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What’s Stopping the Fashion Industry From Agreeing on Climate Action?

LVMH won't be participating in a new climate initiative spearheaded by rival Kering — the latest example of the challenge the industry faces in setting common goals to tackle major systemic issues.
Gucci and Louis Vuitton handbags | Source: Shutterstock
  • Sarah Kent

LONDON, United Kingdom —Last week, Kering SA Chief Executive François-Henri Pinault called on his peers to set ambitious new climate goals for the fashion industry ahead of August's G7 summit. At least one major player won't be involved.

LVMH Möet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the world’s biggest luxury fashion purveyor, says it is committed to sustainability initiatives — just not this one.

"The LVMH group is a bit of a fashion group, but it's a lot more," LVMH Chief Executive Bernard Arnault said at tech fair VivaTechnology on Friday. "We have a more global approach to these issues."

The luxury giant’s reluctance to participate in Kering’s initiative reflects the broader challenge facing the fashion industry as it scrambles to address mounting criticism over its environmental record: most brands acknowledge any solution requires close collaboration, but working together is just not something the industry is very good at.

Fashion is an intensely competitive sector where companies have historically had little incentive to work together or share information. Even today — with a growing demand from consumers for more transparency — many brands remain reluctant to disclose their suppliers. The industry’s highly fragmented and opaque nature also makes it difficult to build up a critical mass of players willing to drive change, and despite marked progress in some corners, a significant proportion of the industry is simply not engaged.

Fashion business is about the singular and the majestic and the stand alone

“Fashion business is about the singular and the majestic and the stand alone,” said trend forecaster and Dean of Hybrid Design Studies at Parsons School of Design Lidewij Edelkoort. “It’s in the nature of fashion people [not to collaborate].”

Even when rivals do come together to work towards common goals, they don’t always remain aligned for long.

When Kering and LVMH agreed to collaborate on a series of strict regulations for the treatment of models in 2017, it was seen as an unprecedented move. The Models Charter marked a rare occasion when the rival luxury conglomerates united around a common set of guidelines.

Their stance is already diverging. Last week, Kering announced that it would no longer use models under the age of 18, while LVMH continues to use 16 as a cutoff point. The company says it has measures in place to ensure young models are protected. The debate extends beyond the two luxury rivals. For instance, Condé Nast requires models participating in editorial shoots to be 18 or over, but many brands — particularly in Europe — continue to routinely use younger models.

The industry’s climate challenge has become a particular focal point of calls for collaboration, as environmental concerns rise up the agenda for consumers and regulators. Fashion is one of the world’s most polluting industries. Clothes are often made from oil-based materials or resource-intensive agricultural products like cotton. Manufacturing processes frequently involve harsh chemicals and large volumes of water, and millions of tons of clothes end up in landfill every year.

Those aren’t issues any one company will be able to tackle alone. The majority of fashion’s climate impact is caused by raw material production or manufacturing processes that aren’t in the hands of fashion brands, and many have limited insight into their supply chain. While some individual companies are making significant steps to source and manufacture in a more environmentally-friendly manner, those efforts don’t move the needle when it comes to the overall system’s environmental footprint.

To have real impact very quickly we have to be all aligned with the same targets

"To have real impact very quickly we have to be all aligned with the same targets," said Kering's Chief Sustainability Officer Marie-Claire Daveu during an interview at fashion's annual sustainability gathering in Copenhagen last week. "The mandate is really to move the sector."

Kering's message of collaboration was echoed repeatedly in Copenhagen, but the summit's attendees reflected the industry's deep-seated divisions. While representatives from Kering were joined on stage by executives from sportswear giant Nike Inc and H&M Hennes & Mauritz AB, each brand's main rival - LVMH, Adidas AG and Zara owner Inditex SA - were not visible.

LVMH said it participates in conferences where it can have a “tangible impact.” Inditex declined to comment and Adidas did not respond.

"Getting competitors to collaborate is a challenge," PVH Corp. Chief Executive Emanuel Chirico said in an interview on the sidelines of the Copenhagen summit. He added that PVH, which owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, will join Kering's new coalition.

Fashion isn’t the only industry where competing businesses struggle to work together. Often it takes an outside force — the threat of strict government regulations or consumer boycotts — to bring rivals together. In the oil industry, for example, companies representing about one-third of global oil and gas production have banded together to set unified — albeit limited — climate goals. In the financial sector, a task force established by the G20’s Financial Stability Board has created a set of voluntary guidelines for companies to disclose the financial impact of climate-related risks and opportunities.

Getting competitors to collaborate is a challenge

To be sure, the fashion world does have examples of broad industry coalitions and companies are getting more comfortable with working together. But such initiatives’ impact has been mixed, and often slow-moving.

More than 200 brands, retailers, manufacturers and industry watchers have been collaborating under the umbrella of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) for a decade. But their effort to build a unified set of tools to measure the environmental and social impact of products, factories and companies has moved much slower than planned. Last week, the group announced it planned to spin out the tools it's developed into a private company.

"Transforming an industry isn't easy," said Amina Razvi, the SAC's interim executive director. "We have a unique opportunity with the spinout of Higg Co. to accelerate this work in ways we could not before."

More recent initiatives, like the UN-backed Fashion Industry Charter on Climate Action, are only just getting off the ground. Key stakeholders like LVMH and Nike have not signed up to that either.

“Everyone contributes according to their needs,” LVMH said in a statement, emphasizing initiatives the group has taken independently. “It is great to see different solutions being pursued.” Nike has been a key player in other industry initiatives.

With just two months to go until the G7 summit in Biarritz, Kering will have its work cut out for it. By August, the luxury giant is hoping to have pulled together a broad coalition united behind an overarching set of climate aims. The group will continue to work together after the summit to establish an action plan. This latest push to bring together brands, manufacturers and retailers is backed by French President Emmanuel Macron, but it has not been universally embraced.

The initiative has already come under scathing criticism from French designer Agnès Troublé, who commonly goes by the name of her brand, agnès b. In an open letter to Pinault, sent to both Kering and the AFP newswire Friday, she said that some young designers have consistently pursued more sustainable business, without publicity.

We cannot do it alone. We have to collaborate.

"It's a little difficult to take lessons from François-Henri Pinault on that front," the designer said in an interview with The Business of Fashion.

Kering said its latest efforts were initiated by Macron and its goal is to form an inclusive coalition. The luxury giant said a number of companies have already signed on, but declined to disclose any names. In addition to PVH, H&M Group is among those that have already expressed interest in participating.

It remains to be seen whether this latest initiative will live up to Pinault’s ambitions.

“It is our primary responsibility to reduce our impact,” the executive said last week. “We cannot do it alone. We have to collaborate.”

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