Marie-Claire Daveu of Kering speaks to Hyères Festival finalists about the company's approach on environmental issues.

PARIS — With a glass-enclosed tree as a backdrop, Kering’s sustainability team offered finalists of the Hyères Festival an introduction to the group’s views on sustainability at its head office here.

“As a luxury group, we set the trends for sustainability so we think that it’s our responsibility to have people like you and to share with you our commitment to sustainability because you will be the next…generation of designer,” said chief sustainability officer Marie-Claire Daveu, flanked by a mirrored wall with patches of vegetation.

Daveu has spoken on the topic at past editions of the Hyères festival, which takes place in April in the South of France, but in a sign of the festival’s deepening relations with luxury firms, as well as the increasing importance the fashion industry is affording environmental concerns, this was the first time Kering invited the designers for discussions at company headquarters.

The place itself serves as a showcase of the company’s emphasis on sustainability. Kering moved into the renovated 17th-century hospital just over two years ago, a sprawling complex that houses lavender gardens and beehives, and was one of the first historic monuments to get France’s environmental quality label.

As environmental concerns become increasingly important in the minds of consumers — many will accept higher price tags for sustainable products — brands are under pressure to bolster their environmental credentials. In a recent report, HSBC analysts noted that consumers are increasingly willing to pay more for sustainable products, according to a survey of American luxury consumers.

“No spoiler alert, Millennials are interested in sustainability…The real surprise may be that a majority of consumers have paid up for sustainable products,” they said.

Kering, which sells Ulysse Nardin watches and Boucheron jewelry in addition to its vast stable of high-end fashion labels, has positioned itself as an industry authority on sustainability issues, drafting an environmental profit-and-loss account, or EP&L, in 2011 and topping a number of corporate rankings on the subject, including three times at the head of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for its category.

Showing a slide featuring a quote and a photo of Kering chairman and chief executive officer François-Henri Pinault, Daveu told the group assembled on modern, wooden-legged chairs that the company’s focus comes from the very top of the organization. According to the projected quote, Pinault sees the issue as redefining business value and driving future growth.

In addition to around two dozen festival finalists from both fashion and accessories, Hyères festival founder Jean-Pierre Blanc was also present. Hyères, which taps designers early on in the process compared to other prizes in France, like the ANDAM and the LVMH prizes, has played a role in the careers of a number of high-profile fashion figures including Paco Rabanne’s Julien Dossena, Viktor & Rolf’s Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren and Kering-owned Saint Laurent’s Anthony Vaccarello.

Fabric from Kering's Materials Innovation Lab

Fabric from Kering’s Materials Innovation Lab.  Courtesy/Jean Luc Perreard

Blanc last year launched a forceful appeal for more funding of the event, which holds its 35th edition this year and counts sponsors including Première Vision, Chloé, Galeries Lafayette, Petit Bateau and Chanel. As the festival forges closer ties with luxury firms, all 12 of the Chanel Métiers d’Art houses are working on a project with festival participants for the upcoming edition for the first time.

Making the case for introducing sustainability early on in the process, Daveu noted it makes sense economically.

“Of course it’s good for ethics, but don’t forget, it’s also good for business reasons,” she said. “When we think about sustainability and when we implement sustainability from the day one, first it’s easier, and it’s also less expensive.”

Customers of the group’s labels, which include Alexander McQueen and Gucci, are increasingly sensitive to issues of sustainability, and the company has noticed more clients in stores in Mainland China asking where it sources raw materials, she said.

As for the analyst and investor crowd, Daveu observed that even if they might not always be convinced by an argument for sustainability by itself, the financial community is attentive to the subject from a risk management point of view, as neglecting issues like animal welfare has the potential to take a toll on a brand.

“It is important to understand now, your generation, you will have requests, questions about sustainability around you everywhere,” she said, citing investors, employees and clients, while social media and digital means allow for quick sharing of information.

Citing the example of animal welfare standards, Daveu said the company plans to focus on the issue this year.

“Again, as luxury, we think we have this specific responsibility to push this topic, to take the lead and it will be one of our major axes for this year, really to raise awareness about this topic and also to try to move the industry — so, of course our competitors but beyond our competitors, to really pay attention to this topic and really to change the way of thinking,” she said, rattling off measures like putting specific clauses in contracts with suppliers, verifying that what is written is applied on the ground and defining the different criteria for every species.

In the case of leather, a so-called “co-product” — produced along with another product, meat, in this case — collaboration with the food industry is also important, noted Géraldine Vallejo, Kering’s sustainability program director.

“Decisions…are usually driven by the food industry, so that’s why we have to collaborate also with the food industry to make sure we have the traceability, to make sure the standards are in place,” Vallejo noted.

Environmental advocates stress the importance of drafting industry-wide standards, and on a global basis, since a level playing field makes it more likely that better practices will be adopted.

Faced with so many challenges related to sustainability, Vallejo advised the assembled designers pick specific issues to tackle.

“You have to choose your battle…we can’t take them all,” she said, inviting the festival finalists to inspect fabric samples from the company’s Materials Innovation Lab in Italy — there was a light orange organic silk printed with black and white skulls for Alexander McQueen and a thick, dark-colored sustainable wool knit from New Zealand for Bottega Veneta and Balenciaga.

To choose its battles, Kering leans on its EP&L report, which serves as a methodology for measuring the group’s environmental impact.

When it comes to picking a fabric, people traditionally concentrated on the feel and the look of a material, but not necessarily its origins or environmental impact, said Michael Beutler, Kering’s sustainability operations director.

“That’s a way of thinking that EP&L gives, you think about where does it come from and how’s it made and what kind of impact does it have — because with that information, we can lessen the impact,” Beutler explained.

“It’s every thing we do, everything we source, all the processes that we use to transform a material, whether it’s tanning, whether it’s dyeing, whether it’s weaving, all those things help add up,” and the EP&L report provides understanding of the different factors, he added.

The group wants to reduce its environmental impact by 40 percent over a 10-year period, by 2025, an ambitious target that calls for innovation to be achievable, executives have said.

The group is already heading in the right direction for achieving the target, noted François-Xavier Morvan, Kering’s sustainable performance senior manager. “We are very happy to see this curve on the decreasing phase already,” he said.