Last updated: Mar 2008


What do designer labels like Balenciaga, Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent have to do with a budget store selling cheap furniture, hunting equipment and gun ammo to the US public?


We look at the not-so-glamorous face of PPR.


PPR is one of those ‘who?’ companies. We may recognise their brand names, but the company behind them remains obscure. PPR SA is a sprawling group of brands with its centre in Paris. Formerly an owner of classic French department store Printemps, it now brings together luxury labels like Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent and catalogue shopping names like La Redoute in Britain and Redcats in the USA.


Bloody secrets

Only a few years ago, campaigns by groups such as Lynx made wearing fur socially unacceptable. Its glamorous image had declined to that of an outdated fashion, defended only by a rich few, headed by legendary American Vogue editor, Anna ‘Nuclear’ Wintour.

But recent catwalk collections from big-name designers have tried to rehabilitate fur, and PPR brands have been at the head of this trend. Gucci’s fall/winter 2007/8 collection included coats made of red fox and badger fur, YSL’s collection included a number of mink coats and trims, and Alexander McQueen’s range also used fox furs.[1],[2],[3]

According to Respect for Animals campaigns director Mark Glover, “mink farming is now illegal in the UK, but the mink items at YSL would almost certainly have been farmed elsewhere. The fox furs could have been farmed or trapped, but the badgers are likely to have been trapped in the wild, probably in North America or China.”

Anti-fur campaigners say that serious cruelty is involved in killing animals for fur. Mink is effectively ‘factory farmed’; housed in small wire cages with minimal bedding and little room to move. Mink are not domesticated animals, but wild animals confined in industrial conditions.[4]

Animals caught in the wild, meanwhile, may take hours to die whilst caught in snares or leg traps. Leghold traps used in North America are banned throughout Europe, and campaigners are calling for a similar ban in the USA and Canada.5,6

And, although the furs used by Gucci and McQueen may come from common animals, anti-fur campaigners fear that making fur fashionable again could threaten endangered species.[7]

Research by the Co-operative Insurance Society in 2006 found big cat furs, including lynx, for sale on online shops such as Ebay, and fur smugglers marking parcels as ‘gifts’ to evade customs inspections.[8]

Ironically, one of PPR’s other designer brand names is Stella McCartney, daughter of famous animal rights campaigners Paul and Linda McCartney, and herself famous for strong statements against the fur industry.

PPR’s links to hunting don’t stop with the fur trade. Alongside its glamorous brands, it also owns The Sportsman’s Guide, a US online catalogue specialising in hunting equipment, including ammunition, equipment for moving carcases, chemicals for luring animals and even the traps themselves.12


Slithery problems

PPR companies don’t just sell fur. ‘Exotic leathers’ are in fashion, and the trend has seen snake and crocodile skins appearing in many designer ranges. PPR’s brands are no different. Fall/Winter 2007 collections from Balenciaga featured python skin sandals, Bottega Veneta sold snakeskin bags and Alexander McQueen’s website advertised a python egg handbag.[3],[9],[10]

As with furs, animal rights campaigners fear that making reptile skin a popular fashion choice is threatening endangered species,because even if some designers use known sources for their stocks, it can encourage the illegal trade for less scrupulous manufacturers.

According to the Eurogroup for Animals, a Europe-wide animal protection lobby group, the global illegal trade in endangered animals is second only to the drug trade in size. Between 1996 and 2002, says a Eurogroup report, “35% of the traded reptile skins from protected (CITES-listed) species came into the EU.”[11]


Quality vs overconsumption

How should consumers concerned about sustainability view expensive brands like PPR’s? Is it more sustainable to buy one pricey item which will last for years, or cheaper clothes which satisfy popular demands for affordable fashion? And do the likes of Gucci and Balenciaga, with their regular new collections and fashion shows, create the demand for cheap fashion made by sweatshop labour and shipped across the world?

Andreas Walter Lim of the World Luxury Ethical Council firmly believes that luxury brands can be ethical. “If you’re paying a premium price, shouldn’t we expect a degree of quality and longevity?” he demands, suggesting that expensive brands should offer more information on how to care for quality goods properly, so they last longer. “We’ve forgotten how to look after good quality belongings,” he claims.

Lim challenges, many well-known designer brands are no longer selling high-quality items which can last a lifetime. He questions whether some designer brands now skimp on quality so that customers have to keep buying new products.

But, he asserts, “There’s definitely a potential for ethical manufacturers to deliver better quality goods, because if you’re a small business and you’re passionate about what you’re doing you’re likely to have a better understanding of your supply chain and manufacturers and awareness of the processes that go into your products. The new ethical luxury manufacturers which are emerging have more opportunities to do this than many of the big companies.”

According to a report by environmental group WWF, big luxury-goods companies are falling seriously behind other large corporations in terms of sustainability. None were included in investment analyst Innovest’s list of the most responsible corporations of 2007, and of the 3 luxury conglomerates included in the FTSE4Good investment index, one, LVMH, was expelled in 2007 for supply chain infringements.

WWF’s own rating of luxury companies in the report, using criteria focusing on the environment, human rights, corporate governance and stakeholder relations, gave none a higher grade than C+, and PPR scored a dismal D.[16]


High prices, low wages

Allegations against designer labels, including Gucci and other PPR brands, back up Lim’s claims that expensive products no longer guarantee high standards of quality and production.

An investigation by Italian TV channel Rai-Tre, screened in December 2007, probed the manufacturing conditions of top brands like Prada, Fendi and Gucci. It reported that, contrary to the image projected by such companies of offering high-quality products made by skilled artisans, many bags and shoes were actually made in workshops where labour abuses included using illegal labour, using cheap migrant labour paid tiny wages, and workers forced to live in cramped conditions above the factory floor in order to be available to fulfil orders at any time, day or night.

Gucci was also said to be one of several brands which have been indicted in Florence for illegal labour conditions, including underpayment of wages.[13]

Other PPR companies have also been accused of workers’ rights abuses. In 2006 the National Labor Committee documented conditions at a Guatemalan factory sewing for the Redcats catalogue. Workers were said to have endured low pay, fines if they refused to work overtime, harsh working conditions even for pregnant women and no clean drinking water in the factory.[14]

And according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, conditions in PPR supplier factories around the world have been poor for many years, with women piece-rate workers in India subjected to sexual harassment and factory employees in Indonesia made ill by exposure to chemicals.[15]


Ethical Luxury

As Andreas Walter Lim of the World Luxury Ethical Council points out, many small, ethical businesses are well placed to offer high-quality goods. Ethical fashion is no longer confined to hippy gear, with labels like Mumo, Ciel and Alchem1st offering stylish clothes made under responsible conditions.

Terra Plana offers footwear made using recycled leather and hemp, while Beyond Skin’s British-made vegan shoes have appeared on the feet of numerous celebrities. And for proper recycling, genuinely high-quality shoes and clothes should last for years, which means that they are great reasons to bargain-hunt in second-hand and vintage clothes shops.




1   www.gucci.com 18/12/2007
2   www.ysl.com 18/12/2007
3   www.alexandermcqueen.com 18/12/2007
4   www.caft.org.uk 19/12/2007
5   www.respectforanimals.co.uk 19/12/2007
6   www.banlegholdtraps.com 19/12/2007
7   www.animalaid.org.uk 18/12/2007
8   ‘Responsible shareholding: investing for value, engaging for change,’ CIS October 2006
9    www.balenciaga.com 18/12/2007
10  www.bottegaveneta.com 18/12/2007
11  March 2007 briefing, Eurogroup for Animals
12  www.sportsmansguide.com, 2/1/2008
13  ‘Slaves of Luxury,’ broadcast by Rai-Tre 2/12/2007
14  ‘The case of Dong Bang Industrial,’ www.nlcnet.org August 2006
15  www.cleanclothes.org/companies/gucci-arround.htm 2/1/2008
16  ‘Deeper Luxury: quality and style when the world matters’ WWF December 2007


From Ethical Consumer, Issue 111, March/April 2008