The Fashion Institute of Technology held its two-day Sustainable Business and Design Conference this week, underscoring an “Innovating for the Future” leitmotif that lends itself well to the fashion industry’s enduring and passionate transformation. The conference was held on April 3 and 4 at its campus in New York City, aligning with its annual Awards Gala that honored Nadja Swarovski, head of Swarovski’s corporate communications and design services, and Laurent Claquin, the president of Kering Americas, at the apropos American Museum of Natural History on the evening of April 3.
The conference began with opening remarks by FIT’s president, Joyce F. Brown, who said “sustainability is a way of life” for FIT and that academia “has a role to play in becoming responsible conservators of the earth,” further cementing the university’s commitment to teaching and engaging its students in sustainability across every discipline. The first panel, “Global Changemakers Paving the Way for Sustainability in the Beauty, Fashion, Hospitality and Nonprofit Industries,” featured moderator Barbara De Laere, senior vice president and global general manager, Aveda; Phillip Lim, creative director and cofounder of 3.1 Phillip Lim; Lauren Letta, chief operating officer, Charity: Water, and Hannah Bronfman, director of sustainability, SH Hotels & Resorts. The panelists discussed the various ways they’ve pivoted toward sustainability in their respective industries, all with an added dose of inspiration and a few caveats.
“I’m here to represent transformation, entrepreneurial transformation,” Lim explained, who has significantly evolved 3.1 Phillip Lim since its beginnings in 2005. “My challenge was how to create fashion, but do to it in a way that was natural, sustainable or recyclable,” he said. “The beginning of sustainability is with yourself. If you cannot consistently show up and be present, there’s no purpose. And if there’s no purpose, there’s no point.” Today, Lim’s brand has banned the use of fur and exotic skins, and has been “re-exploring and re-engaging” with natural fibers, expressing a penchant for wool. Lim asked, “I never thought that we could be 100 percent because it’s too late for that, but how do we start from where we are?,” adding that “We have the human desire as a tribe to stop and restart naturally.”
Bronfman said, “[In my experience,] sharing information is the number-one thing you can do to combat climate change,” noting that SH Hotels & Resorts, an immersive nature meets luxury hotel chain, communicates with its guests by “capturing the beauty of nature while being a platform for change.” And sustainability in the hospitality industry is definitely having a moment: “I’m seeing the shift, I’m seeing the gears move, and that’s been really exciting all across the board,” adding that much of the recent change is driven by consumer demand and an innate tendency to prefer green, natural environments. “We need to step back and have a cleaner slate because that’s what our bodies respond to,” she said.
For the nonprofit industry, Letta emphasized the importance of leadership. “It starts with the visionary, the founder, that says ‘We can do this differently.'” Charity: Water, a nonprofit organization that provides clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations, partners with local experts and organizations worldwide to provide water and sanitation services, operates on an inherently sustainable business model. “We haven’t figured it all out, but we’re going to keep working on it together,” Letta added. Each panelist explained that becoming sustainable is a continuous, long-lasting effort, and imperfection is part of the process. Da Laere, of Aveda, intermittently spoke of the beauty industry’s transformative efforts of late, highlighting the brand’s commitment to sustainable ingredients, corporate practices and processes: “Aveda is built on a very deep mission of caring for the world,” she said.
Separately, Nadja Swarovski, who is also a member of the Swarovski Executive Board, shared insights about her experiences as a female executive leading the brand’s efforts in sustainability and corporate responsibility: “Our mission for Swarovski was to push sustainability to the forefront, which seemed to be hard and challenging, but the hardest part was starting. When your last name is on the door, you do feel a greater responsibility.” Swarovski told WWD, “I started our CSR department and it wasn’t that hard to start because we had already done so many things in a sustainable way. It was just putting a label on it, actually.” At the heart of the brand is a strategic tie-in of a purpose behind the product. “We realized that we need to tell stories, we’re about empowerment, and empowerment isn’t just physical, it’s also integral to the story you’re telling the end-consumer,” she noted.
Its Kering 2025: Crafting Tomorrow’s Luxury panel with Michael Beutler, sustainability operations director at Kering, and moderated by Lydia Dishman, a contributing reporter to Fast Co., discussed transparency in the supply chain for the consumer. “First you need to understand transparency yourself,” Beutler explained, adding that Kering’s reputation as a sustainable brand partly stems from consumers’ trust in the brand’s holistic approach to supply chain monitoring that begins in the soil. “On the ground, we can see a difference,” Beutler said, emphasizing Kering’s attention to origin and fastidious surveillance of its processes and practices throughout the entire manufacturing process. “Attracting the best people isn’t just attracting the best designers. It’s also about attracting talent in manufacturing.”
And the sustainability celebration continued later that evening at FIT’s Annual Awards Gala, which raised more than $1 million for the FIT Foundation, an advisory and fund-raising body to FIT. Brown, president at FIT, told WWD, “When I think that this is actually our 13th annual conference on sustainability, it reminds me of how forward-thinking our faculty and students were in recognizing the impact of sustainability on our creative industries. And I do believe that higher education has a major role to play in helping students become responsible conservators of the planet. FIT all the more so because our historic mission, as a career-driven college, is to prepare students to create, produce and market the consumer goods that make up so much of our abundant lifestyle and that conversely, contribute so much to our environment’s disintegration. And I should add that this year, the sustainability conference is focused on innovation and sustainability; we have linked it to our gala because it gives us an opportunity to recognize major figures who have been especially influential in this area of the industry.”
Brown added that today’s creative industries “embrace the values of sustainability; they understand how it redounds to the bottom line — they also understand consumer demand, but even they would say there is a long way to go. So I think that it is important for young professionals to be able to understand the social and creative impact of their work while also understanding how to evaluate the impact on the bottom line. But for this generation, sustainability is inherent: it is very personal. They know their future is tied to the health and well-being of the planet — and my advice to them would be to stay educated, maintain your focus, and know that you can effect change.”
Lise Kingo, chief executive officer and executive director of the United Nations Global Compact, presented Swarovski with the Social Impact in Sustainability Award, earned for her successes in leading Swarovski’s sustainability efforts and drive to apply responsible and ethical environmental standards company-wide. Swarovski told WWD, “It’s such an honor and it’s very humbling. We really appreciate FIT and what they stand for in terms of sustainability, because it’s fantastic, and this is really what we want to support.” And Laurent Claquin, the president of Kering Americas, accepted the Corporate Innovation in Sustainability Award on behalf of Kering for its global leadership in sustainable fashion and luxury industries, which was presented by Vanessa Friedman, the New York Times fashion director and chief fashion critic. And students’ efforts were recognized, too; chair of the board of FIT, Liz Peek, presented FIT student Kiana Brooks with its inaugural FIT Trusteeship Award that recognizes her academic achievements, volunteerism and projects that have enriched the environment and culture of the FIT community.
Gala attendees included the show’s host, model and activist Amber Valletta; Alec and Hilaria Baldwin; Randy Fenoli; Ken Downing; Dennis Basso; Amanda Hearst; Hassan Pierre; Fern Mallis; Francisco Costa; Maxwell Osborne; Dao-Yi Chow; Peter Som; Joe Zee; Christopher Bevans; Prince Dimitri and Fe Fendi, among many others. And sponsors for the Conference and Gala include Aveda; PVH; National Endowment for the Arts; Ralph Lauren; Swarovski; Kering; The Peninsula New York; Kallen & Lemelson Consulting Engineers, LLP; Chargeurs and C21stores.com.
For more Business news from WWD, see:
PrimaLoft Rolls Out First Fully Recycled Bio Performance Fabric
Fashion Industry’s ‘War for Talent,’ Demand for Vocational Skills
Field Notes: Fashion’s Making Waves
Fashion Brand Nicholas K Cites ‘Longevity’ as Key to Sustainability