “Luxury is at its essence very close to sustainable preoccupations, because it is nourished by rarity and beauty and thus has an interest in preserving them.”
‘Sustainability and Luxury,’ a whitepaper by Added Value suggests that timelessness unites the concepts, as by nature luxury isn’t trendy, but durable and long lasting.
The marketing firm goes on to suggest that Sustainability actually represents an opportunity for differentiation and innovation within the industry, in that sustainable luxury products promote the principle of ‘buy less and pay more.’
Gucci’s 100% Traceable Hangbag, part of the Green Carpet Challenge
For whatever reasons, we are noticing luxury brands becoming more pro-active – and indeed more vocal – about sustainability initiatives that extend beyond run-of-the-mill environmental impact reduction.
Whilst the industry remains far from sustainable in the pure sense of the word, steps towards sustainability by luxury brands still represent a positive change, regardless of how big or small. Particularly as we witness a shift from basic charitable donations, to the integration of corporate social responsibility practices as a cornerstone of operations.
Kering is arguably a leader when it comes to conglomerate level corporate social responsibility in the luxury sector. Not to say that other behemoths are not making progress towards more sustainable, ethical and ecologically responsible businesses, but Kering’s five-year social and environmental plan for its key luxury brands is, as yet, the most ambitious.
“ Kering aims to eliminate all hazardous chemicals from its production by 2020 ”
As part of the group’s overall profit & loss account, Kering’s multi-tiered action plan focuses on the reduction of carbon-dioxide emissions, waste, and water; sourcing of raw materials; hazardous chemicals and materials; and paper and packaging.
Specifically, the group aims to phase out PVC entirely, source 100% of its paper from certified sustainably managed forests (sourcing a minimum 50% recycled content) and evaluate key suppliers once every two years, by 2016. Kering also aims to eliminate all hazardous chemicals from its production by 2020.
Leather for brands such as Bottega Veneta, Sergio Rossi and Alexander McQueen, will be 100% sourced from “responsible and verified sources that do not result in converting sensitive ecosystems into grazing lands or agricultural lands for food production for livestock.”
Gucci’s Chime for Change campaign
When it comes to precious skins and furs – a long time hallmark of the Gucci brand – its goal is for 100% to come from “verified captive-breeding operations or from wild, sustainably managed populations,” where suppliers employ “accepted animal welfare practices and humane treatment in sourcing.”
Within Kering’s luxury portfolio, CSR integration is more advanced at some brands than it is at others, but the group’s overall objectives look set to bring them into a more cohesive line. Under the leadership of Frida Giannini and Patrizio di Marco, Gucci has emerged as one of the leaders, through its activities in philanthropy, product innovation and operations.
In 2004, Gucci was one of the first companies in the industry to voluntarily initiate a Corporate Social Responsibility (SA 8000) certification process for its entire production cycle. According to the brand “this certification – relating to the leather goods, jewellery, footwear and clothing supply chains and to the logistics hub – stands for values such as business ethics, respect for human rights, workers’ health and safety, and equal opportunities.”
“ Gucci was one of the first companies in the industry to voluntarily initiate a CSR certification ”
Gucci are particularly active in philanthropy relating to women’s issues and girl’s education. To date Gucci has contributed over $10 million to UNICEF during an eight-year partnership, through a mix of charitable donations and by creating ‘UNICEF’ products, whereby 25% of the retail proceeds are passed on to the charity.
In 2013-2014, the House’s donations from sales of the Gucci Nice shopper bag will benefit UNICEF’s “Schools for Africa” and “Schools for Asia” initiatives, which aim to provide access to quality education for millions of the most vulnerable children.
Perhaps the most visible initiative of late has been Chime for Change, a campaign launched in February 2013 to support women and girls’ education, health services and justice, in partnership with women such as Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Salma Hayek Pinault, Halle Berry and Jennifer Lopez.
Gucci’s Sustainable Soles, Biodegradable Shoes
The Sound Of Change concert held in London on June 1st raised $4.4 million to support 260 projects developed by 87 non-profit partners across 81 countries around the world (WWD).
Gucci actively supports the Kering Corporate Foundation for Women’s Dignity and Rights, which combats violence against women and promotes their empowerment by supporting community-based projects and encouraging employee involvement to sustain women’s causes around the world.
The company has also founded two women’s film awards, the Spotlighting Women Documentary Award with the Tribeca Film Institute and the Gucci Award for Women in Cinema with the Venice Film Festival.
“ To date Gucci has contributed over $10 million to UNICEF during an eight-year partnership ”
Gucci is starting to make inroads into developing sustainable products, beginning with eyewear in partnership with Safilo, and most recently creating a 100% traceable handbag collection in partnership with sustainability advocate Livia Firth.
In August 2011, Gucci and Safilo introduced four eyewear models made using an innovative acetate which, compared to traditional acetate used for optical frames, contains a much higher percentage of material from natural origins.
The duo also debuted the Gucci Eyeweb collection – aimed at a young consumer whom is sensitive to environmental issues – that included two bio-based sunglasses, in a natural material made from castor-oil seeds. Gucci and Safilo are also working together to create a prototype made from a material alternative to plastic.
Gucci’s Tattoo Heart campaign for UNICEF, featuring Rihanna
The brand also debuted Sustainable Soles as part of the Prefall 2012 Collection, a special edition of eco-friendly women’s and men’s shoes designed by Creative Director Frida Giannini. The women’s ballerina flat was made entirely of bio plastic, whilst the men’s sneaker combined bio-rubber soles, biologically certified strings and an upper in genuine vegetable tanned black calfskin.
These eco-aware materials follow a shorter degradation process compared to traditional industrial plastic, without leaving any waste or environmental impact. The products were tested in laboratories and certified by the main European international standard: UNI EN 13432 and ISO 17088.
Perhaps the most notable of all Gucci’s sustainability initiatives is the launch of the world’s first bags certified as zero deforestation from Amazon leather. As Lisa Armstrong of The Telegraph decreed, “This is a big deal. Luxury brands, for all their willingness to bang on about heritage, craftsmanship and exotic skins, go very quiet, on the whole, when it comes to matters of sustainability. And they’re positively Trappist on the subject of traceability.”
“ Gucci has launched the world’s first bags certified as zero deforestation from Amazon leather ”
Instead, as part of Livia Firth’s Green Carpet Challenge, Gucci has created a bag that is 100% traceable, which is sold with a ‘passport’ detailing the origin of each component and details of how it was all assembled.
The bag took two years from concept to creation, beginning with Rossella Ravagli, Gucci’s head of corporate social responsibility and sustainability, working with a ranch in Brazil, teaching them how to farm cattle without chopping down a single tree. The interior is lined in organic cotton, the eco-certified leather has coloured with vegetable dyes and the handle is made from bamboo, which “grows like a weed.”
Understanding that the product is just one part of a complicated supply chain, Gucci is taking steps towards making it’s packaging more environmentally friendly, where upon purchase of specific products, customers will receive an informational leaflet and a pre-addressed envelope in order to send packaging to a dedicated centre where it may be recycled to make new products.
Gucci has introduced a recycling scheme for its packaging
As part of a worldwide eco-friendly program designed to progressively reduce the company’s impact on the environment, the House first launched 100% recyclable packaging with FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) Certified paper in 2010 and will now extend this packaging towards its eyewear collections.
In 2012 the brand was certified by the Responsible Jewellery Council, as meeting the highest ethical, social and environmental standards established by the RJC’s Member Certification System, for the manufacture of watches and jewellery. RJC’s Code of Practices addresses a wide range of issues in the jewellery supply chain, including business ethics, human rights, social and environmental performance.
The motives of many luxury brands are often questioned when it comes to working with charity or taking steps towards sustainable practices. They are often accused of not addressing ‘real’ sustainability or manufacturing issues, in favour of promoting their donations or appearances to maximise positive press.
“ Gucci’s $10 million contribution to UNICEF is still $10 million more than no contribution to UNICEF ”
But at the end of the day, Gucci’s $10 million contribution to UNICEF is still $10 million more than no contribution to UNICEF. And a small collection of sustainable accessories, which confirm to the brand that sustainability is indeed possible within their business, is a step in a positive direction.
As Livia Firth remarked on her collaboration with Gucci; “Let’s be honest, this is a baby step. They’re only producing 250 or so of these bags to begin with.” But as Frida Giannini rightly declared “there’s definitely room for more eco-conscious handbags,” and perhaps room for more of the innovations learnt during the process, to be integrated into Gucci’s booming supply chain.
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