PARIS — The pandemic has upended traditional approaches to business, prompting apparel brands to cast around for ways to secure their futures amid the upheaval — while showing consumers their values are in the right place.
In France, outerwear specialist Aigle, famous for rubber boots in navy blue, has seized on a recently introduced law in the country and adopted a purpose driven focus. Other apparel companies could follow suit — WWD has spoken to some who are studying the question.
France’s so-called Pacte law of 2019 allows companies to introduce a broader mission with social or environmental objectives to their activities — which are inscribed in company bylaws. The law allowing a business to become an “entreprise à mission” was drawn up with the aim of showing a socially minded public that companies can serve a role beyond the pursuit of profits, and prove their worth to society as a whole.
“It seems the public needs proof — beyond claims and slogans — and the advantage of adopting a mission-based focus is that it serves as means of proof,” explained Anne-France Bonnet, founder of Nuova Vista, a purpose-driven consulting firm that specializes in CSR matters.
The executive noted that the legal inscription of the mission, combined with both internal and external audits, serve as a proof of commitment.
It also helps that the companies themselves define the terms of their mission — in contrast to the legal framework for benefit corporations, or B Corps, in the U.S.
The process for signing up for France’s purpose-driven legal status generally entails a long period of reflection, and those signing up for it tend to be smaller, privately owned companies, although Danone is an example of a larger firm that has done so. The yogurt and water group became the first public company to adopt the French legal framework and has set out its mission as seeking to “bring health through food to as many people as possible.”
Aigle, meanwhile, belongs to the private, family-owned, Swiss-based MF Brands Group, which counts a number of labels including Lacoste, Gant and The Kooples.
For the past year and a half, through its “Aigle Positive Impact” program, the bootmaker has been focusing on offering lasting products, sharing expertise on the environmental front and reducing its carbon imprint.
Aigle has set targets including reducing its carbon impact by 46 percent by 2030, with a focus on producing so-called eco-design products, that carry a minimal environmental footprint, by 2022. The aim is for over half of collections to be made up of “eco-responsible” products.
The brand is also getting involved in the secondhand market with a platform dubbed “Second Souffle,” French for “second wind,” collecting used clothing at drop-off points in stores and clothing repair workshops. The label seeks to promote ecologically minded behavior in the workplace through recycling and sorting garbage, as well as its new headquarters in Paris, which is designed to reduce carbon emissions.
“In a sector with a strong environmental impact, all efforts, no matter how small, can have a positive effect — this is the meaning of the Aigle Positive Impact program, act at the scale of of our influence,” said the company’s chief executive officer Sandrine Conseiller.
“This can be directly, by making products responsibly, or indirectly, by helping consumer behavior to evolve, and in the longer term, by reducing our impact on the planet,” Conseiller added.
“Beyond our individual actions, collective efforts can help our model evolve to become more sustainable, this is the idea behind the Fashion Pact, for example,” she said.
While younger enterprises like startups are showing interest in adopting the purpose-driven status, larger, well-established companies would do well to consider the structure, said Bonnet, expressing surprise that older generations seem a bit wary of the idea.
“There’s nothing exceptional in adopting a mission, it seems normal — what’s interesting in the model is that it’s the company that fixes its objectives.”
The executive has encountered executives who ask “what will I have to give up?”
“I tell them it’s absurd what you are saying, because you are the one deciding what to do,” she said.
“You’re taking the reins and betting on your future,” she added, noting that people who own their own projects tend to be more daring when it comes to pursing this direction, whereas larger companies tend to be managed by people who are more caught up with political considerations, and hampered by complexity.
Purpose-driven companies are still working out how to communicate about their missions to end consumers, added Bonnet.
“It’s a bit hard to explain at the end of the chain,” she said.
French apparel company Faguo, which sells sneakers made from recycled materials, gained the purpose-driven status last year, with goals that include reducing and offsetting carbon emissions and promoting healthier clothing consumption habits.
Contemporary French fashion label Ba&sh, which just unveiled its sustainability program dubbed ‘Blossom manifesto,’ and emphasizes its focus on supporting women, is also exploring the subject.
“It’s important, if you are taking actions that go beyond regulation standards, if you don’t communicate about it, you fail to live up to your duty of transparency with your consumers — you have an obligation,” said Pierre-Arnaud Grenade, CEO of the label. “Say what you do — don’t just do what you say.”
Attractive designs, of course, serve as the basis for generating business, mission-oriented or not, and Aigle has called on the design trio of fashion label Études Studio – Aurélien Arbet, Jérémie Egry and José Lamali – to draw up collections and beef up the fashion quotient of the brand’s image.
“Sustainable activity is not incompatible with profitable activity, and sustainable fashion is not incompatible with a desirable silhouette — this is the reasoning behind recruiting our new artistic directors,” said Conseiller.
Aigle’s purpose-driven status has got Études Studio founders thinking.
“We discovered it through Aigle and we’re asking ourselves the question, at Études, how can we engage ourselves in this manner — we’re starting to look into it,” Arbet said.