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Alexandra Weston in her Toronto backyard wearing a Carolina K dress from Holt Renfrew. Makeup and hair by Sheri Stroh for Plutino Group.

Jenna Marie Wakani/The Globe and Mail

In 2002, activists from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals stormed the Victoria’s Secret fashion show stage carrying signs that read, “Gisele: Fur Scum.” The protest, which was in response to news of a contract supermodel Gisele Bundchen had signed with furrier BlackGama, famously turned the supermodel into an advocate for the environment. Backstage, it turned Alexandra Weston into one, too.

“I didn’t know what side to be on,” says Weston, who was working at a public-relations firm whose client was Victoria’s Secret. On one hand, she was secretly cheering on the audacious move by the animal rights activists. On the other, it was bad PR. “I remember thinking, ‘Why do these two things have to be in conflict?’” she says. Her life’s mission clicked into place: fashion would be her own avenue for change. “Can you swing the pendulum so that it is not a negative force but a positive one,” she asks.

Today, in her capacity as the vice-president for brand and creative strategy at Holt Renfrew, Weston has become a proponent of the idea that consumerism can be a force for good. Case in point is H Project, the in-house department that highlights ethically made, sustainable and charitable products. She founded the initiative shortly after arriving at the luxury retailer in 2013.

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Over the past eight years, H Project has expanded Holts’ product range to include artisanal finds from the far reaches of Africa, South America and Southeast Asia alongside local do-gooder brands including Obakki and Kotn. It has bolstered support for environmental organizations such as Knot my Planet and the Elephant Crisis Fund and Oceana Canada, which works to restore the health of this country’s oceans. Through these initiatives, H Project laid the foundation for Holt Renfrew’s push for positive change. It’s a strategy now being overseen by president and CEO, Sebastian Picardo, who arrived at Holts from Asian luxury retailer Lane Crawford last June. “We started with a couple charitable collaborations and now this is who we are,” Weston says.

In June, Holt Renfrew became the first Canadian retailer to set science-based targets for its carbon reduction over the next decade. These goals, which include stopping selling furs and exotic skins by the end of 2021 and a guarantee that some of the most environmentally impactful materials (including cotton, down and palm oil) will come from certified sustainable sources by 2025, are part of a larger sustainability revamp by its parent company, Selfridges Group. Each store within the conglomerate will develop its own sustainability strategy, which includes a resale and repair department at Selfridges in England and rooftop beehives at Brown Thomas in Ireland.

“Exiting furs and exotic skins is huge for us,” Weston says. “That’s our history. That’s Canadian history, too. But it’s not what defines luxury for us any more.” Many of the retailer’s most popular brands are on the same page. Earlier this year, Canada Goose announced that it would stop using fur in its outerwear by the end of 2022. Gucci, Prada, Burberry and Armani have also gone fur-free in the last few years. According to Weston, rethinking luxury for a new era is about finding “beautiful and storied” objects that are handcrafted and meant to last, rather than defaulting to traditional modes of high-fashion production.

While these shifts can be felt across the industry, the road to change poses many challenges, one of which is bringing shoppers along for the ride. “For years, customers have been saying that they’re really interested in this,” Weston says. “But there are hurdles, like the thought that being responsible must be more expensive.”

Many customers – especially of the millennial and Gen-Z set – have gravitated to e-commerce platforms such as FarFetch and resellers including TheRealReal, Poshmark and Depop, who were seen as having made clearer eco efforts sooner. According to an October 2020 report from investment bank Piper Sandler, Gen Z’s purchases at department stores decreased by nearly 15 per cent in the last seven years, partly due to a lack of strong sustainability strategies.

“If the assumption is that Holt Renfrew is reacting to the demand of their actual consumers, they should see an increase in positive sentiments about the brand,” says Jessica Couch, a retail consultant at Fayetteville Road Agency. “This may not necessarily result in an increase in sales,” she says. “While sustainability is a great feel-good touchpoint, it is not the main driver for sales alone.”

According to Anika Kozlowski, an assistant professor of fashion design with a focus in ethics and sustainability at Ryerson University, another hurdle is ensuring that these bold targets are met in a meaningful way. “It is really difficult to apply policies, goals and targets for all the brands that a department store carries,” she says.

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Kozlowski cites the need for a co-ordinated effort across the industry, which includes consideration of micro or small-sized enterprises (businesses with fewer than 10 or 50 employees, respectively). These labels are typically more sustainable than large-sized brands but in ways not recognized by industry standards. Sustainability certification is often cost prohibitive for these smaller companies. A total ban on fur can also be harmful for Indigenous fashion brands where the use of the material is cultural, deeply imbedded in their way of life and produced responsibly, in small quantities.

As the industry continues to shape shift to address sustainability issues, Weston is confident that there are better days ahead. “It’s not about individual gains, it’s about community. Any time we can hold hands with anyone to move this forward, that’s where we want to go,” she says. “My learning curve for this has been so steep. Customers are on that same steep learning curve. I truly believe when you ask someone if they want to do the right thing, their answer is ‘yes.’ The question is just ‘how?’”

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