Inside Kering’s High-Stakes Fashion Conference on Sustainability

Sustainable fashion may sound unsexy to a lot of people, but it’s currently in vogue in the fashion industry now.  At this year’s Shanghai Fashion Week, the luxury group Kering collaborated with the Silicon Valley-based innovation platform Plug and Play to host an in-depth discussion on just this topic, the very first “K Generation Talk & Award Ceremony” in China. For Kering, the location was a strategic choice, as Chairman and CEO of Kering, François-Henri Pinault, stressed that “there is no luxury without China, there is no sustainability without China.”

Announced at the G7 Summit and spearheaded by the CEO himself, the Fashion Pact, an industry-wide movement aimed at aligning the fashion industry with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. So far, 135 brands have signed the contract, which equals around 35 percent of the total volume of the fashion industry. But Pinault was hopeful about this number, saying that “if we can transform that part of the industry, the other two-thirds of the industry will follow, I am sure.” One of Kering’s key goals, he added, was to reduce its carbon footprint by 40 percent by 2025.

At the conference, Kering recognized three Chinese startups that were creatively addressing sustainability challenges in the textile value chain: Melephant, Heyuan, and FeiLiu Technology. They also invited pivotal thought leaders across many industries to attend, namely, Hung Huang, a writer and an influencer who is known to be China’s Oprah Winfrey and Anna Wintour; Shaway Yeh, a special advisor to the Copenhagen Fashion Summit and founder of YehYehYeh, a creative consulting agency focusing on sustainability, creativity, and innovation; Shang Yu Ying, Party Secretary and Chairwoman of Shanghai Municipal Commission of Commerce; Benoît Guidée, the consul general of France in Shanghai; Burak Cakmak, the Dean of Fashion at Parsons School of Design; and Marie-Claire Daveu, the Chief Sustainability Officer and Head of International Institutional Affairs at Kering.

Below are some key quotes from the conference on all the hot topics having to do with sustainability in China and beyond:

Kering Chairman and CEO François-Henri Pinault with Hung Huang, a American-Chinese author, blogger, and media figure.

Why China is at the Forefront of the Global Sustainability Movement?

“China was, for many years, the most important supplier of raw materials in this industry… but China today is not only the most important supplier of raw materials for the fashion industry — it’s also the most important market for the fashion industry for all fashion brands. So inside the country, we have altogether the consumers, the producers in the middle, and the government, which is willing to move progressively towards sustainability.” —François-Henri Pinault, Chairman and CEO of Kering

“If China can make fashion sustainable, the rest of the world would follow.” —Hung Huang, content curator, columnist

“China can innovate much more swiftly if China’s leadership prioritizes it and supports responsible innovation, and China is at the forefront, as we all know, with advanced technology and communications, AI, and creativity across so many sectors. So China’s history is about beauty and innovation, and I am betting on China.” —Susan Rockefeller, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Musings

“I think a lot of innovation in China isn’t only happening inside the manufacturers… It’s also happening internally and it might not be so visible to us here from the outside. In China, I think they are very good at innovation in terms of social services because that’s a very obvious area people need to solve — but not so much at inventing something which hasn’t existed before.” —Katrin Ley, Managing Director of Fashion for Good

From left to right: Shaway Yeh, Founder of YehYehYeh, Burak Cakmak, Dean of Fashion at Parsons School of Design, Katrin Ley, Managing Director of Fashion for Good.

From left to right: Shaway Yeh, founder of YehYehYeh, Burak Cakmak, Dean of Fashion at Parsons School of Design, and Katrin Ley, Managing Director of Fashion for Good.

Why Collaboration is Essential?

“Roughly 70 percent of the total fashion industry carbon footprint is in raw materials, so it’s not actually within the brand. When a brand says ‘I’m tackling sustainability in my perimeter,’ they’re only tackling around 10 percent of [it].” —François-Henri Pinault, Chairman and CEO of Kering

“If you don’t have a partnership or collaboration, you’re not going to get to a scalable level.” —Susan Rockefeller, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Musings

“Every entrepreneur will say access to financing is always challenging. Altogether, I think we need to further educate, bring awareness, and the financial industry should also play a role in financing this transition.” —Katrin Ley, Managing Director of Fashion for Good

Does Sustainability Hinder Design?

“80 percent of the carbon footprint in fashion starts at the design level, and the new generation of designers is completely sustainable-sensitive… For example, 32-years-old Daniel Lee is the creative director of Bottega Veneta. He is very young, [so sustainability is] natural. There is no question [now] that things have to be sustainable.” —François-Henri Pinault, Chairman and CEO of Kering

What’s the Most Difficult Part About Growing Sustainable Fashion?

“We really need innovative thinkers [that can] make [fashion] that’s both sustainable and profitable, to unite the two. It’s a new set of rules.” —François-Henri Pinault, Chairman and CEO of Kering

“There are impacts across the value chain, but the [most] important impact is clearly from raw materials. Eighty percent of the impact is coming from the raw material side, so we see entrepreneurs that have biosynthetic solutions, [like] leather from the lab, but are also going back to regenerative agriculture or natural fibers, [as with] using algae.” —Katrin Ley, Managing Director of Fashion for Good

“We often tend to focus very much on the environmental impact side but forget that there is also a social impact side, in terms of education — both legs of sustainability.” —Shaway Yeh, Founder of YehYehYeh

“We must approach sustainability from the consumer demand point of view. They need not only good design and quality goods, but also a sustainable supply chain. For example, the biggest challenge is communication: We have 40,000 staff, over 10,000 farmers, and 2 million consumers. How to communicate with them to launch a collective consciousness is hard.” —Jane Wang, President and CEO of Erdos Cashmere Group

What’s Next?

“You need to make sure you can trace your skin up to the farm, which is not the case today. It is crazy because the food industry is tracing the food, particularly in Europe, to the animal, to the farm, but we lose traceability at the house level. Leather is not traceable, so I have to put traceability into place.” —François-Henri Pinault, Chairman and CEO of Kering

“I think there will be a virtual reality that will allow us to create your own Avatars in the future. We’ll be more plugged in to create a fashion expression and a wearable dream online in addition to the smart and sustainable fashion of our day-to-day lives.” —Susan Rockefeller, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Musings

“The fashion industry is incredibly fragmented and very complex, and consumers are unaware of what their garments are made of, who made them, and of what materials. We see a lot of technological innovation in that area that really allows us to trace back to the farm, to the cattle ranch, and to the organic cotton farm using tracers and blockchain technology to really make this connection. That’s a hugely important enabler for many of those changes that we would like to see in the fashion industry.” —Katrin Ley, Managing Director of Fashion for Good

“Ultimately, it’s about consumer behavior that we’re trying to influence, and that behavior is going to lead to providing sustainable initiatives within the industry. It will be ‘push versus pull’ from the consumer side.” —Burak Cakmak, Dean of Fashion at Parsons School of Design

Quotes are edited and condensed for clarity.