Baby Steps in Brazil

Financial Times, June 30 2007

In a video clip on Brazilian news service UOL’s website, a model at January’s São Paulo Fashion Week, when asked what she understood by the term “sustainability”, responded that it meant she was earning enough to live on. Apparently, when it comes to environmental issues in Brazil – home to the majority of the world’s rainforests and some of its largest fresh-water reserves – consumer awareness can still be sparse. Consequently, the organisers of SPFW have decided to dedicate the winter 2007 catwalk presentations to economic, social and environmental sustainability.

Give it a more sensible title here

Backstage at SPFW, 2007

Cue an event at the city’s Oscar Niemeyer-designed Bienal building, decorated with recycled cardboard structures, with proceeds dedicated to funding social responsibility projects, a switch to biodiesel generators and, above all, a carbon neutral target that saw 4,290 trees being planted in the Mata Atlantica (Atlantic Rain Forest), in association with the non-governmental organisation The Green Initiative, to compensate for the environmental impact of the event. According to communications director Graça Cabral: “We’re starting with baby steps.”

Cabral brushed aside talk that the event’s eco theme is just a jump on the marketing bandwagon. “We’ve spent five years re-thinking this event, and we hope to continue with all the new practices we’ve implemented.”

“Our tracking says that sustainability is key to Brazilian consumers but they don’t understand its implications,” says Eduardo Costa of direct sales cosmetics brand Natura, a sponsor of SPFW. But he readily admits that, although its products are not tested on animals, some of its ingredients may be, and the majority of its packaging is neither recycled nor recyclable. Nevertheless, Costa says, “we have to educate the consumer and it’s the responsibility of the company to do so.”

“The trouble with many large companies is that they don’t know how to talk to environmental agencies and NGOs,” says Oskar Metsavaht, the man behind one of Brazil’s leading upscale fashion labels, Osklen. “They think it’s hard, or even expensive, to work with them.”

Metsavaht knows this, having been approached by biologists, universities and NGOs to help foster the use of sustainable materials in fashion, something he has been pursuing since launching a line of clothing in 2002, called e-brigade, that uses organic cotton and recycled materials.

“There are many great sustainable products available in Brazil,” explains Metsavaht. “But there is no awareness about how to transform them into something desirable. We also have to communicate to society that it’s cool to buy these products, even though they can be more expensive.”

Seeing Osklen’s catalogue of sustainable products, such as fish leather, organic wool, quilting made from recycled plastic and a natural rubber, both Unesco and the WWF encouraged Metsavaht to promote access to these materials. The result: the Instito-e, a not-for-profit, private organisation designed to educate about sustainable human development by selling a range of branded e-fabrics. Diesel is one of the first companies to use Instito-e’s organic denim, produced using eco-friendly dyes.

Metsavaht also believes in small steps and the creation of criteria that promote change, however small. “It’s not always helpful to say that a product must be 100 per cent organic,” he says. “To say this to a company like Vicunha, one of Brazil’s largest fabric producers, is intimidating for them. Also, we’re not saying to consumers to stop buying, say, Prada bags. Keep buying them, but also buy something else that has new values . . This is the definition of new luxury.”

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