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Backstage at Gucci SS17 MFW Dazed
Backstage at Gucci SS17Photography Virginia Arcaro

Making Gucci, McQueen and Saint Laurent sustainable

Kering’s Chief Sustainability Officer opens up about innovation, attitudes, and why luxury fashion must lead the charge for a more ethical industry

To call Marie-Claire Daveu impressive is an understatement. Over the last twenty years Daveu has earned three educational diplomas, acted as Technical Advisor to former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and worked as French politician Nathalie Koscuisko-Morizet’s Chief of Staff. Then, in 2012, Daveu transitioned into one of the most powerful companies in the fashion industry when she was named Chief Sustainability Officer at Kering, a luxury conglomerate which owns a score of fashion’s most influential businesses including Alexander McQueen, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga.

Her four years at the group have already yielded huge milestones – recent statistics show that Kering has eradicated PVC from 99.8% of its products, created an extensive library of over 2000 sustainable textiles (known as the Material Innovations Lab) and launched the Python Conservation Partnership to ensure the sustainable sourcing of python skins. Crucially, Daveu believes in complete transparency and, as such, Kering annually publishes a progress report which relates back to the group’s 2016 Targets set back in 2012.

There is, of course, still work to be done – Daveu herself repeatedly acknowledges that complete change cannot happen overnight – so we got in touch to discuss her various successes, the changing attitudes of luxury consumers and the need for young designers to recognise that investment into sustainable production methods is an imperative, not an option.

How did you become generally interested in the concept of sustainability? 

Marie-Claire Daveu: I’ve known that I wanted to be involved in this field since I was young. I have a real passion for nature and wildlife, so when I became older I tried to get more and more involved by working and volunteering with various NGOs and charities and focus my studies and later career around sustainability. In a nutshell, ecology and the environment were always my real passion, so I try to show that in my job and my day-to-day operations.

What sparked your decision to move into the fashion industry? 

Marie-Claire Daveu: It wasn’t a conscious move into fashion, I just wanted to join a company that wasn’t greenwashing and that took sustainability seriously. When I met François-Henri Pinault, CEO and Chairman of Kering, I saw a man deeply convinced by sustainability; if you don’t have that support from the CEO, you can’t go beyond classical boundaries and implement concrete change. I didn’t know much about the fashion industry, but I was excited by the challenge of moving beyond the boundaries of my own country and the potential to spread sustainability worldwide. The luxury industry sets the trends so I knew that, if we were able to really develop sustainable business practices in our area, it would provide a key example for other sectors.

Why is sustainability so important to Kering?

Marie-Claire Daveu: The first reason is the conviction that comes from Pinault – to understand why the company tries to be sustainable, it’s important to realise that our commitment really comes directly from the CEO. We also believe that implementing sustainability is a way to be ethical, it’s inherent to our company DNA; if you produce luxury products you have to take care of the people involved and you have to take care of our planet. It also makes good business sense, so we put it at the core of our strategy for ethical reasons and business reasons, because if we want to continue successfully then we have to tackle issues like climate change, biodiversity and resource scarcity. The fashion industry uses a lot of raw materials taken directly from ecosystems, so we have to take care of them and we have to change the paradigm; if you don’t integrate sustainability into your business strategy then you will not change the paradigm.

“This year, François-Henri Pinault and I have met again with all the brands and the designers because we feel it’s important that they hear (about the importance of sustainability) directly from the CEO” – Marie-Claire Daveu

Can you tell us about the challenges to working sustainably faced by various brands within Kering? 

Marie-Claire Daveu: To understand this it’s first important to understand how we work, which comes back to the vision. Our overall vision is about concrete action, so if you want to be sure this is implemented the first issue is to change management. You have to explain that sustainability isn’t a trend, that it is important and you have to incorporate training and communicate with the people on the ground because without them we can’t change anything. It’s also crucial to repeat this message because once isn’t enough; this year, François-Henri Pinault and I have met again with all the brands and the designers because we feel it’s important that they hear this directly from the CEO.

In terms of my action plan, we have to take into account the specificities of the brand; the challenges in Gucci are not the same as Stella McCartney, which doesn’t use any leather. So you have to be able to create synergy between brands but also take into account their different identities. Another challenge is understanding that big brands and small brands are not the same, so one of our challenges is to guide and support everyone individually – ultimately, we want to be sure that every brand within Kering has the same ideas about sustainability, that they know it’s a necessity as opposed to an option. That creates a really great spirit, a great energy and a cohesive mindset.

Youve talked about luxury brands and their potential to set an example; do you think its important to link the ideas of innovation and sustainability?

Marie-Claire Daveu: I have the feeling that fashion is no longer just talking about sustainability; now, everyone is making a real effort to understand what it means and consciously tackle the industry's sustainability issues. When we published our first Group EP&L in 2014 it was an innovation linked within methodology; there’s also the Materials Innovation Lab that we created in 2013, which now contains over 2000 samples of sustainable textiles and fabrics. In addition to that we have a team working to identify new fabrics or to make classical fabrics more sustainable, so that’s another kind of innovation. There’s also Worn Again, which we co-invented with H&M, and that’s really about how we can recapture, reuse and recycle fibers of cottons and polyester for all clothing. It’s kind of the Holy Grail in sustainability, because it enables you to do new things with very old things. So, with innovation you can become – I won’t say perfect, but really smart with sustainability.

Youve mentioned superficial sustainability and greenwashing; do you think theres still the misconception that sustainability is a trend?

Marie-Claire Daveu: Of course, yes. It’s linked with consumer attitude. If you’re speaking about luxury, we can say that people pay more attention; they make the link between pollution, climate change and lack of biodiversity in their own head, so because they know of these effects they increasingly take sustainability into account. That’s why the organic food market is growing quickly, and it’s why people are becoming more sensitive about the car industry; it’s because they can directly understand the link between environmental impact and the products they buy. Attitudes are still far from perfect, but people are becoming increasingly interested in indirect impact and considering sustainability; I hope sustainability will become a key factor for all of our consumers.

What are the misconceptions about the definition of sustainability? 

Marie-Claire Daveu: To understand what it is, we need to first understand what it isn’t. It isn’t philanthropy. I’m not saying that philanthropy isn’t good, and I will say that it is one part of the overall definition, but it isn’t sustainability. If we want to change the world and if we want to change the paradigm, we need to put sustainability at the core of business strategies and give it the same treatment as other topics, so that’s why it’s important to me that its definition is linked to business. In terms of the definition employed by Kering, sustainability is linked to quality. It’s also a business and leadership opportunity and it’s completely necessary to integrate sustainability. Nowadays, people working within a major company want to be sure not only that it’s making money, but also that it’s using business to express its ethical values. 

Are consumers becoming more inquisitive, or are they apathetic?

Marie-Claire Daveu: In the luxury sector people are increasingly concerned not only by the environmental side, but by the social side. They want to know about raw materials and production methods, so they’re becoming more aware. When you buy a product from one of our brands, you are buying into perfection, so yes it’s about the quality but it’s also about buying into a company that takes the planet and its people into account. Luxury and sustainability can go hand in hand; we don’t have to make ethical or environmental compromises to ensure the highest quality. 

Where is progress still to be made? 

Marie-Claire Daveu: In terms of where we can make progress, we need to identify which substitute products we can use. There’s also the issue of silver, gold and precious stones, but even though Kering is a big company we can’t change international rules and regulations alone. We have to be conscious that we’re always working long-term – we’re working for the next ten years to define a new chapter in our sustainability journey because I know that we won’t change everything overnight.

“We want to be sure that every brand within Kering has the same ideas about sustainability, that they know it’s a necessity as opposed to an option” – Marie-Claire Daveu

What do you think to those that argue sustainability is too expensive?

Marie-Claire Daveu: First of all, we have to know that sometimes sustainability can actually help reduce costs. Think about energy – if you reduce your consumption, you will earn money. To be honest, most of the time you need to be able to invest at the beginning, so of course you spend more money initially and it’s important not to mix the reduction of cost and the overall cost. For me, I think about it differently; when you initially invest it is, of course, a cost, but between three and five years later you’re able to earn some money. That’s why it’s key to have the CEO involved, because you go beyond the classical financial approach. Again, sustainability is no longer an option really, it’s a necessity; in the beginning they could say that they want to save some money, but I’m not sure that business would be able to continue on.

Are you happy with the progress made in the industry during your four years at Kering?

Marie-Claire Daveu: I have the feeling that now that nobody in fashion is looking at sustainability; instead, everyone is conscious of tackling the issues linked with sustainability and truly trying to understand what it means. We do, of course, still need to progress in terms of transforming this understanding into concrete actions not only in the long term, but in the short term; even if we are working for the long run we have to be able to implement these things in the short term.

Of course, if we are thinking about biodiversity, water pollution and climate change we can’t change everything overnight, but we have to be certain we’re implementing actions. On the whole, though, it is changing – suppliers are increasingly aware of the issues and are taking these into account. The role of the media is key as well, because the more you speak about this topic and explain why it’s important, the more aware consumers become. It creates a major impact because it’s also a way for people to understand not only the technical side of the topic but also to understand that sustainability is really becoming an expectation, not a choice.