PYE CEO Dee Poon and her mom, Esquel chairman Marjorie Yang
Photograph by Philipp Engelhorn — Fortune MPW
By Nina Easton
November 14, 2014

While the US-China climate deal grabbed headlines this week, a mother-daughter team on the ground in Hong Kong were mounting their own ambitious vision: To inject environmental protection into the ethos of China’s business and consumer community.

“We want to make a little Aspen [Institute] where people can discuss a sustainable development model 2.0,” Marjorie Yang, chair of the textile giant Esquel, told me on stage at the Fortune Most Powerful Women International Summit in Hong Kong on Tuesday.

In discussions of China’s mounting pollution and waste problems, Yang is emerging as a power player. Over the past decade, the Harvard MBA (who also happens to sport an MIT math degree) has applied sustainable practices to her factories, which produce shirts under labels like Ralph Lauren [fortune-stock symbol-, Banana Republic and Tommy Hilfiger. She’s also instituted worker-friendly practices for her 59,000-person (mostly female) workforce. Now she’s bent on taking that thinking beyond her own industry. But more on that—and Yang’s “little Aspen”—in a minute.

First meet Yang’s daughter—32-year-old Dee Poon, whose father is Harvey Nichols retail tycoon Dickson Poon. Hers was a youth in Esquel factories and Harvey Nichols stores. When her mother recently asked Poon if she had read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, Dee confessed she hadn’t finished it—she’d already grown up in that life.

But Poon studied philosophy, not business, at Harvard. She spent her 20s doing everything from making a short film to opening a pop-up store before returning to Esquel to revitalize the shirt brand her mother founded. The brand is called PYE, a combo of symbols reflecting Marjorie’s passion for math, profits, and fashion. (Note to shoppers—Dee is currently shopping for retail space in Manhattan.)

Poon told me that taking over PYE “in some ways saved my life. I need a constraint or I want to do everything.” Now her focus is building a brand around classic white shirts, mostly for men. The mother-daughter duo showed up on stage in matching PYE white shirts, joking they had never had a chance to dress alike when Dee was growing up.

Like her mother, Dee Poon relentlessly talks sustainability. “We want a shirt brand that shares our life philosophy,” she said. Her commitment to customers: “Promising we can be as green and ethical and sustainable as we can be.”

Now, though, this mother-daughter focus on sustainability—which they say dates back to Yang’s industrialist grandfather—is about to ramp up beyond Esquel. Next week, Yang is hosting a conference with academics and other business leaders to launch an initiative called “The Integral.”

Named for the Buddhist concept of a continuous pursuit of perfection, Integral seeks to get business leaders to focus attention on how to produce a more balanced model of growth in a country notorious for its damaging pollution and rapacious resource hunger. Yang’s effort comes at a time when China is moving toward urbanizing 300 million people in the next 30 years. Half of the buildings needed to house that population have yet to be built (one estimate has China building 20,000 to 50,000 new skyscrapers)—with 220 cities breaking the one-million-population mark.

Yang has plans to remodel a factory in the picturesque city of Guilian (a town that brings to mind classic Chinese landscape paintings, as Bill Clinton once noted.). In its textile production, she wants a focus on natural, plant-based dyes and zero discharge into the surrounding waters. The facility would also feature a museum, pavilions—and a “little Aspen” to mimic the Aspen Institute’s position as a home for influential thought leaders. The complex would stand as a showcase for how Chinese companies can pursue sustainable economic development, she said.

In our MPW interview, Yang confessed that it had been difficult for her when her own daughter declared the PYE brand she founded was out-of-fashion and in need of revamping. “It hurt,” she conceded, adding that she still thinks of herself as young and fashion-forward. “I hang out with my 88-year-old mother. I do yoga with her.”

But forward-thinking comes in other forms, too. Yang’s plans for Integral—and the impact it could have on China’s future—show that this industrialist is still a cutting-edge visionary.

This time, though, she’s thinking bigger. Much bigger.

“From the MPW Co-chairs” is a series where the editors who oversee the Fortune Most Powerful Women brand share their insights about women leaders.

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