MILAN — For Italian luxury firms, sustainable development is good karma and good business.

This story first appeared in the April 7, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Ermenegildo Zegna, Loro Piana and textile mills Cotonificio Honegger and Marchi & Fildi are among those investing in development programs supporting local communities that produce natural fibers, including cotton, cashmere and vicuña, to put value back in the supply chain.

“The quality of our products is based on building a close relationship with and supporting the local communities of the world’s finest fibers,” said Paolo Zegna, chairman of Ermenegildo Zegna and president of the Milan textile trade show Unica.

Hence, Ermenegildo Zegna invested 1 million euros in a well-drilling project for cashmere producers in Mongolia and vicuña producers in Peru.

“We found that the one thing most communities needed was better water supply. It’s not about just sending a check. It’s about doing the research and finding out what the people really need to improve their lives, and subsequently that of the livestock,” Zegna said, adding that the company was investing in the “long term.”

Ermenegildo Zegna’s support for world communities also extends to India, where this year, through its Foundation Zegna initiative and in collaboration with the Care & Share nonprofit organization, the company established a micro-credit project for women, giving them access to small loans and courses in artisanal trades, such as weaving, embroidering or tailoring, to enable them to set up businesses of their own.

Loro Piana in June moved from investing in the animals it shears to acquiring the land they feed on by purchasing 2,000 hectares in Peru — an area about six times the size of Central Park — to preserve the vicuña, which had been in danger of extinction.

“We rely on the production of the local communities from whom we buy the majority of the fiber produced in the Peruvian Andes. By making a live vicuña more valuable than a dead one for the communities, we have established a virtuous cycle,” said co-chief executive officer Pier Luigi Loro Piana, who, together with his brother Sergio, named the land after their father, Franco Loro Piana.

“The fiber is the most precious and finest fiber in the world,” he added.

He’s not kidding. Six vicuñas need to be sheared for one sweater, and 35 for a coat. According to Loro Piana, one kilogram of vicuña costs 10 times more than the highest quality cashmere.

“The project guarantees the socioeconomic value gained: The high value attributed to the fiber has created a primary economic resource for the people with the added value of benefiting the protection of the breed,” Loro Piana said.

Indeed, promoting a fiber’s origins also helps create awareness of value for the end consumer.

“Our consumers have always appreciated the value originating from authentic quality….I trust that these characteristics are being appreciated more and more and believe that purchasing an item of intrinsic value might be considered a good investment,” Loro Piana said.

Zegna agrees. “Raw fiber is one of the basic elements responsible for the quality of the final product, the image Ermenegildo Zegna is famous for. You need to be able to follow and control the process — from the raw fibers to the very end product. Natural fibers are expensive, but they have added value.” For fall, Zegna unveiled its Oasi Cashmere, which is treated with eco-friendly dyes made with wood and herbal pigments.

Although the current economic environment has arguably accelerated consumer interest in product origins and led to more conscious purchasing decisions, Ermenegildo Zegna’s support for local fiber producers can be traced back more than 40 years, when the company first introduced its annual trophy for the best natural-fiber production in 1963. Dubbed the Vellus Aureum Trophy, the prize is still awarded to the finest woolen fleece worldwide. Similarly, Loro Piana’s relationship with the Peruvian communities spans over 20 years, and the company signed an agreement with the local government in 1994 to protect the vicuña species and provide assistance to communities.

More recently, Marchi & Fildi, yarn makers based in Biella, Italy, last year launched Ecotec yarn, a yarn made from recycled cotton. This year, for every kilo of Ecotec sold, 0.05 euros will go to nonprofit organization Man’s Brothers, which promotes social and economical development in Latin America and Africa. Ecotec will directly benefit Malika, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Dakar in Senegal, by training 100 Senegalese minors in related trades at their local factory.

Meanwhile, Cotonificio Honegger, one of Italy’s biggest shirting fabric mills, based in Bergamo, Italy, opened its first shirt manufacturing company in the former Italian colony of Eritrea, a country on the Red Sea just north of Ethiopia. Called ZA.ER, the mill boasts a 500-strong local workforce and offers classes in textiles and Italian, and also hosts a nursery to care for employees’ children while they work. Cotonificio Honegger projected the Eritrean project would result in the creation of 400 new jobs by 2010.


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