The climate emergency has led to chief sustainability officers becoming increasingly influential and extending their reach into product development, manufacturing and marketing.
Effective CSOs help sustainability and innovation departments effectively align commercial goals with sustainable practices.
Inter-industry collaboration is growing so sustainability executives will increasingly work with competitor brands to develop eco-friendly best practices.
As brands are increasingly scored on sustainability just as they are on style, chief sustainability officers are becoming more influential in the fashion and beauty industries. Kering’s CSO and head of international institutional affairs Marie-Claire Daveu sits on the group’s 13-person executive committee, giving her status with the chief executives of Gucci and Saint Laurent. The role of CSO at Procter and Gamble didn’t exist until 2011 when Virginie Helias pitched the job to the conglomerate’s chief executive, to whom she now reports.
“It’s now seen as a transversal mission. It’s all about courageous leadership toward things that have not been done before, and about being able to develop an ambitious vision,” says Helias, who advises P&G’s senior leadership on sustainability.
Their growing importance could not have come at a more critical juncture. The Global Fashion Agenda’s recent Pulse of the Fashion Industry report concluded that fashion isn’t implementing sustainable solutions fast enough to offset the negative environmental and social impacts that come with their growth.
CSO-like roles are not new: LVMH has had an environment director since 1992. However, the pressure on them is mounting. Here’s what it takes to succeed as the top sustainability executive at a fashion company.
Don’t isolate, infiltrate
When Helias originally envisioned her role, she didn’t want a team to come with it. Instead of creating a siloed department, she wanted to embed sustainability throughout P&G, whose brands include SK-II and Gillette. While she did eventually hire a team, she says sustainability is no longer seen as a function or a department.
At Nike, CSO Noel Kinder is a 20-year company veteran whose previous roles included working in manufacturing and sourcing in Vietnam. His work now encompasses Nike products, operational efficiencies and external collaborations, and he is a direct report of COO, Eric Sprunk. This, he says, is a signal that sustainability is a core part of the company’s operations.
Similarly, at Gap Inc., the expertise on the sustainability team includes climate and water management and chemistry, as well as project management and finance.
The end goal is ensuring sustainability is integrated into every part of the business. But for now, the role of CSOs is to be an “inspirational leader” who can focus both on operational minutiae and the bigger picture, Kinder says. “Big companies are so complicated, and people are so focused on their work that having someone who’s focused on pushing the boundaries is pretty important.”
This distinction puts CSOs in a unique position that could be good for career advancement. Tom Berry, who is the global director of sustainable business at Farfetch, foresees the role eventually becoming absorbed into other existing positions — such as the chief innovation or strategy officers.
“I’m convinced that in the coming decade, more CSOs will progress toward other C-suite roles,” says Daveu. “A successful CSO has to be a visionary thinker, a creative problem solver, an operational implementer and a collaborative leader.”
Noel Kinder © Nike
Innovate to marry sustainability with profit
Traditionally, fashion companies might have seen eco-friendly business practices as a drain on the bottom line. The easiest way for CSOs to succeed is to demonstrate that sustainability isn’t at odds with profit and quality, but an asset.
That became evident to Helias in an earlier role at P&G. One of her most successful projects was marketing a detergent that worked so well, customers could wash clothes in cold water — and save money on their electricity bill. It was an immediate hit and gave her the case study she needed to justify the CSO role. “The most successful commercial initiative was the best thing I could have done to lower the [environmental] footprint of my product. Ecology and economy are not in opposition,” she says.
Sustainability and innovation work particularly well together in material development, says former Burberry chief supply chain officer Roberto Canevari, who recently joined Unilever. Burberry has developed ways to reuse cotton, leather, wool and cashmere, and is developing both digital and textile technology that will make manufacturing more agile. “[That] by definition, will help eliminate waste,” Canevari says.
That was also the case at Nike, whose recycled leather FlyLeather shoes are more durable and 40 per cent lighter than comparable leather, says Kinder. “We think of sustainability as an ‘and,’ not an ‘or’.” The shoe giant recently created a product sustainability role that further integrates sustainability into materials design and product creation.
As sustainable innovations develop, the next challenge for CSOs is to scale them, Canevari says. Burberry, for example, hopes to build out its global repair services, which last year performed 22,000 repairs.
But the breadth of skills associated with developing sustainable practices is so vast that inter and intra-industry collaboration is increasingly likely. The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which P&G joined with at least 40 companies in early 2019, is an example of the number of interests involved.
“I’m spending more of my time thinking about how to collaborate externally,” says Kinder, who is now working through the Global Fashion Agenda and the United Nations. “H&M has been really ambitious externally, and Adidas — probably our closest competitor — does a nice job of collaborating. There has not been any reluctance to working [together] on big topics like waste or climate change. The challenges we face as an industry and as a species are bigger than any one brand.”
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