Last spring I was invited to participate in Cittadellarte’s (City of Art) University of Ideas (UNIDEE) thanks to a grant from Fondazione Zegna. I was eager to examine sustainability in the context of the Italian luxury fashion industry and I am pleased to share a two-part post about my experiences.
The first installment of my Contextualizing Sustainability series examines sustainability through the lens of Italian culture.
Contextualizing sustainability: why culture is the fourth bottom line
Tucked away in the foothills of the Italian alps is a small town in Piedmont called Biella, a once booming textile center for wool processing. It is home to Cittadellarte-Fondazione Pistoletto, founded by acclaimed artist, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and to Lanificio Zegna, the wool factory of legendary luxury Italian brand, Ermenegildo Zegna.
Through my research I have sought to redefine sustainability by determining standards for measuring environmental, social, and economic accountability. However, early on it dawned on me that without delving deeply into the fibers of Italian culture this would be nearly impossible. As we intend to construct a sustainable business culture as an indicator of prosperity that is applicable to fashion and design, we must first underpin the values and methods already in use for building a culture of awareness and wealth within each individual context where we aim to make change.
Historically, Italian fashion has been equated with quality. This simple value has been the cornerstone of economic success. Quality has relied on artisan craftsmanship and slow creative processes regulated by what some consider to be the most financially viable social unit- the family. To ignore these ingredients is to misunderstand and misconstrue the potential to formulate a culture of sustainability. In 1910, when Ermenegildo Zegna founded the company in Trivero, now managed by the fourth generation of the Zegna family, he was first and foremost building a family legacy. Surely the philanthropy that followed in the 1930s was heavily influenced by the ability to ensure the permanence of that legacy. By planting 500,000 trees in the mountain slopes he not only fulfilled a green vision at a time when sustainability was an alien term, he grandfathered a small community of citizens who would place value on the Zegna family name. He developed the land while simultaneously cultivating an appreciation for future generations of the Zegna social unit, making it an indispensable commodity within Biellese society. Today, Oasi Zegna, the environmental project of the Ermenegildo Zegna Group, is a corporate partner of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP).
According to Zegna’s “history and development” summary, management is based on “long-term objectives, family ownership to ensure continuity [and] a sound ethical commitment.” When I have spoken with Anna Zegna, president of Fondazione Zegna, she has emphasized these three pillars on every occasion. She enthusiastically tells stories of her grandfather’s philanthropic philosophy which dates back to the early twentieth century, shortly after the company’s founding. Trivero was complete with state of the art facilities in the early thirties including a school and a swimming pool for its 1,000 workers, a number which has grown sevenfold. Understanding the culture of family business is absolutely essential to the contextualization of sustainability in the Italian fashion industry.
An Italian example
Biella is known for the purity of its water which is sourced from the Cervo River. If Lanificio Zegna were to veer from tradition by processing wool using environmentally hazardous chemicals it would be considered a personal betrayal against local people who have trusted the family for over a century as well as their millions of clients worldwide. Furthermore, it would be an assault against the family’s very own legacy and land which are key components of the brand identity. It is this inextricable link between quality of product and quality of life that drives Zegna to conserve the biophysical environment. Likewise, the human-centered approach to business lends to the trustworthiness and consequent survival of the brand in a stringent economic climate. It is fair to say that Zegna relies on a commitment to sustainability.
Ibada Wadud (article author) has taken online sustainable design classes at MCAD. Ibada returned to the US after a summer in Italy making productive steps to fulfill her mission to create an ethical fashion industry. Top image courtesy of @ZengaGroup. Second image courtesy of @Eduardo Cachucho.