MILAN — “Social sustainability implies equal rights,” said Prada chairman Carlo Mazzi, underscoring how the group believes that business and institutions have the moral obligation to create an environment which encourages freedom, equality and justice.

In an interview here ahead of the “Shaping a Sustainable Future Society” conference in New York on Nov. 8, Mazzi illustrated how the goal is also to explore the nature and impact of ethical considerations on consumers in a social and political environment that is increasingly complex. This requires a conversation that is more and more sophisticated, as the group feels the need to contribute to understanding the changes in society, where cultural progress, boosted by technology and globalization, has increased sensitivity about human rights and cultural identities.

The decision to move the conference to New York, after two previous yearly “Shaping the Future” events in Milan, was also driven by the fact that Prada wanted “to expand the horizon of these talks. I like to think we do initiatives that are not only material interventions, which could be limiting if they were confined to Milan,” Mazzi said. “I hope the conference will have a bigger emphasis and also be more useful. We don’t do this as an academic exercise or for marketing purposes. New York is one of our most important markets, and with the conference we can underscore our point of view, but this is not a finality.”

Prada has increasingly turned its focus to sustainability and, as reported, this week it signed with Crédit Agricole Group the first loan linked to this issue in the luxury goods industry. The group will be granted 50 million euros over five years, introducing a rewarding annual pricing adjustment based on the achievement of sustainability targets.

Diversity and inclusion has also become one of the fashion house’s priorities. Earlier this year, Prada revealed that artist and activist Theaster Gates and award-winning writer, director and producer Ava DuVernay were to co-chair the Prada Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council, which complements the work of the group’s Corporate Social Responsibility department, focused on sustainability, scientific research and culture. This followed the backlash Prada faced last year when it was accused of selling animal-like figurines and charms that evoked blackface. At the time, the group issued a statement saying it “abhors racist imagery,” withdrawing the items from display and circulation.

“It was greatly emphasized in New York,” said Mazzi of the incident, pointing out that it was “one imaginary charm out of a series. The resemblance of this product to blackface was by no means intentional, but we recognize that this does not excuse the damage it has caused. That’s why we immediately withdrew the characters in question from display and from sales. We said we were sorry. We were not hard hit by the controversy, if not for a few days.”

Mazzi admitted that “the challenge is the sensitivity of our customer, we must succeed in anticipating and interpreting the aspirations of customers, because we sell a product with a very strong psychological component. We don’t sell a staple good. So for us it is very important to understand how the mentality of people evolves and their aspirations — especially the new generations. In fashion, it’s true that more mature people buy but they end up imitating the young, who are not only important as immediate customers but also as witnesses and catalysts.”

Speakers at the conference include architect Sir David Adjaye; Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation; Paralympic champion Simone Barlaam, and Mariarosa Cutillo, chief of strategic partnerships at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), as well as Kent Larson, City Science Director, MIT Media Lab, to name a few.

Held in partnership with Yale School of Management and Politecnico di Milano School of Management, the conference will  present a study on the nature and impact of ethical considerations on consumers, which will be followed by a discussion on ethics in the digital era.

Americans on statistics are unbeatable. A survey will be presented there, to better understand how people think about and prioritize social issues, with a particular focus on the impact to consumer choices,” Mazzi observed. “The academic contribution will also explore the ethics in the digital era, for example the impact of digital technologies and their influence on the society in terms of new responsibilities.”  

The chairman contended that “advanced technology, artificial intelligence and diversity and inclusivity can be connected. AI has both a positive and negative impact on sustainability.”

Also, he confessed that for this edition his “desire would be to find a theme in which future generations can recognize themselves, that’s why we considered to debate about social sustainability. This all has a cultural purpose and it will also help us internally. If we believe that the future generations are sensitive to this theme, we must understand how to present ourselves and our products to the public. The goal is to reflect and have a perspective on the society of the future and understand how to navigate it. When you speak of sustainability, it’s not that easy or a last-minute discovery — see how industrialization caused pollution, for example.”

He concluded that today, “this issue of distribution of power between consumer and producers is tilted toward the consumer. When Ford invented cars, this was for consumers and not the other way around. Similarly, in many industrial sectors, in the first phase of industrialization, the producer interpreted the future needs of the consumer. Increasingly, consumers have become owners of the market as they have more choice of products and services; they are more experienced and know how to buy, influenced by the availability of information and social media. We must take this into account, if you don’t put the consumer’s aspiration as the first element of evaluation and analysis, you don’t go anywhere. On the other hand, it’s a delicate and complex balance, because a brand may risk losing its image and its guidelines.  There’s a sort of chaos if there is a destruction of the essence of the brand; in the short term, this anarchy may reward those that take advantage of the situation with over-the-top designs. It can be ephemeral to follow the first reaction of the consumer because we could destroy ourselves and our image. We need to try to understand the positive evolution of the consumer rather than the negative evolution.”