This Week's Wow: Fashion's Glaring Global Impact, and the Attempt to Change It

olivia wilde
Photo: Kerry Hallihan

In this weekly feature, InStyle’s Fashion News Director Eric Wilson shares his favorite fashion moment of the week, and explains how it could shape styles to come. Look for it on What’s Right Now every Friday.

The Moment: Congratulations, fashion, you have earned yourself a distinction.

Alas, it is this. Several years back, when the Natural Resources Defense Council set up an office in Beijing and began to study the causes of environmental problems there, Linda Greer, a senior scientist, discovered that one of the biggest users of water, energy, and chemicals in China, was the apparel industry.

“This industry distinguished itself as a very big polluter,” Greer said on Thursday night during a panel discussion at Parsons School of Design. “This is an industry that has a very heavy environmental footprint.”

The negative impact of fashion has increasingly become a concern of both luxury brands and mass-market producers, as consumers become more aware of the way clothing is made and demand more ethically sourced designs.

One company that has earned a more positive distinction on this subject is Kering, the luxury conglomerate that owns labels like Gucci, Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Stella McCartney, and Alexander McQueen, as well as the athletic brand Puma. Next month, Kering plans to release the first results of an initiative to track, and hopefully improve, the environmental impact of its businesses. Its Environmental Profit & Loss account is expected to report in more tangible, financial terms the costs of its practices, like tanning leathers, processing raw materials into fabrics, even keeping the lights on in its stores.

“Sustainability is a matter of opportunity,” said Francois-Henri Pinault, the chairman and chief executive of Kering, who has been working with designers for a decade to identify ways to improve its production. Since 2010, Kering has placed 50 executives within the group who work full-time on sustainability issues, and to make their goals more concrete, he noted, a share of their annual bonuses are based on sustainability targets.

Why It’s a Wow: During the Parsons event, part of its Kering Talks series, Pinault cited several examples of its work. In one recent initiative, Kering and H&M announced they are collaborating with a British company, Worn Again, to test new recycling technology that breaks down polyester fibers so that old clothes can be made into new clothes. (Actress Olivia Wilde is pictured above in the retailer's eco-friendly Conscious Collection, as photographed for the April InStyle, on newsstands now.) Pinault noted that Kering uses 65 million tons of fabric each year, so “if we can recycle a significant portion of that, that might completely change the impact we have.”

In another, Gucci and Bottega Veneta have commissioned studies on leather tanning to reduce the reliance on heavy metals, resulting in new techniques that now account for 15 percent of their production. Kering also created a “material innovation lab,” which he described as a library of 1,500 sustainable fabrics that are always available to Kering designers, so that they are able to access them quickly within the tight schedules they face producing their collections.

Not everything has been a success. A few years ago, Puma introduced new packaging for its shoes, eliminating 65 percent of the cardboard in its boxes in favor of small shopping bags. “But we discovered it was absolutely not usable for our retailers,” Pinault said. “They couldn’t pile up the shoes [in their storerooms], so they started to not place orders. It was an example of a very bright idea that is absolutely not sustainable business-wise.”

But that has not stopped Kering from exploring. Perhaps the most unusual experiment has the potential to change just about everything in the production of leather by “growing” it -- producing materials using cell cultures that are grown in a lab, rather than a farm.

Learn More: Kering offers an easy-to-read graphic on its plans for the Environmental Profit & Loss account, as well as broader sustainable news, at its corporate web site. And the NRDC has lots of studies worth reading on the impacts of the fashion industry through its Clean By Design initiative.

Eric Wilson will be on vacation next week. His weekly "Wow" series will return April 17.

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