PARIS — The coronavirus crisis may be accelerating existing trends more than recasting priorities, but it has certainly added urgency to many issues, according to Cartier chief executive officer Cyrille Vigneron.

“This tragedy has been an accelerator of things that were there before, but are seen with more urgency now,” said the executive, who spoke to WWD about Cartier’s approach to charitable causes, environmental efforts and corporate responsibility through a Zoom call.

In this context, public opinion has changed, and people are asking more questions and demanding answers, observed the executive of the Compagnie Financière Richemont-owned label.

“Now you have to put some commitment, you have to say: what you think, what you do, what you commit to doing, and how you deliver,” he said.

While the crisis may not have changed Cartier’s strategy — other than perhaps serve as an accelerator — it has prompted a deeper understanding with the general public and the brand’s customers, who now “see things with more accuracy,” as he put it. Before, he continued, it was fine to just do the right thing, when it came to the environment or human rights, for example, without having to comment on what was being done. In some areas, it was perfectly fine before to do the right things, and just speak about them when questioned.

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“Sometimes, if you don’t say anything, there’s a perception that probably you haven’t done anything — which was not the case before,” he observed.

During the lockdown period of March to the end of May, while stores, offices, and manufacturing sites where closed, employees had time to reflect.

“During that moment, many questions came from our employees, from our customers saying, ‘what are you doing?’ and there was also a lot of companies making public statements about what they were doing or that they intended to do,” he noted.

“It was becoming very emotional — you have to do things and you have to tell them now,” he recalled.

When the company established its philanthropy activity around six years ago, executives considered whether they should take a fundraising approach or donate direct support to a cause or entity. They opted to set up their own foundation, and rather than pursuing the fundraising route that mixes marketing with charity efforts, offer a direct donation.

The company has set up a specific board that selects which non-governmental organizations to support, conducting due diligence on potential organizations as it selects them and measuring the impact of a potential donation.

The luxury house preferred not to communicate on the efforts but first make sure they were working, he explained. When they were confident, they began publishing results to show that the model was scalable, and try to attract other companies and foundations to do the same.

“It’s not always simple to figure out where to focus resources,” said Vigneron.

When it comes to large accidents that attract media attention, like the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, for example, donations tend to flow in. Rather than donating to a large organization that was receiving ample funds, Cartier executives found it made more sense to identify a small, local organization with a more specific purpose.

“These ones were really more in need and [could] have more direct impact,” he said.

After resolving the issue of how to allocate funds, and clearly present their impact, then it makes sense to encourage others to join in.

“We found this model was very positive — that coalitions can work,” he said, noting the importance of focusing on results.

During the coronavirus crisis, there were more pressing questions about what companies should do to help out.

Cartier distributed assistance on a country-by-country basis, including the Red Cross in China, a fund of the Emirates Red Crescent in the Middle East, and also made donations in Thailand and Indonesia, noted Vigneron, citing some examples. The brand has directed philanthropic efforts to support the most vulnerable people in society, which were traditionally found more in developing countries, mostly in Africa, Asia and South America.

But there were a lot of vulnerable populations in Europe during the lockdowns, which closed off access to necessities for some, he observed. Without school, some children didn’t have access to food or doctors, and didn’t know if they’d been infected with COVID-19, for example.

“So there was a lot to do in Europe,” he said, noting the label supported Doctors Without Borders.

Cartier also helped out organizations in the U.S., including the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, the Harlem’s Children’s Zone and Keep Kids Learning, providing a local lift where some services weren’t functioning so well.

“For the first time, we had to intervene in all countries whether developed or not, because there was a new notion of vulnerability,” he said.

He added that the company did not communicate about efforts at the time, and instead focused on finding the right partners for local initiatives, like offering support to a hospital in Milan, providing free meals and donating masks to a region in Italy.

As the label sought to identify the right causes to step in to support, there were questions about how to communicate about them — before, after, or at the same time?

“You could see very rapidly during this crisis that the emotion was stronger and then the questions were becoming louder,” he recalled.

The brand had maintained close contacts with clients while stores were closed, and moved quickly to offer curbside pickup and individual store appointments when restrictions eased. But a lot of communication was made through phone calls, he said, noting there were “various ways to stay in touch and to share.”

With people not traveling, and staying close to home, there was a new level of closeness, and a need for intimacy, he added.

“We could feel it, there was something changing in the way people see each other,” said Vigneron.

The globe-trotting executive — used to visiting the labels production sites, workshops and subsidiaries around the world — found himself spending time with his family for a two-month stretch.

“Everyone was grounded,” he said, noting the period raised the question of how to use the time well, deal with others and identify priorities.

“In Switzerland, the confinement was rather mild so we had the occasion to go a little bit into the countryside and to see the nature change, and to see the real moment where time changed at the pace of nature,” he said, adding that time was marked by the arrival of bright yellow rapeseed flowers, cherry tree blossoms, poppies and then sunflowers.

The brand decided to pursue partnerships with the public sector.

“We thought it’s also high time to do partnership private to public. There was one taboo, which was to say private is private, public is public,” he said.

While private companies “are here to make money,” he said, there are areas like culture, education, the environment, health and security that, while they may fit in the public realm, can still benefit from private support, he suggested.

“It’s time to have cooperation between private and public on these issues,” he said, adding this was not always an approach that made sense in the past.

“It needs to be based on values, on purpose and then all the goodwill is needed,” he said.

Cartier revealed last month that it joined The Lion’s Share fund, led by the United Nations Development Program, lending the prestige of its brand to support biodiversity and  encourage others to join.

The company’s Women’s Initiative, which was founded in 2006 and supports businesses set up by women, seeks to promote models that have been identified as sustainable over the long term, said the executive. The award gives winners credibility and helps them to scale up, with training at the business school INSEAD.

Cartier kicked off an eight-year cultural partnership between the Fondation Cartier and the Triennale Milano museum earlier this month, starting with an exhibit of Brazilian artist Claudia Andujar, who has documented the struggle of the Yanomami indigenous people. The brand is billing the collaboration as a new kind of tie between public and private institutions in Europe, meant to help support artists and create meaningful dialogues.

The Fondation Cartier in Paris held an exhibit last year focused on trees that featured the Yanomami people, which the company supports to help fight deforestation as well as the fight against COVID-19.

The brand is sponsoring the women’s pavilion at the upcoming Dubai Expo, which has been rescheduled from this year to begin in October 2021, working with the United Nations under secretary-general Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who is also executive director of U.N. Women.

“So we can collaborate with states, with cities or with international institutions for causes which are for the common good,” said Vigneron.

When it comes to environmental issues, the company has set up a separate fund dubbed Cartier for Nature, explained the executive.

“What we saw for the past two years — it was not only this year — that the environmental issues are more critical now,” he said, citing issues related to nature preservation, reducing pollution, reforestation as well as emergencies like fighting wildfires.

As for internal efforts, even though the label has been carbon neutral since 2009 by purchasing carbon credits, the house is moving toward reducing its carbon footprint rather than just offsetting it. Efforts include refurbishing stores and offices to  be more energy-efficient. The label decided to refurbish a building in Turin, Italy, rather than scrap it and rebuild, and outfit it with solar panels and reuse self-made energy, which could make the building “carbon negative.”

Pushing in this environmentally friendly direction relays a message that says “we’ll work with water, with sun, with recycled gold and human passion and that’s all and that can last forever,” he suggested.

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