Biodiversity loss has long been part and parcel of the luxury fashion experience, with rare and exotic furs and feathers, ivory accents and animal skin accessories topping the list. Luxury brands can burnish their sustainability profiles by moving away from these items, but that still leaves the equally serious issue of agricultural impacts on species diversity. Now, the leading luxury goods and fashion firm Kering is ready to take on the problem, and its strategy could provide a road map for others to follow.
Vogue Business helped to raise the profile of biodiversity loss in its December 2019 issue, when it published the first of a two-part, problem-and-solution series on the topic.
The global consulting firm McKinsey followed up last year in an article dubbing biodiversity loss the “next frontier in sustainable fashion.”
“It’s time for the apparel industry to radically reduce the industry’s contribution to biodiversity loss,” McKinsey wrote.
McKinsey drew a strong parallel with the climate crisis, which has finally sparked widespread awareness among the consuming public. “Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, sustainability remains top of mind for consumers, investors, and regulators - in fact, engagement in sustainability has deepened during the crisis. For example, two-thirds of apparel shoppers say that limiting impact on climate change is now more important to them since before COVID-19,” McKinsey wrote.
“One million species, between 12 percent and 20 percent of estimated total species, marine and terrestrial alike, are under threat of extinction,” McKinsey warned, observing that “Apparel supply chains are directly linked to soil degradation, conversion of natural ecosystems, and waterway pollution.”
McKinsey took an in-depth look at the issue and suggested that sustainable fashion brands focus on five areas: cotton production, cellulose fibers derived from wood, dyes and other treatments, microplastics and waste.
For solutions, the firm suggested investing in new, innovative textiles that are designed around sustainability, in addition to developing more sustainable practices in agriculture, forestry and the production of synthetic materials.
McKinsey also detailed the case for drilling down on water pollution, waste reduction and consumer education, especially in the area of household laundry.
“We expect biodiversity to become an even greater concern for consumers and investors in the coming years,” McKinsey concluded. “COVID-19, instead of slowing the trend, has accelerated it—perhaps because people now understand more deeply that human and animal ecosystems are interdependent.”
Some of the solutions McKinsey describes are far off in the future, but Kering demonstrates how fashion brands can focus their efforts on the doable to achieve significant near-term results.
Kering was already developing a biodiversity strategy before the McKinsey report surfaced. Last June, the company announced a new campaign to achieve a net positive impact on biodiversity in just five years, by focusing like a laser on regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative agriculture shares features with organic practices, but it goes a step farther by focusing on crops and methods that build soil back while promoting species diversity, ecological health, and community well-being.
Rather than handing the job to a third party, Kering created a plan that puts itself front and center and stakes out a leadership position in the industry.
That position befits the firm’s role in global fashion. Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Stella McCartney and Puma and are only some of the top brands that in some way fall under the Kering umbrella or have a relationship with the Paris-based house of brands.
The 2020 announcement included the launch of the “Kering for Nature Fund,” with an initial goal of converting 1 million hectares of land to regenerative agriculture by 2025. Kering calculates that comes out about six times its own land footprint, including its full supply chain starting with raw materials.
In addition, the pledge involves protecting 1 million hectares of land identified as critical habitat, outside of the Kering supply chain. The plan embraces local livelihoods as well as biodiversity protection and carbon sequestration.
Last summer, Kering also partnered with the Global Fashion Agenda and Conservation International to co-host a digital presentation for the industry, outlining how to integrate biodiversity into fashion industry operations.
In the most recent development, last month Kering and Conservation International announced the launch of the application portal for grants under a program titled as the “Regenerative Fund for Nature.”
“In launching the Regenerative Fund for Nature, Kering and Conservation International aim to help finance farmers transition from current agricultural practices, which have high impacts on climate and nature, towards more regenerative practices that restore nature and mitigate climate change,” Kering explained.
The company also emphasized that bottom-line feasibility for farmers is a key aspect of the grant program. In addition, awardees must engage with science-based targets, tools, methodologies and monitoring systems.
Based on research undertaken by Conservation International, Kering identified 17 countries where grant applications would be eligible. The program also instructs applicants to focus on core natural materials that define luxury fashion: leather, cotton, wool and cashmere.
The company says t is serious about its tight timeline, and has set an application deadline of April 30.
One especially interesting aspect of Kering’s plan is that it is far more complex and pre-planned than the massive tree-planting schemes that have been popping up with ferocious abandon around the globe.
Planting trees in big numbers has proven to be a media attention-getter, which explains why it has become so popular in the corporate sustainability field.
There is no denying that tree planting is an important element in global climate action, but evidence is emerging that large scale plantings are much more complicated than they may seem. Without careful planning and management, brands that plunge willy-nilly into the tree-planting area may find themselves deep in reputational risk.
For brands looking to take their sustainability efforts to the next level, Kering’s science-based, community-centered approach is one worth watching.
Image credit: JR Harris/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.