Senior figures from leading brands, retailers, e-tailers and global platforms across leading consumer and retail brands, notably across the fashion and luxury sector, were invited to a round-table discussion about sustainability and its impact on the leadership of their organisations.

In a wide-ranging discussion, hosted by Odgers Berndtson Consultant, Catherine Broome, the questions ranged from whose responsibility it was to drive sustainability from the bottom up and to embed sustainability at every level of the business. And, ultimately, what will drive “true sustainability”?

Leading the way

One of the key themes to emerge from the round table was the need to lead from the top. There have to be senior roles at the top of the company “who really get this”. Another participant added that this could also be the Chair and Non-Executive Directors of a business, not just the CEO.

It was also suggested that department leads have to be able to put the five or six sustainability priorities to focus on to the Board. A brand must stand for something specific in sustainability (such as a commitment to eliminating plastic or boycotting animal products) and start somewhere, as trying to cover too many topics leads to standing for none. It’s not possible to do everything.

“In factories we own, we’re now carrying out surveys with local staff to find out what they think.”

On this, many participants agreed that while they made their best efforts in some areas, they were “slammed” in others but the general perception is that the investor community is frustrated also.

Pension funds want greater surety about their investments and greater transparency about where they make their investments. Similarly, businesses increasingly want clarity on how they are funded, who by, and what the potential impact those funding sources have on the environment and sustainability in general.

Broadening the burden

Many participants felt that in regards to their organisations, sustainability currently can be somewhat of an isolated function, with the responsibility falling to the production and supply chain elements of the business only.

It was generally agreed if we want sustainability to be truly effective, the effort has to be broader, working in-depth across departments. Otherwise, sustainability can be very much a sideshow. For example, KPIs reflecting sustainability goals for every function are a must.

“We have committed to a minimum of 50% of components in our products have to be ethically and environmentally sourced [in order] to be called sustainable.”

An open and forthright conversation needs to be had between all members of the industry, and it would be helpful if there were a main, central body (or one taking the lead) whom would be available to provide information, support and practical advice for both brands and retailers.

“As an industry, we don’t have a common source of truth.”It was noted by one speaker that there is not one coherent resource in the UK which can be relied upon to drive the sustainability agenda or provide practical advice or metrics to retailers and brands. Ideals conflict with realities and defining “what ‘good’ looks like” remains difficult to grasp.

Supplier complexity

Sustainability challenges can be even more complex for a third party retailer, and the thousands of suppliers on which they rely.

One participant highlighted that their business strives for partnerships with suppliers, helping them to succeed as they believed that it was the only way to achieve higher standards, but still transparency remains a challenge. It’s just not possible to drive standards across thousands of suppliers.

Global views

Like many industries, fashion is global. London, Paris, Milan are no longer the sole drivers of the fashion agenda.

Between 60 and 70% of a luxury brand’s customers can be from regions of the world, particularly fast-growing emerging markets, where the sustainability agenda is less front of mind for the consumer with regards in purchasing decisions.

As one guest from a global luxury brand said, “It’s about the price. If the product costs too much we can’t achieve the margins necessary to support the marketing required for the luxury model in this new landscape. And in many emerging markets sustainability is not a primary concern for customers.”

Consumer focus

A further challenge is to educate consumers.

The campaign #PassOnPlastic (Sky Ocean Rescue) was highlighted as a particularly successful campaign, as it highlighted one issue and showed the direct impact of that product (plastic bags) on the environment. This focused consumer consciousness when making purchasing decisions. This underlines that focusing upon a narrower range of sustainability objectives is of benefit to both the organisation and consumer in prioritising their attention and efforts.

And in the end, what would lead to “true sustainability”? For the guests of Odgers Berndtson, it was agreed that it would take either commercial incentive or legislative pressure.

About Odgers Berndtson Retail Executive Search Practice

The Odgers Berndtson Retail Executive Search Practice works with major UK and multinational retailers to secure talented senior leaders who can revolutionise their organisations in response to international and regional trends.

Catherine Broome

Catherine is responsible for leading executive search assignments within the global consumer practice specialising in senior and C-suite mandates within the Fashion and Luxury industries. She has e...

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