For sustainability professionals, is the luxury sector the place to be right now?

EXCLUSIVE: Several senior sustainability professionals have moved into the luxury sector in recent months as houses appoint, in some cases, their first CSOs. Is this a sign that the sector is finally acting strategically on its most pressing environmental challenges?

For sustainability professionals, is the luxury sector the place to be right now?

LVHM first developed its environmental department almost 30 years ago, but, like many competitors, has significantly changed its approach recently

Last year, Chanel appointed the second CSO in its 110-year history. The business selected Kate Wylie, who had worked within Mars’ sustainability team for more than a decade, to fill the role. It was first created in 2018 and initially filled by Andrea d’Avack, the firm’s former president of perfumes and beauty. Also in 2021, Hermès created its first sustainable development lead role, appointing Jordan Rey, formerly of Clarins Group.

Fast-forward 18 months and several other major luxury brands have made similar moves. Richemont created its first CSO role in January and appointed Dr Berangere Ruchat, formerly of perfume and taste conglomerate Firmenich. Jimmy Choo began advertising for its first sustainability director in June. Burberry, which has had a responsibility programme director for several years, has gone one step further and created a vice-president for corporate responsibility. This role is held by Caroline Laurie, formerly of retail group Kingfisher.

For some luxury Houses, the creation of new senior positions for sustainability professionals may feel like a reactionary move that could be too little, too late. Fashion sustainability ranking organisation GoodOnYou ranks efforts by Jimmy Choo as ‘not good enough’, with the brand providing little evidence of efforts to cut waste, prevent harm to nature or reduce emissions. Chanel gets the same category of ranking, as do Ralph Lauren, Prada and Fendi. Gucci is awarded a ranking just one step above this, ‘it’s a start’.

For many others, though, the move will likely serve to formalise, join up, and hopefully accelerate, work that has been underway for years already. Speaking exclusively to edie about the evolution of sustainability teams in luxury, Positive Luxury’s chief executive Diana Verde Nieto said: “We’ve been talking about sustainability for so many years, but for so many organisations, we’re at the start of execution. Everybody paid lip service for a long time. Now it is becoming embedded… everyone is equipping themselves.

“The bad name of luxury and opulence is moving away. Many brands are dropping this traditional luxury definition and aligning with our vision of net-positive.”

Spotlight on LVMH

Verde Nieto has been working in luxury for more than ten years and named two luxury groups she believes to have “pioneered” sustainability leadership for longer than this – Kering and LVMH. Kering appointed its first CSO, Marie-Claire Daveu, back in 2012. The former green policy advisor is also the firm’s head of international institutional affairs.

LVMH, meanwhile, first developed its environmental department almost 30 years ago. However, the past two years or so have seen the world’s biggest luxury house making significant changes to its sustainability strategy and team structure. Its first overarching, time-bound targets to reduce emissions were among the inclusions in Life 360, the firm’s environmental ‘roadmap’ through to 2030, published in April 2021.

The strategy was doubtless, in part, due to the creation of sustainability teams at certain LVMH Maisons and the expansion of these teams at others, with professionals equipped to create, deliver and measure progress against credible targets.

“Sustainability is not a new topic for the house, or the perfume industry at large,” Parfums Christian Dior’s first CSO Isabelle Sultan tells edie. “However, my team is definitely growing and getting more robust.”

Sultan joined LVMH in early 2021 after more than 19 years at Danone. She tells edie she was keen to “bring the knowledge” from the general consumer goods industry into the luxury space, at a time when Parfums Christian Dior was “really looking to drive the environmental agenda strategically, embedding sustainability in its operating model and culture”. Sultan notably reports directly to the board.

Under Sultan, Parfums Christian Dior has launched its sustainability strategy through to 2030, ‘Beauty as a Legacy’. The strategy includes emissions reductions targets badged as 1.5C-aligned (a 46% reduction across all scopes this decade) and sets in motion a Maison-wide programme of climate education for its 14,000+ global staff.

It’s only natural

A stand-out feature of ‘Beauty as a Legacy’, beyond the focus on governance and employee engagement, is the level of detail on measures to protect and restore nature. It details an ambition to ensure that all flower cultivation in Parfums Christian Dior’s global supply chain is using organic and/or regenerative approaches by 2030 – a mission backed by the appointment of agriculture specialists to Sultan’s team and training of 60 flower farming students in regenerative techniques. The students will be fully trained by 2025.

Organic agriculture involves phasing out the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides, while regenerative farming goes a step further, implementing further interventions that should also improve soil quality, biodiversity and, in turn, worker livelihoods. Interventions include cover cropping, planting hedgerows and adopting low-till approaches.

Summarising why this approach has been taken, Sultan says: “Flowers are key to our activity. They’re the source of our fragrance and a lot of our active ingredients in skincare… We expect to highlight the issue of flower extinction risks and shift perceptions.”

Sultan’s team are also working on initiatives to re-introduce flowers into ecosystems beyond its supply chain, in partnership with organisations including UNESCO Man and Biosphere (MAB) and the Union for Ethical BioTrade.

Another LVMH Maison with a major focus on nature in its sustainability strategy is Moet Hennessy, its champagne and liquor arm. Launched in 2020, the strategy is called ‘Living Soils, Living Together’ and its first priority pillar is soil regeneration.

Heading up the delivery of the strategy is Sandrine Sommer – the Maison’s first CSO. She was appointed in early 2020 after almost 13 years in CSR at LVMH-owned perfume house Guerlain.

“We’re very well-connected, Sultan and I,” Sommer tells edie. “I know that perfume and wine are slightly different, but we have shared challenges.

“I think that, as we are really close to the soil and the earth, we have the responsibility to become the supporting partner for the group. We’re at the right place to advance work here.”

Like Sultan’s team, Sommer’s is promoting organic and regenerative methods of cultivation across its supply chains. Moet Hennessy sources from vineyards operating across a diverse array of locations, including the US, India, Australia, New Zealand, China, France and other parts of Europe.

Recognising that “momentum is just beginning to build” around measuring and improving soil quality at scale (in Sommer’s opinion), Moet Hennessy has hired agronomists in-house. It also hosted the inaugural ‘world living soils forum’ in Arles, Provence, this year, convening scientists, NGOs, public sector experts and organisations across the private sector for 30 hours of discussion over a two-day period. The aim is to foster collaboration for making vineyards more biodiverse at a macro and micro level, after, in some cases, decades of monoculture approaches that have reduced their ability to sequester carbon and support nature.

“I think it’s important to move together to move further, to find the right ways to measure, to launch research on systems, to train everyone and convey information about the importance of soils,” Sommer summarises.

A (strategic) look to the future

In the opinion of Positive Luxury’s Verde Nieto, the luxury sector is “perhaps one of the most vulnerable” to climate and nature shocks in the supply chain, as it is “completely dependent on high-quality raw materials”, with firms often making the majority of profits from a handful of iconic products.

“There’s a clear inevitability that supply chains can, and will be disrupted… companies cannot afford not to be looking at this, especially bigger companies,” she added. “Luxury brands shy away from risk, generally.”

But, in Verde Nieto’s opinion, luxury firms are not just looking at sustainability from a risk management perspective and moving out of fear.

They are also responding to wider moves to align emissions targets with climate science and to quantify and reduce the private sector’s negative impacts on nature. On the latter, the UN is still working to finalise its post-2020 biodiversity treaty, modelled on the Paris Agreement on climate, after a two-year process. Additionally, a full Taskforce on Nature-Related Financial Disclosures framework is due out in 2023.

And, more than that – luxury firms are keen to appease increasingly ESG-minded investors, keep engaging their consumer communities, be seen as innovative, and attract and retain talent. Achieving all of this doubtless requires a strategic approach, adequately supported by governance. In many cases, this necessitates the appointment of a CSO or similar.

“It’s a no-brainer to embed sustainability – it’s absolutely not optional and can’t be on one side,” Sultan tells edie. “It’s now or never for luxury houses.”

Sultan adds that she was keen to move into luxury at this juncture as she believes that the sector is now “considered as a key lever to drive change”. Just as runway trends and luxury perfumes inspire what we’ll come to see on the high street each season, their creators can also, Sultan believes, create ripple effects in defining and inspiring sustainability leadership.

Of course, this won’t happen overnight. Brands will need to make sure that their CSOs have adequate power to drive change, and that they’re supported by teams qualified in more technical fields such as carbon analysis, agronomy and packaging design. As Verde Nieto puts it: “In the nicest way possible, sustainability is not about what you think and believe. It’s about science. So you need specialists as well as generalists.”

However, the adoption of strategic sustainability approaches appears to be happening across the luxury space, in terms of product/service categories, brand locations and brand size. Positive Luxury has certified 115 organisations with its ‘Butterfly Mark’ and is in the process of processing 65 further applications. This cohort includes micro and small businesses alongside some of the biggest and most famous brands, from Dior Couture and Belvedere, to Ocean Main (five employees) and Washed Ashore (three employees).

Verde Nieto says that large and small brands will doubtless run into different challenges in bolstering their sustainability teams and efforts.

“When you’re big, your problem is convincing all stakeholders to move things forward,” she explains. “But this is less of a problem now. When you’re small, whole set of different problems – finance and resourcing being the obvious ones… That said, the human resources problem is a problem for everybody right now.”

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