PARIS — It’s not enough to offer top-quality products. Consumers expect luxury brands to also be model corporate citizens. And the coronavirus pandemic, acting as an accelerator of underlying trends, has further thrust issues related to corporate social responsibility to the forefront.

“There will be more and more choice made on other criteria like the ethics and the culture and the social responsibility of the company behind it,” said Bulgari chief executive officer Jean-Christophe Babin, speaking of luxury consumers choosing to buy a high-end product.

“[Clients] are more and more interested not only by the jewel, by the craftsmanship, by authenticity, by the origin, by the ethics of the company not only in terms of sourcing but also in terms of the way we treat our employees, what we contribute to our community besides paying taxes on our profits, so we see indeed a shift from product focus only…to, let’s say, the philosophy behind the product,” the executive said of the jewelry label, which is owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

“It’s like when you meet some bright person it remains professional if the person is only bright, but if the person shows some human value, you can develop a friendship, and I think it’s very similar to a brand.”

He spoke to WWD in an interview following up on a Zoom webinar, in which the label announced the creation of its Virus Free Fund, to finance research related to seeking cures to viruses along with a spate of other efforts on the CSR front. 

The webinar, which was moderated by WWD editor Luisa Zargani, included Babin, Bain and Co. partner Claudia D’Arpizio, Bulgari’s CSR officer Eleonora Rizzuto and Sarah Catherine Gilbert, a vaccine specialist from the University of Oxford.

Touting its CSR efforts, executives explained that the Bulgari Virus Free Fund will support the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford, the Lazzaro Spallanzani National Institute for Infectious Diseases in Rome and the Rockefeller University in the U.S, and has already purchased a high technology microscope for researchers.  

The fund will also cover four years of doctorate studies for two students while the Bulgari Clinical Fund will support clinical testing of new therapies, drugs and vaccines to fight COVID-19.

The label said customers can contribute to the fund. 

Adding to the list of efforts, Bulgari also said it will apply blockchain technology to trace its luxury goods — and is using the technology to show how where a donation to the Virus Free Fund or a purchase of products linked to the Save the Children organization goes.

Building a circular economy is another pressing issues, said executives, who have pledged to reduce plastic in its stores, offices, factories, products and hotels. The label estimates it has reduced 19 percent of plastic from 2017 to 2019 and plans to make its resorts and hotels plastic free by the end of the year — with slippers made of cotton, palm leaves and cork, metal stirrers, sugar cane straws and corn starch laundry bags. Next year, the label plans to have plastic-free packaging, made from paper and wood-waste. 

The company has been making sanitizer gel for British and Swiss authorities, an operation that is winding down.

“We started thinking beyond the gel, what could we do so that it never happens again,” said Babin, explaining what motivated the label to get further involved in the COVID-19 fight.

“We naively believed that pandemics were disasters of the Middle Ages or Eighteenth Century or let’s say other continents,” he added, noting the current crisis is pushing millions into poverty.

“We can contribute — obviously modestly, we’re not the Gates Foundation,” he added.

Speaking in the webinar presentation, Gilbert said the support from Bulgari was very important, especially for providing the equipment needed, and predicted the support will have an impact for a long time. Her teams are working on a platform that can be used in the case of future waves of viruses, as well.

Rizzuto, who has a long career working on CSR matters, has seen the subject gain importance over the years.

“When I started full time in this job — about 15 years ago, nobody was talking about sustainability, no ceo was accepting something over business,” noted the executive, who started out in the chemicals industry in various markets around the world. 

Over the past four years, the circular economy has emerged as a key subject.

“This is really the new frontier of sustainability,” she said.

“Not only to talk about waste subjects, but above all to change your mind and see sustainability in a very round way, including the reuse of products, including what we called industrial symbiosis,” she said, explaining that what is waste for one industry can serve as a resource for another.

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