High end fashion brands like Prada, Channel, and Gucci are both worshipped and reviled by fans and foes. Consumers worship them for the status and images of luxury that their brands infer. Some observers criticize them for their role in driving our consumption-driven culture. Occasionally, companies have landed in trouble for their dodgy business practices, such as when Prada was exposed for having Chinese workers shipped to Italy at low wages to make designer heels and handbags.
It was not always this way. Brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci had humble origins as artisans who cobbled and stitched well made goods. But years later as a celebrity culture emerged, these brands blared more images of an aspirational style than anything about superior quality. Meanwhile, other companies were acquired by larger firms whose priorities align with short term shareholder value more than value for the customer.
But can these fashion houses sell more than status and wealth, and perhaps even sustainability?
Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of Futerra Communications and regular contributor to The Guardian’s Sustainable Business site, regularly writes “open letters” to CEOs of major global firms. Her latest letter to Robert Polet, CEO of the Gucci Group, urges him and his company to take a lead role in transforming consumerism. She points out the usual concerns over fashion’s growth: an expanding global middle class, the increased rate in the consumption of natural resources, and the scourges of the global textile industry from pesticides to child labor.
Could Polet be receptive? A global nomad who lived most of his world abroad, Polet honed his experience at Unilever for years before landing at Gucci in 2004. His success at Gucci, which had struggled before his tenure but enjoyed increased sales overall the past few years, is due mostly to his hands-off style. The executive more familiar with ice cream bars than €1000 shoes was not about to micromanage a company dominated by creative types. To that end, Townsend would have to hope that Polet would choose someone from the sustainability world to drive such change, the way Walmart’s Lee Scott agreed to let Jib Ellison spur green innovation at Walmart. To expect Polet to push for such dramatic change is a huge leap in faith.
To change hearts and minds at Gucci and its rival brands, Townsend and her allies must convince the fashion world to rethink its approach to corporate social responsibility (CSR). Companies like Timberland, Patagonia, and REI have been leaders on the sustainability front, a natural fit because their brands intuitively sell the outdoors and it is in their best interest to keep nature . . . natural. Those companies have also taken leadership to ensure that their clothes are manufactured fairly and ethically as much as an unwieldy supply chain allows them.
Gucci, however, sells a completely different lifestyle, and its parent company PPR has a CSR agenda that serves to avoid risk, and therefore, to prevent any guilt from selling products that might have been assembled in a sweatshop. A quick overview of PPR’s seven CSR priorities, for example, reveals a focus on safety and quality with some token attention paid to suppliers and energy consumption.
For consumers to take a step back and recognize the value of buying fewer but better quality apparel, companies are going to have to take the lead. Based on the market demand for fast, hip, and cheap fashion, that mindset is not going to change anytime soon. Townsend is spot on when she prods Gucci to not only design sustainable products, but sustainable “desires.” Let’s hope it does not take a vapid celebrity to inspire such a mindset change, but that may be the reality.