Achieving Sustainability Requires a Paradigm Shift, Says Kering’s Marie-Claire Daveu

As the driver of Kering’s global sustainability strategy, Marie-Claire Daveu is the company’s spokesperson on what amounts to a mammoth mandate to effect global change management across supply chains and drive education of students and designers to mindfully choose sustainable materials when making creative decisions.  Following the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, I spoke to her about how Kering is identifying, adopting and funding sustainable fashion solutions to mitigate environmental and ethical disasters within the industry.

The subject of sustainability in fashion is complex in that to understand its meaning and implications, designers must understand the technicalities of raw materials and the processes that grow and cultivate them – for example the links between climate change and cattle farming – in order to fully understand the role and importance of sustainable materials.  In luxury fashion, designers make the ultimate decisions about materials usage, so communicating the mechanics of sustainability to them is key.  During an enlightening and in-depth conversation with Marie-Claire Daveu, the complexity of the task became clear, as did the multi-pronged approach that Kering is taking to diagnose, develop and fund sustainable materials solutions.  It also became clear that in order to communicate this topic, Daveu’s engineering credentials (declaring herself an unlikely fashion person) are essential in making the connections between the mechanics and technicalities of the supply chain and the aesthetic and sensibilities of the design teams.

There were several key takeaways from the discussion with Daveu, during which she and I bonded over mutual previous careers in engineering and science respectively, before undertaking careers in the fashion industry.  Perhaps most potent was her assertion that a “with incremental progress you will not change a paradigm” and that disruption through innovation is needed in order to achieve transformation of supply chains to circular systems.  Specifically, she declared that incremental improvements (like using recycled textiles in capsule collections or isolated products, for example) were not sufficient.  Kering is firmly focused on finding disruptive technologies, and to do that they need to identify startups creating game-changing solutions.  Enter their Fashion For Good initiative in partnership with Plug and Play and the C&A Foundation, based in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Plug and Play incubates ideation and growth-stage startups in various industries – previous success stories include Dropbox and Paypal – to research, develop and test potential sustainable solutions for the fashion industry.  In partnering with C&A, Kering is demonstrating its belief that in terms of raw materials, a collaborative effort is required to create an industry-wide shift to more sustainable textiles.  Fashion brands spanning the high street and luxury sectors use cotton, for example, so a collaborative approach between brands increases buying power and provides the scale and volume to support the cost and change management required to transform materials supply chains into circular ones.

The key aim for Kering is to introduce sustainable materials and processes within the supply chain.  Marie-Claire Daveu is clear in her assertion that designers cannot add sustainability at the design stage – it has to be inherent in the raw materials and textiles.  She mentions current Fashion For Good incubee startups Pili-Bio, which uses micro-organisms to embed dye into materials in place of toxic and water-intensive dyeing processes, and Amadou mushroom leather, already product-tested by Irene-Marie Seelig and covered here in depth on the blog last year, when she was a recipient of the Kering Award for Sustainability.

Marie-Claire Daveu at the Kering Award for Sustainability, London College of Fashion – Image: Dave Bennett

Amadou is a potentially viable alternative to animal leathers and Daveu mentioned its promising development a number of times throughout our conversation, along with external innovators Bolt Threads, who have created a synthetic spider silk that she confirms is already a material being explored within the Kering group brands.  Given that Stella McCartney does not use animal skins, developments like Amadou mushroom leather have a clear opportunity to fulfil the brand ethos while maintaining the required levels of luxury and quality.

Irene-Marie Seelig’s Amadou mushroom leather shoe – Image:  Irene-Marie Seelig

Underlining Kering’s Sustainability drive are three pillars:  Care (reduce environmental impact by 40% and greenhouse gas by 50%); Collaborate (working with companies within the supply chain and other brands) and Create (launch disruptive innovations and link sustainability to a circular economy).  Innovation is the point pushed most heavily during our discussion, and it’s clear that the game-changing sustainable solutions will come from outside the brands themselves – most likely from startups (which Kering are investing in) and manufacturers within the supply chain.  Daveu explained that Kering are working very hard with NGOs in Mongolia, for example, to establish sustainable cashmere farming which respects biodiversity and supports animal welfare.  The foundation of this is transparency and traceability, as it is with all sustainable materials development.  Kering have also established programmes with suppliers in Italy and China to have a clear diagnosis of the usage of energy, water and other natural resources in order to analyse their consumption and begin to develop sustainable alternatives.  It’s when considering the complexity of changing entire factory manufacturing and processing systems in order to reduce natural resource consumption that the magnitude of this task to achieve sustainability becomes clear – we are not simply talking about choosing organic cotton in favour regular cotton – this is a deep, expensive and technical change needed to drastically reduce the demands the fashion industry is placing on the planet, across the entire industry. 

Sustainability in Motion – Kering.com

In addition to looking outside of their company for innovation, Kering has developed an in-house materials innovation lab based in Milan, headed up by Cecilia Takayama, who spoke at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit as part of the panel discussion on circular design.  Kering’s lab has been particularly successful in creating sustainable materials for its Gucci and Bottega Veneta brands, and Daveu reveals that they now want to apply this same focus to creating materials for their watch and jewellery brands.

Kering’s Cecilia Takayama on circular design – Image: Copenhagen Fashion Summit

Kering’s commitment to sustainability comes from the top – led by François Henri Pinault, who is active in the implementation of the sustainability strategy for each brand in the Kering stable.  He meets with executives and design teams across all brands to demonstrate the prioritisation of sustainability and the level of seriousness with which it is taken at Kering.  Marie-Claire Daveu also explained that formal KPI’s are in effect to ensure that sustainability remains a focus and targets are met.  

François-Henri Pinault receives the GCC Global Leaders of Change Awards 2015 at UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) – Image: Kering.com

Via Daveu, Kering’s message is that it wants to set the global standard in sustainable luxury by 2025, by delivering on targets within its three pillars.  Underlining their commitment, she said “the new generation will make the future”, and that Kering has a “360 degree approach” including sustainability education via university initiatives at London College of Fashion, Parsons, Central Saint Martins and Tsinghua, along with investments in startups and game-changing innovations.  This, combined with its EP&L and supply-chain efforts aimed at identifying and overhauling environmentally harmful processes, mean Kering are attacking sustainability challenges from all angles.  Keep an eye on Plug and Play Amsterdam and Kering’s Sustainability news to see how it all unfolds. 

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London College of Fashion and Kering – Fashion Sustainability and Education in Focus

Professor Frances Corner, Head of London College of Fashion opened the 3rd annual Kering Talk with the comment that when LCF moves to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in 2020, all the faculties and facilities will be under one roof, giving the students and teaching staff “literally the space to think”.  There was a lot of thinking going on last night at this LCFxKering event and Professor Dilys Williams, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at LCF, bookended Frances Corner’s comment when she later closed the event by saying she likes to think of fashion by flipping a Zadie Smith’s quote to arrive at “what is the point of making beautiful clothes if they don’t make you think?” 

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 14: Frances Corner (L), Head of London College of Fashion, and Dilys Williams, Director of Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, attend the 2016 Kering Talk at the London College of Fashion on November 14, 2016 in London, England. Pic Credit: Dave Benett
Frances Corner (L) and Dilys Williams – Photo: Dave Benett

To that end, this Kering talk was a platform to showcase the sustainable principles and practice of Stella McCartney, the designer and the brand.  Not the only designer and brand focussing on sustainability, but certainly the most well known, Stella attended the talk to perform a Q&A with a fashion journalist.  It was enlightening in so much as Stella candidly described the fashion industry as a whole as “old fashioned”, “getting away with murder” and in dire need of a new approach to materials and production methods.


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I was hoping to ask Stella about her desire or success to date in introducing sustainable practices and materials into her Adidas collaboration, but alas, question time was short.  She did mention that Adidas made her the first ever pair of vegetarian leather Stan Smiths and she then pleaded with them to make all of their Stan Smiths with this material and see if anyone notices the difference.  Consumers might not, but given that the vegetarian version costs up to 70% more to produce than animal leathers, and Stan Smiths are sold at an accessible price point rather than the luxury price points of Stella’s brand, the financial team at Adidas definitely would.  That’s not to say this shouldn’t happen, it’s just clear that for mainstream sports and leisure wear brands there is less pricing leeway than for luxury brands.  

On to the presentation of the 2016 Kering Awards for Sustainable Fashion, which followed Stella’s Q&A.  Awards were issued on behalf of Stella McCartney and Brioni, both members of the Kering stable, to a number of LCF students who had designed and created products, materials and digital platforms in line with the brands’ sustainability initiatives.  

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LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 14: (L to R) Dilys Williams, Director of Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, award winners Elise Comrie and Agraj Jain, and Beatrice Lazat, Human Resources Director at Kering,attend the 2016 Kering Talk at the London College of Fashion on November 14, 2016 in London, England. Pic Credit: Dave Benett
Dilys Williams, Elise Comrie, Agraj Jain, and Beatrice Lazat – Photo: Dave Benett
LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 14: Stella McCartney (2R) poses with award winners Iciar Bravo, Anna Pasalic, and Irene-Marie Seeling at the 2016 Kering Talk at the London College of Fashion on November 14, 2016 in London, England. Pic Credit: Dave Benett
Iciar Bravo, Anna Pasalic, Stella McCartney and Irene-Marie Seeling – Photo: Dave Benett

It was difficult on the night to get to grips with the projects and research the students undertook as they were only explained in 30-second summaries during the talk.  I’ve dug a little deeper to get the inside track on the work of Innovation award winner Irene-Marie Seelig, who developed Amadou mushroom skin and proved its properties were workable in accessories, offering an alternative to animal suede and leather.

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Irene’s journey began with a focus elsewhere, on health and the medicinal benefits of mushrooms in treating disease, which led her to research the usability of a particular Transylvanian mushroom material as a leather alternative, supported by Jess Lertvilai.  Her focus was to improve the textile’s aesthetic, durability, circular supply chain and business model.  

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The vegetarian mushroom leather textile is a 100 percent renewable, biodegradable and compostable material.  Products that are made with this material decompose at the end of their lifecycle and enrich soil, supporting plant growth and feeding back into the ecosystem.  

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Irene called upon the expertise of SATRA to test the material with a multitude of finishes and experimented with varying treatments and worked the leather into various thicknesses, eventually using the optimal material to create a prototype shoe in collaboration with LCF Footwear and materials PhD student, Liz Ciokajlo.  She is now looking to develop the Amadou mushroom skin further and work with NGO’s to create a reliable and sustainable supply chain for this material. 

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The CSF website explains that the awards take place after the students receive three months of intensive mentoring from sustainability experts from Stella McCartney, CSF and LCF.  “Two prizes will be awarded for each brand: a monetary prize of ten thousand Euros to the project that displayed the most innovation and a three month internship with one of the brands to the student who demonstrated collaboration and rigorous research”. 

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Professor Dilys Williams engaged the audience with her closing speech, urging the crowd to consider the role education has in creating a more sustainable, responsible fashion industry.  “Changing education is the biggest change we can make…practices will then change and so will our culture and society”.  

The finalists of the 2016 Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion were: Irene-Marie Seelig, Iciar Bravo Tomboly, and Ana Pasalic for Stella McCartney; and students Agraj Jain and Elise Comrie for Brioni.

For an overview of the finalists’ work see the CSF blog : http://sustainable-fashion.com/tag/kering-award-for-sustainable-fashion/

For more information about the work of Professor Dilys Williams and the CSF click here: http://sustainable-fashion.com/

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