Oliver Balch interviews the luxury fashion brand's head of nature initiatives about its €5m regenerative fund for nature
Dr Helen Crowley didn’t go looking for her job as head of nature initiatives at Kering, she likes to say. It found her.
A zoologist by training, she had spent over a decade working as a strategy expert and programme adviser for the Wildlife Conservation Society before she spotted a job advertisement for a “conservation and ecosystem services specialist” with the luxury French fashion house, and was intrigued enough by the job description to apply.
This was in 2011, long before the current interest in nature-based solutions had even registered on most corporate agendas.
Today the Australian is in charge of sustainable sourcing and nature initiatives at the $15.9bn fashion firm, which counts brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen in its portfolio.
So, after ploughing a pioneering furrow for the past 10 years, what insights has she to offer to the fast-growing band of practitioners who are newer to the concept?
Nature based offset solutions are ‘the most efficient, effective way to deliver multiple benefits to people, to nature, and to climate’
Kering last June committed to have a “net-positive” impact on biodiversity by 2025. The new target also included a pledge to balance out its carbon emissions through certified solutions, including helping to protect one million hectares of “irreplaceable habitat” outside its supply chain, mostly under the rubric of the UN’s anti-deforestation REDD+ system.
A long-term proponent of nature-based offset solutions, Crowley’s enthusiasm for the approach is unbridled: “Of course, you need environmental and social safeguards in place . . . but it really is the most efficient, effective way to deliver multiple benefits to people, to nature, and to climate.”
Her support is bolstered by ongoing efforts within the conservation sector to bring ever-greater rigour to nature-based offset solutions. She points to detailed methodologies developed by organisations such as the NGO-led Climate, Community & Biodiversity Alliance and the verified carbon standard Verra.
A similar sign of increasing robustness is the direct involvement of tropical forest countries and states in the offset market. This so-called “jurisdictional approach” helps avoid issues of double-counting and additionality, where projects to protect forests in one area of a country simply displace deforestation activity elsewhere.
Crowley also emphasises the intertwined relationship between nature and climate change. As she makes clear, both phenomena find themselves in “last-chance-saloon” territory: it’s now or never if we’re to fix them. Also, the two share a basic ecological reality: what’s good for nature tends to be good for the climate, and vice versa.
Man-made interferences mean that some sections of the Amazon rainforest are producing more carbon emissions than they sequester
Take the example of the Amazon. According to a new scientific paper, man-made interferences mean that some sections of the world’s largest rainforest are now producing more carbon emissions than they sequester. Complementary research, meanwhile, suggests that habitat loss is putting nearly 5% of all Amazonian species at risk of imminent extinction.
In company boardrooms, the gravity of the situation is finally beginning to dawn, says Crowley, who describes the recent growth in business’s understanding of the interconnectedness between nature and climate as “phenomenal”.
At the time Kering made its request for an ecosystem services specialist the firm was looking for ways to put a monetary cost on its social and environmental impacts, a move pioneered by Jochen Zeitz, the then CEO of the firm’s sportswear brand Puma.
Conservationists (and others) have long complained that companies are free to accrue profits without picking up their concomitant planetary tab.
Calculating the value of these so-called negative externalities is the subject of the emerging field of natural capital accounting – the topic of a recent 610-page government-commissioned report by the economist Partha Dasgupta (a study Crowley describes as the “bible” on how to value nature).
Long before the Dasgupta Review, Kering had been diligently publishing an annual environmental profit and loss account. This EP&L, to use the firm’s in-house jargon, seeks to bring a strong dose of mathematical accuracy to what has historically been an exercise in educated guesswork for companies.
That said, Crowley is wary about defining nature in pounds, shillings and pence. Indeed, the final price could be in melons, for all she cares: “We just chose euros because we thought it would help resonate with the business, which it does.”
Kering has pre-empted the direction of travel with its own target of having ‘net-positive’ impacts on nature by 2025
The primary purpose instead, she explains, is to gain a clearer picture of the company’s overall impacts and the knock-on effects of its decisions. Along with issues like product quality and price, Kering’s EP&L allows for issues such as land and water use to be factored in as well.
“The EP&L might show that organic cotton from certain geographies is better than conventional cotton [or] that wool production in one area might have more of a negative impact than in another other area.”
Crowley credits this novel accounting approach with flagging a host of supply chain risks and issues over the years. She gives the example of cashmere wool from Mongolia, which is linked to potential land degradation in the ecologically sensitive Gobi desert.
Rather than cease purchasing from the region (and leave the problem in place), Kering opted to develop a series of sustainable interventions in conjunction with local nomadic sheep herders. Six years on, there is now a UNDP-backed multi-stakeholder roundtable to address the issue of responsible cashmere.
Further afield, pressure on business at large to improve the measurement of its biodiversity impacts are also mounting. A timely case in point is the UN Biodiversity Conference in May, where delegates are tipped to potentially agree a global goal to have no net loss of biodiversity by 2030.
Whatever the decision, Kering has already pre-empted the direction of travel with its own target of having “net-positive” impacts on nature by 2025.
The language of “net positive” is a clear echo of the net-zero climate agenda. Yet, while companies seeking to reduce their carbon emissions have an array of empirical methodologies to turn to, equivalent guidance on biodiversity is far woollier.
Under the umbrella of the Science Based Targets Network, a coalition of over 50 conservation groups, Crowley is hoping to bring some of her characteristic exactitude to the problem.
The whole point of this framework is that it's driven by science to make sure that we live within our planetary boundaries
Last year, she took a voluntary sabbatical to work as an expert adviser for network-partner Conservation International, which fed into the network’s efforts to design a draft framework for setting science-based biodiversity goals.
The evolving framework will include the same mitigation hierarchy as for its climate equivalent, says Crowley. So, reducing negative impacts wherever possible, and then offsetting remaining impacts through restoration and regeneration projects.
“The whole point of this [framework] is that it's driven by science to make sure that we live within our planetary boundaries,” she states, comparing it to the thinking behind the Paris Agreement’s 2050 targets on maximum global temperature rise.
Other initiatives are also afoot to assist the private sector in accurately measuring and tracking its impact on nature, she adds, flagging the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and the industry-led Fashion Pact by way of example.
Arguably, the most significant is the current Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures, a multi-sector initiative that aims to advise companies on how best to report their nature-based risks – again, much as already happens in the climate space.
“Lots is happening over the next two years … that will help us as companies to be able to feel good about the track that we're on and what targets we’re setting,” she states.
The final iteration in Crowley’s decade-long journey at Kering is to put all this accumulated knowledge into action in the company’s Regenerative Fund for Nature.
Launched in January, the €5m initiative is designed to support regenerative agriculture programmes by farmers, conservation groups and other frontline actors in the firm’s supply chain. The fund, which closes its first tranche of applications at the end of April, has a goal to “transform” one million hectares of agricultural land by 2025.
The idea is to learn, to have an opportunity to innovate, and to support the real practitioners who ultimately are the stewards of our natural capital
“We wanted to build a bit of a buzz about regenerative agriculture in our sector, while also doing real projects on the ground and show what can be done.”
At present, the fund is focused on 17 countries where Kering has a significant procurement presence and centres on four of its most in-demand raw materials: leather, cotton, wool, and cashmere. It counts Conservation International as a technical partner, with a mandate to assess the outcomes of the winning projects and share whatever insights might emerge.
“The idea is to learn, to have an opportunity to innovate, and to support the real practitioners who ultimately are the stewards of our natural capital, particularly in the agricultural system,” says Crowley.
For someone who stumbled into the world of business unintentionally, Crowley has proved herself an eager recruit. It has been a busy decade for both her and Kering, but she is under no illusions that the decade ahead will be busier still. For nature, as for climate, she concludes, “we don’t have much time”.
This article appeared in the March 2021 issue of The Sustainable Review: See also:TCNFD Kering Gucci Saint Laurent alexander McQueen biodiversity Net Zero Fashion Pact Dasgupta Review