François-Henri Pinault

Francois-Henri Pinault's all-in attitude toward sustainability rang clear as a bell throughout Thursday night’s “Why Sustainable Fashion is Smart Business” talk at Parsons The New School for Design.

NEW YORK — For Francois-Henri Pinault, sustainability is “not an option — you do it like this or you don’t do it.”

This story first appeared in the April 6, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The all-in attitude of the chairman and chief executive officer of Kering repeatedly rang clear as a bell throughout Thursday night’s “Why Sustainable Fashion is Smart Business” talk at Parsons The New School for Design.

Gilbert Harrison, Anna Scott Carter, Desiree Gruber, Robbie Meyers and Julie Gilhart were among the hundreds who turned up to pack the John L. Tishman Auditorium. In addition to Pinault, the panel included Linda Greer, senior scientist of the NRDC’s Clean by Design, and Timo Rissanen, program director of Parsons’ AAS Fashion Design and Fashion Marketing. Emphatic about Kering’s long-term commitment to sustainability, Pinault said it was Sir Richard Branson who convinced him to help inspire other corporations to do the same.

Through a collaboration with the young British company Worn Again, Kering and H&M are testing a Worn Again-developed technique that separates the color and precious fibers from chemicals, which allows those fibers to be recycled. “We’re using 65 million tons of [polyester and cotton] fibers every year and the projection for 2020 is 90 million tons,” Pinault said in reference to global production. “If we can recycle a significant proportion of that, that might change completely the impact we have on sustainability. We’re using this technique in our supply chain and H&M is doing the same.”

On another front, through an alliance with a university in Germany and another one in Switzerland, Kering has adopted a new process of tanning that reduces pollutants. Fifteen percent of Gucci’s leather is now being made that way, despite the fact that the process is more costly. Kering aims to make the technology available to all segments of the industry, not just the luxury sector, Pinault said. The company will share that methodology with anyone who wants it on a free basis, he said. “If you find a solution like this and you use it as a competitive advantage, you miss completely the point,” he said.

Afterward, Pinault spoke of another prospective venture — a U.S. company that is using cells from living animals to produce real leather, a process that spares the animal’s life. “It is derived from biomedical research in the medical field that is used to regenerate some organs. That may be the future of leather. They just use the cells to weave the leather together into a transparent leather,” he said.

Stella McCartney, whom Pinault referred to repeatedly as someone who has made an exemplary commitment to sustainability, has been integral “as one our best headhunters” to root out this type of cutting-edge research and companies. Implying her design remains top-shelf for “a very profitable” brand, he said, “She’s been doing sustainability in such a way that none of the other brands are even close to her. But no one knows. If you’re not involved with sustainability you don’t know that Stella is about that.”

Some of the other Kering-led initiatives include complete transparency regarding gold and diamonds to ensure miners are respectful of the environment, a Material Innovation Lab that indexes 1,500 sustainable fabrics, and a 50-person in-house team dedicated to sustainability that works in part with a 15-person panel of experts hailing from nongovernmental organizations based in energy, transportation and other areas. As for what may be ahead, Pinault expects the overburdened, too-many-seasons fashion system to be realigned in the next two or three years, though he is not certain what will prompt that change. “It’s risky,” he said.

Greer noted that when the NRDC opened its first international office in Beijing, the fashion industry — textiles, dyeing and leather tanning in particular — “really distinguished itself as a very big polluter.” Noting that her group’s Clean by Design project is underway with Kering as well as mass manufacturers in China, Greer said that on April 15 the project will celebrate Scale Up in Shanghai with such participants as Target, Gap, Levi’s and H&M. The entire initiative started with 100 mills, after some attrition the focus is on 33 that were tracked very closely. “Total savings were in the millions,” she said.