Welcome to Sustainability Week! While Fashionista covers sustainability news and eco-friendly brands all year round, we wanted to use the time around Earth Day and the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse as a reminder to focus on the impact that the fashion industry has on people and the planet.
Since 2012, Kering has made sustainability a cornerstone of its business, lead by the success of its eco-friendly label Stella McCartney. Internally, it dedicates some €10 million a year to sustainability initiatives; outside its doors, the luxury conglomerate is currently partnering with the London College of Fashion on the Sustainability Masters Course, where it also gives out the Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion to students who show promise in eco-friendly innovation.
Now, Kering is bringing its sustainable education initiatives stateside. In the fall of 2016, it launched a pilot program with The New School's Parsons School of Design to bring its "My EP&L" app (integrating Kering's Environmental Profit and Loss methodologies) to students in three senior Systems & Society Thesis sections and two Materiality Thesis sections. The app is a condensed version of Kering's vast EP&L research, meant to help apply the findings in a real way. After making these resources available in full to its own brands, Kering went to a school instead of to other outside brands in hopes of making a real difference. "That's where we see the key levers of change, is with the millennial generation that will be designing and making clothes in the future," says Michael Beutler, sustainability operations director at Kering.
"Parsons is, I think, known for innovation," he adds. "We'd already been working with Parsons on a design challenge now for several years, and in that spirit, we wanted to work with students to innovate; we want to help give tools for the young designers so the next generation of people that are in the fashion business really objectively make decisions that create a more sustainable industry."
Parsons, too, is dedicated to sustainability, thanks in no small part to dean of fashion Burak Cakmak — who, it's worth noting, once served as Kering's first director of corporate sustainability. "Sustainability is at the core of our curriculum," says Parsons Professor Brendan McCarthy, who leads the program with Kering and serves as co-chair of the curriculum committee at the school of fashion. "It's embedded in every single learning outcome in the school of fashion." There is no single course at Parsons on sustainability; instead, the notion is incorporated into all coursework. McCarthy notes that Parsons considers "sustainability" far beyond material resources, teaching students to take into account what he calls "human sustainability."
"We're really thinking about, what is the human impact? What does it mean within every part of the design process and system if we consider the human being at the center of each of those moments?" he says. "If we place the human being at the center of the design process, I think really incredible things are starting to happen."
It's fitting, then, that Kering's "My EP&L" app takes into account not only the literal cost of materials but also the cost of using those materials to the environment — or as Beutler explains it, "If we wrote a check to nature for everything we need, we used, how much would that check be for?" Students are able to enter into the app where they want to source materials, down to the detail, and calculate what the cost of producing that garment would be, giving them an idea both of production costs and their potential environmental footprint for every design. Parsons is working with Kering to incorporate social sustainability into the app in the future.
"[Kering was] so excited that our students were not only readily engaged in material strategies and really excited to use the EP&L app and EP&L methodology, but they were also so curious to hear about our strategies from a social EP&L standpoint; that's been a fantastic exchange," McCarthy says. "One could imagine you have this incredible technology methodology that Kering is using and then one could just simply say, "Okay we're going to use that tool," but what really has happened is we designed a curriculum based around that tool that also allowed for exchange; it's been a really beautiful two-way street between Parsons and Kering."
The most essential part of the "My EP&L" app is that it uses open-source methodology, which means that anyone interested in gaining access to this information can do so just by downloading it from the App Store. "That actually goes to the heart of our philosophy of sustainability," Beutler says. "We need to find a sustainable way as an industry, not just as a group; by open-sourcing it, we can help improve the [fashion] industry, and other industries too, because we rely on a lot of other industries." Kering CEO and chairman François-Henri Pinault believes that to move his own companies forward, the whole industry must move with him — after all, most luxury brands are competing with one another for the same resources. As more brands demand sustainable materials, more will become available, which could potentially lower costs for otherwise rare resources.
From a practical standpoint, students have been using the technology not just to find better resources, but also to create more meaningful thesis collections. McCarthy specifically notes the work of student Valerie Grapek, who created a collection about women's rights. "On a simple level, she just said to me, 'Brendan, how many of your garments open in the back?' and I said, 'Zero,'" he explains. "'And how many people do you need to help you get dressed or to close a button, or to click a snap?' And I said, 'Obviously, not really many.'" In response, Grapek has created menswear in traditionally womenswear materials, like silks and organzas, and incorporated the "embodied experience" of getting dressed as a woman — think bodysuits and blouses that tie at the back. With the "My EP&L" app, she is able to take her concept one step further by considering the impact of her materials.
"She's making this argument, basically, that these decisions we make around materials become normative, become really problematic, and become terrible power structures that create awful standards," McCarthy says. "I think it's amazing that, through EP&L, she's able to match this idea of where her ideas come from with the idea of, where do our ideas around gender, justice, equality, come from? And how can I use my sourcing and my materials in a responsible, environmental way to dovetail with the critical social issues that I care deeply about and the aesthetic idea?"
Through the partnership, Kering hopes to learn more about how it can improve "My EP&L," but it also hopes to encourage lasting interest in sustainability; seven students have also had their graduate collections partially funded by Kering. "It's important to stimulate sustainability any way we can and also to make material choices available any way we can, too," Beutler says, referencing back to the hope that this new generation of designers will demand sustainable resources. "One of our challenges is if, for instance, every apparel company in the world tomorrow said we're going to use organic cotton, there isn't enough organic cotton to supply that need. It's important we start stimulating not only the demand, but also the supplier."
On Parsons's side, McCarthy says they intend to expand the program into all of the school's curriculum starting next fall. The students, many of whom were already interested in sustainability, have reacted positively to the app. "They're doing a beautiful job of making sure that sustainability and high fashion, beautiful fashion, they're just one; they're not separate," McCarthy says.
"If you're making garments for human beings and with human beings in your process that you love and care about, for communities that you love and care about, and around critical issues that you love and care about, our argument is that: then, naturally, we're going to make more sustainable choices," he says. "We're changing the value proposition."