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Eco-tourism, Zegna style (Amended)
SO we were going to climb a mountain. To the top of a cliff.
They didn't say that at first. A trek was mentioned. An hour-long leisurely walk in the park was hinted at. Organised by men's Italian fashion label Ermenegildo Zegna, it didn't seem anything that walking shoes, pressed bermudas and a natty scarf tied around the neck couldn't manage. After all, some of the Zegna family members were coming along too - Paolo, Anna, Laura. Anna herself had already done the trek several times before. We looked forward to ambling along neat country trails, picking olives and enjoying stunning aerial views, settling down to a sumptuous buffet of Ligurian vitals at the public launch of Podere Casa Lovara in Punta Mesco - the latest environmental conservation project Anna Zegna has put her heart and soul into.
The one mistake we make is assuming that being born into a life of privilege makes Ms Zegna a softie. Lean and wiry, she makes short work of what is actually a strenuous, rocky climb that leaves a good number of invited guests sweaty and winded as they stumble in her wake on a bright June morning in Levanto's famed Cinque Terra National Park. We are spurred mainly by the heart-stopping view of lush vegetation against a backdrop of piercing blue sky and sea. Not to mention the relief at the sight of our goal - 45 hectares of farmland perched on the cliff, complete with three carefully restored houses set amidst carefully landscaped patches of vegetables and newly planted olive trees.
It's hard to imagine that just three years ago, Punta Mesco was abandoned wasteland. It was a vast change from the 1770s up to the 1990s, when farmers lived in the steep mountain and grew crops on terraces that they carved out and supported with dry walls. This farming technique was unique to Liguria but when the area became abandoned, most of the dry walls were left to crumble. When plans to turn the area into holiday homes were overturned and Unesco Heritage status was conferred on it, Ms Zegna - as the head of the philanthropic Fondazione Zegna - stepped in to restore the farmland back to its original glory.
It worked with FAI (the Italian national trust) to "restore the ancient culture of this place", enthuses Ms Zegna. Which is part of the mission statement of Fondazione Zegna, founded in 2000 as a means for the family-owned luxury brand to give back to society. The idea is to carry on the values of founder Ermenegildo Zegna who started the business in 1910 from a wool mill in the small village of Trivero in Biella, and built a self-sustaining community to provide housing, healthcare, education and recreational facilities for all his employees and their children.
"He wanted to create a community which could live in a harmonious way with nature and this vision has always stayed with the family." That community he built is now known as Oasi Zegna, an eco-tourism zone which entices travellers to its ski resorts in winter and numerous parks for hiking and other activities.
They say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree and Ms Zegna is hoping to do the same with Punta Mesco as well as other parts of the world. Having paid her dues as part of the fourth generation who now runs the family business, her strong affinity for the environment and providing support to communities has made the foundation her true calling. Although it's philanthropic in nature, the projects it chooses have to be sustainable and provide a return on investment. Hence Case Lovara is not just about conservation but about making it viable for the community to live and work on the farmland, while attracting tourism revenue at the same time.
It's also a pilot project "to create the methods of restoration to bring back ancient agriculture traditions", says Ms Zegna. Because of the lack of electricity (there is no road access) and water, the conservation process was incredibly complicated and required innovative technology to solve the problems. "This used to be an agriculture area in the past, and our task was to restore it and bring it back to ancient usage but with modern technology."
The company sets aside 5 per cent of its profits each year for Fondazione Zegna and "I feel fortunate to be able to help and dedicate money from our business to this kind of project".
She shares how Cinque Terra - where Punta Mesco is located - is gaining in popularity among foreign visitors and hopes more people will come and support the community. "People can come, and if they want to donate money we can plant an olive tree and put their name underneath. From September onwards, people will be able to sleep there too. We will have 12 beds - very simple but very nice, clean and proper with an unbelievable view. You can hike, bring a backpack and a little tent to sleep under the olive trees overlooking the sea. It's really beautiful."
Fondazione Zegna isn't just limited to community projects in Italy but around the world as well. Ms Zegna remembers how, more than 10 years ago, she visited Beijing with her cousin Paolo for business and was struck by how bad the air pollution there was.
"My throat was itching and my eyes were tearing, and I was thinking about all the children growing up there, so when I came back to Italy I told my family that we were doing so well with our stores in China that we needed to do a project for the environment."
Thanks to the Internet, she found out that the World Wildlife Foundation was in charge of the Panda Corridor project in China, which involved conserving the forests of Qinling where the Yellow and Yantze rivers meet. The foundation ended up working with WWF for 12 years on conservation and education, and the result was that the giant panda population in the area grew from just over 200 to over 1,000 pandas.
The foundation is also involved in education and community projects in India and Africa as well.
"You read about disasters all over the world, so this is part of our engagement," says Ms Zegna. "As a family, as entrepreneurs and as human beings. When you look at the values we share in the company, it's the same with the foundation. We believe in authenticity, our products are made with natural fibres, we even bought the sheep farms in Australia so we are the only vertically integrated company - from sheep to shop, like Gildo (CEO of Zegna and her brother) says. And we care for our people so this is a very holistic approach. Nowadays you cannot live without incorporating the environment, it's not enough to just look after our factory, you have to look around the world because this is our biggest home."
She's quick to add that "I am not doing anything special and I am just grateful to be able to have this foundation and help people but there are many other people doing the same thing. I am not saying that I am saving the planet because I have restored Punta Mesco, honestly. It's an example and there are many examples. You hear so many terrible stories every day but I think as human beings we should put more emphasis on the beautiful stories and to inspire other people."
And if doing something is as simple as planting an olive tree and enjoying some fantastic scenery while recovering from a once-in-a-lifetime mountain trek, why not?
Amendment note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Anna Zegna belongs to the third generation of the family who runs the business, and that Paolo and Gildo Zegna are her brother and cousin. She is in fact the fourth generation. Paolo and Gildo Zegna are respectively her cousin and brother. The article above has been revised to reflect this.