BEIJING — “We should change systems that no longer benefit our society or the planet.”
So said François-Henri Pinault, chief executive officer of Kering, speaking at Tsinghua University here on Tuesday. Pinault’s call for the fashion industry to step up its efforts toward sustainability came on a day when the Beijing government issued the city’s first ever “red alert” over the pollution level in the Chinese capital, which resulted in the closure of schools and some workplaces due to the extreme health hazards of the smog.
In an auditorium inside an austere, Soviet-era building, shrouded on the outside by the near tangible veil of haze, Pinault on Tuesday addressed an audience of dozens of professors and students from one of China’s top universities about the importance of sustainable practices in the fashion industry.
In 2014, the French group — parent of brands including Gucci, Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, partnered with Tsinghua University to create the Tsinghua and Kering Art Education Fund, which fosters the development of creative talent and business skills of aspiring Chinese designers and artists. The fund also offers scholarships for women entering fields ranging from design to journalism.
Tsinghua, located on the outskirts of Beijing, is one of China’s leading universities and is famous for its powerful alumni, including President Xi Jinping.
“It is always a pleasure to visit China,” said Pinault, who was invited to speak as part of Tsinghua’s Global Vision Lecture series, which features politicians, executives and other influencers. “This is a country where we have had a presence for a long time now and where we work together on a daily basis to expand the brands of the Kering Group.”
How the company’s brands are performing in China, where the luxury sector has taken a major hit due to the slowing economy and government’s anticorruption campaign, was not discussed during Tuesday’s speech. Instead, Pinault drove home the efforts Kering has undertaken to create a paradigm of sustainable practices as a model for the fashion industry, and, perhaps also to underscore the importance of mixing sustainability with business in a country where breakneck economic growth and unbridled industries have wreaked havoc on the environment.
His speech took place against the backdrop of the Paris climate summit (COP21) where Kering, along with dozens of other French companies, have pledged to invest around $48 billion between 2016 and 2020 to fund industrial projects and research and development for renewable energy technologies.
“Diminishing resources, loss of biodiversity and climate change are causing massive destruction in a global world where the population will reach nearly nine billion people in a few years time,” Pinault said. “This concerning state of the planet leaves no other choice but to act.”
He added: “I believe it is essential that we, as a business, place sustainability at the core of what we do.”
Pinault said Kering is counting on governments participating in the Paris climate summit, which ends Friday, to adopt legislation that commits to “net zero,” or completely offsetting greenhouse gas emissions, by 2050. “We are ready to make that pledge ourselves but we require governments to make it mandatory,” he said.
The executive outlined efforts Kering has already undertaken to lessen its environmental impact, including using recycled packaging, conducting compliance audits of supply chains and achieving 100 percent verified captive breeding for furs, skins and leather.
More energy-efficient stores and cleaner leather tanning among other practices helped Kering shave nearly $15 million off its environmental impact last year, according to findings from the French group’s Environmental Profit and Loss for 2014, a tool to measure the value and impacts on the environment of its business activities.
“We are keen on open-sourcing and sharing our sustainable breakthroughs with others, including our competitors,” Pinault said. “The way we do things matters as much as the financial targets we are trying to reach.”
He also highlighted the efforts of the Kering Foundation, which works with nonprofits globally to help eradicate violence against women. “When you look at the numbers of women victims of violence, those numbers are so big that you cannot believe them,” Pinault said. “Yet they are real.”
In China, Kering works with the Starfish Project, a civil society group aiding women facing various forms of exploitation.
Additionally, Pinault stressed the importance Kering places on supporting women’s education as well as up-and-coming talent in China and globally.
“Our partnership with Tsinghua is a clear representation of this goal,” he said. “By investing in you, we are investing in our future as well as in your future.”