High Fashion Courts Presidents and Princesses

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Some conservationists felt a sense of relief to hear President Macron’s end of abundance, the end of insouciance, the end of assumptions speech, at the French government’s first cabinet meeting after the summer holidays. But are they looking at what took place through rose-coloured glasses?

Commentators have already pointed to the hypocrisy of Macron’s comment, given he is nicknamed “the president of the rich”, with some in the country saying his rich friends are unlikely to believe his message is also directed at them. 

When Macron was returned as President, in the April 2022 election, this was seen as a victory for the French luxury industry, particularly high fashion who have been ingratiating themselves with Mr Macron and his wife, Brigitte, since he was first elected in 2017.

There is no evidence that Bernard Arnault, Chairman and CEO of LVMH is doing anything that would undermine the profits of the company, which are dependent on a consumer mindset of abundance. LVMH recorded revenue of €36.7 billion in the first half of 2022, up 28% compared to the same period in 2021. Kering’s Chairman and CEO, François-Henri Pinault, announced the group’s revenue in the first half of 2022 grew 23% as reported and 16% on a comparable basis compared to the first six months of 2021.

The European luxury sector profits from the trade in wild species, with a 2016 European Parliament Report clarifying the scale of the trade, saying, “The wildlife trade is one of the most lucrative trades in the world. The LEGAL trade into the EU alone is worth EUR 100 billion [US$112 billion] annually.” After seafood, the fashion and furniture industries are the primary users of wild species. Curbing this trade could impact the profits being made by some of Europe’s biggest brands.

Has the luxury industry’s courting of President Macron been a factor in his lack of attention to the legal trade in wild species being key driver of biodiversity loss? Macron said France and the French felt they were living through a series of crises, “each worse than the last”. Undoubtedly, this comment must have included the pandemic, given France recorded 33.7 million cases and 151,000 deaths. But President Macron hasn’t asked luxury companies to curb their use of wild species in trade, even after the clearest evidence that humans are vulnerable because the line between us and exotic animals had long been breached for trade purposes. The fashion industry could not function without captive breeding of endangered and exotic species or legal harvesting from the wild.  

To be fair to President Macron, in 2019 he proposed a mission to Kering’s Chairman and CEO, François-Henri Pinault to bring together a global coalition of companies in the fashion and textile industry to work out how they could commit to key environmental goals in three areas: stopping global warming, restoring biodiversity and protecting the oceans, creating a Fashion Pact.

Everything has gone very quiet since 2020, when it launched its one and only progress report. The commitments in the report are very ho-hum, which is interesting from an industry that likes to see itself as a visionary. Conspicuous by its absence from the Fashion Pact is CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. CITES regulates the global trade in endangered species that the luxury industry relies on for many of its raw materials, the body parts the industry calls its fine textiles.   

President Macron speech indicated that he felt that it was important to prepare the French people for change, “This overview that I’m giving, the end of abundance, the end of insouciance, the end of assumptions – it’s ultimately a tipping point that we are going through that can lead our citizens to feel a lot of anxiety. Faced with this, we have a duty, duties, the first of which is to speak frankly and clearly without doom-mongering”. He pointed to the fact that the age of abundance must come to an end to save the planet; there is No Planet B.

But obviously the use of endangered and exotic species for the luxury trade is exempt from these measures and we can see from the recent half yearly revenues mentioned above that luxury consumers are being encouraged to over-indulge themselves all they want.

Arthur C James | Dreamstime.com

This fashion industry wooing of influential officials is not only a French phenomenon. What the Duchess of Cambridge wears is splashed over newspapers and magazines worldwide. From her love of Alexander McQueen (a Kering Group brand) to Burberry. In February 2022, Kering and Burberry discussed their plans for a year of maturity in sustainability. In the Vogue Business article, Burberry stated that leather goods are at the centre of its growth strategy, which makes the supply chain transformation all the more urgent. Yet Burberry was one of the companies who lobbied the US government to redact business and brand names from Freedom Of Information Act requests associated with the confiscation of seized wildlife products. How does that sit with The Royal Foundation and United for Wildlife?

While luxury businesses talk about sustainability, they have done nothing to invest in the corresponding supply chain transparency necessary to prove they know what constitutes sustainable offtake levels. Overexploitation of wild species because business lack the knowledge of what comprises a sustainable offtake is driving biodiversity loss. In addition, this failure of supply chain management is enabling industrial scale wildlife and timber crime. Put all this together and the extinction crisis represents a failure of business, industry, markets and investors.

Instead of working on the implementation of stringent, industry-wide controls to protect endangered species, what we see is the luxury brands wooing Presidents, Princesses and other influencers to drive up demand. It is time these influencers pulled their heads out of the luxury bag.

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Lynn Johnson

Lynn Johnson is a physicist by education and has worked as an executive coach and a strategy consultant for over 20 years.  In her work she pushes for systemic change, not piecemeal solutions, this includes campaigning for modernising the legal trade in endangered species, to help tackle the illegal wildlife trade.