Gucci is having a renaissance. After years in the doldrums, the 94-year-old fashion house is again the star of glossy magazine spreads, its collections coveted by couture aficionados and celebrities, thanks to the eclectic runway shows masterminded by new creative director Alessandro Michele . Last month, its new boutique opened at CityCenterDC featuring storage units that resemble elegant steamer trunks and expansive tables designed to hold a trove of costly handbags. Lots of handbags. Because at its core, Gucci is an accessories label built on shoes and purses.

And that’s a problem. Not for the company’s bottom line, but for the environment.

Shoes and handbags mostly depend on leather. And cattle ranching consumes mass quantities of natural resources — from land to water. Traditional leather tanning uses heavy metals, most notably chromium, and the resulting waste is a health hazard. And PVC, another favored component in bag-making, is also an environmental contaminant.

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So with little fanfare, this nearly $4 billion business has been making changes. The handbags — namely the trendy $2,400 flower-bedecked Dionysus shoulder bags stitched from the signature GG Supreme canvas print — now use polyurethane in their design rather than PVC.

But the marketing doesn’t highlight the switch; only the vaguest reference on the Gucci website notes that it is produced using an “earth-conscious process.”

The new green sensibility of Gucci represents the changing philosophy of its parent company, Kering — one of the largest luxury conglomerates in the world — and the luxury industry in general, including the biggest behemoth of them all, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. But Gucci’s reluctance to make that shift evident — let alone exciting or sexy for its consumers — highlights the unsettled relationship between the luxury business and eco-fashion.

The quiet changes at Kering and LVMH are laudable, experts say. But with its rapt audience of tastemakers and innovators — and its unique ability to create markets where none existed — luxury could do so much more.

If top-tier brands buffed, glossed and shared the story of how they responsibly manufacture products, they could even make eco-friendly as covetable as a designer logo — and transform the culture’s entire view of manufacturing that is good for the environment.

Paris — ground zero for luxury fashion — is serving as host to theUnited Nations Conference on Climate Change. Kering executives are sitting on multiple panels, while LVMH, a corporate sponsor of the conference, is firing off email blasts to its employees on “green” lessons learned.

“Sustainability” — maintaining a diverse bio-system while eliminating waste and pollution and decreasing energy consumption — is a hot topic in fashion, from Seventh Avenue to Europe. But it poses conundrums. Is it better for a Paris-based fashion company to use virgin paper produced in France for its runway show invitations? Or recycled paper from China? Can they just skip the fancy card stock and send evites?

Fashion schools are working a keener understanding of carbon footprints into their curriculums. There are green fashion contests challenging designers to make clothes that are both red-carpet glamourous and good for the planet. Countless brands now declare themselves eco-friendly, which can mean anything from using organic cotton in T-shirts to using solar power to heat their headquarters. Most are sportswear labels that lead with their self-declared “green” credentials rather than aesthetics; or hardy activewear companies, such as Patagonia, which offer handbooks for repairing — instead of replacing — damaged clothes.

But on the whole, green fashion is typically seen as “other.”

At the top of the fashion pyramid sit the luxury brands. In grand corporate offices, their executives speak of carbon credits, “cradle-to-cradle” supply chains and the exigency of preserving natural capital — the extravagant raw materials such as unmarred leather hides and long-fiber cotton on which their products rely.

These companies have natural eco-advantages over their mass-market rivals. They control more of their supply chain, such as tanneries. They have the resources to develop new production techniques. They tout the heirloom nature of their products, not their disposability. And their customers are less price-sensitive: Who’s counting pennies when spending thousands of dollars on a handbag?

“I honestly think the brands are doing what they’re doing because they think it’s good business” — a way to preserve the quality of the natural resources they rely upon, says Gemma Cranston, of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, which has worked with Kering and Hugo Boss. “They just see it as a step they now need to take to continue to produce high-quality garments.”

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