Winners of the K Generation Award with executives from Kering and Plug and Play.

SHANGHAI — Three Chinese start-ups — Melephant, Heyuan and FeiLiu Technology, were recognized by Kering in its newly formed K Generation Award for their work addressing sustainability challenges in the textile value chain.

Melephant, which provides natural dyes from organic waste in a circular, no-waste system took home the top prize of 100,000 euros. The start-up, along with the other two awardees will work with Kering to incorporate their technologies into the luxury group and travel to the U.S. and Europe.

The other awardees were Heyuan, which provides innovative water treatment technology for printing and dyeing, and FeiLiu Technology, which offers supply chain optimization via artificial intelligence that allows for small batches to avoid overproduction.

François-Henri Pinault, who was in Shanghai for the ceremony, said the formation of the award in conjunction with Silicon Valley incubator Plug and Play, reflected an underlying shift in the global industry in which China plays an outsized part in the sustainability conversation.

“[Before], China was one of the most important suppliers of raw materials in the fashion industry but the markets and consumers were outside of China,” he said. “It was Europe, it was America. Over the last 10 to 15 years, China became also the most important market for all the luxury brands, all the fashion brands.”

“[Now] China is the most important market for all the fashion brands, the most important supplier for raw materials for all the fashion brands, in the same market,” said Pinault, adding that the greatest impact could be made in the country.

The judging process looked at 50 start-ups and prioritized the supply chain, due to the fact that 93 percent of Kering’s environmental impact derives from the supply chain — mostly the farming of cotton, silk, cashmere and cattle.

“Most of the impact of the fashion industry was not at the brand level but at the production of raw materials level,” Pinault shared.

As part of their goals for 2025, Kering is targeting to reduce the firm’s environmental footprint by 40 percent, from a 2015 base.

“We have identified today half of that in the existing program we are scaling up but the other half, the other 20 percent to reach the 40 percent goal, we don’t know. This will come from innovation,” Pinault said.

While the explosion of e-commerce has prompted a degree of concern from environmental groups over packaging waste and increased logistics, Pinault defended online sales as the more sustainable option.

“When you sell through stores you still have to bring the product from Italy or France to China to the stores,” he said. “Then the customer comes to the stores and take the car [to get to the store], the footprint is the same. If I ship the product from my warehouse to the home of the customer in China, it’s the same.”

It would be easier for corporations to utilize eco-friendly, smart vehicles in delivery to decrease carbon footprint than for individuals to act. But at the end of the day, the executive didn’t see it as the most pressing sustainability problem.

“Again 93 percent for Kering — for all our brands — our footprint is in the cotton farming, cattle farming, cashmere and silk. The footprint of the stores and operations, logistics — it’s 7 percent. We need to take care of it [e-commerce] but it’s not the most difficult part.”


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