By Lenore Fedow
A panel at the National Retail Federation’s annual conference and expo, held in January in New York, focused on how women are advancing sustainable development. Panelists were, from left, Freya Williams of Futerra, Sarah Veit Wallis of Athleta, Shelley Bransten of Microsoft, Annie Agle of Cotopaxi, and Abigail Kammerzell of H&M.
My new year got off to a flying start, beginning with Gem Awards followed by a conference in New York and a trade show overseas.

The conference was Retail’s Big Show, an annual event hosted by the National Retail Federation at New York’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

I spent two days there, and it didn’t take long to sense a recurring theme—from panels to presentations, the buzzword of the event was sustainability.

On my first day, I took a seat at a discussion called “Retail 2020: The Dawn of Sustainability,” which focused on how retailers can utilize technology to make achieving sustainability somewhat easier.

The conversation was between Shelley Bransten, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of retail and consumer goods industries, and Arti Zeighami, head of AI and analytics at H&M Group.

Bransten opened with a story.

Last September, instead of going to school, her two children attended a climate strike demonstration, joining an estimated 4 million protestors in thousands of cities worldwide.

The experience opened her eyes to the magnitude and importance of consumer-facing brands finding a way to become more sustainable.

“The industry cares about it, our children care about it. Our future consumers really care about it,” she stressed.

Zeighami highlighted H&M’s journey toward sustainability at a time when fast-fashion products continue to pile up in landfills.

The Swedish retail chain has a 270-person team that focuses solely on sustainability, he said, and the company’s AI capabilities enable it to have the “right product in the right place at the right time.”

Future customers can trust you, he said, but that trust has to be earned through action, and brand loyalty is a two-way street.
“You can no longer afford as a brand to not make this investment [in sustainability]. Your employees will hold you accountable. You will lose talent. You will lose your women.”— Annie Agle, Cotopaxi
I saw Bransten again at the next panel, “Ecosystem Players: Women Are Advancing Sustainable Development,” which was held in the FQ Lounge, named after The Female Quotient, an organization working to advance workplace equality.

Joining her on the panel were: Abigail Kammerzell of H&M, Freya Williams of sustainability consultancy Futerra, Sarah Veit Wallis of Athleta, and Annie Agle of Cotopaxi.

Agle, whose company makes sustainable outdoor gear, was a standout, stating loud and clear her opinion on exactly why sustainability is so vital, and the danger of classifying the movement as a passing trend.

She said: “You can no longer afford as a brand to not make this investment. Your employees will hold you accountable. You will lose talent. You will lose your women.”

However, sustainability is not enough to guarantee a sale, said Veit Wallis.

“The product has to be fantastic; the experience has to be great. Sustainability is the gift with purchase, it is not necessarily the driver. Customers won’t go and buy an inferior product because it is sustainable.”

The panelists had actionable advice to share with Microsoft’s Bransten, stressing the need to “keep putting the pressure on tech” to make sustainability attainable.

H&M’s Kammerzell recommended being proactive and sharing with customers exactly what the company is doing to be more sustainable. “Tell them what you’re doing, before they have to look for it themselves,” she said.

That weekend, the topic of sustainability followed me overseas to Vicenzaoro in Vicenza, Italy.

At the show, CIBJO, the World Jewellery Confederation, hosted “Does Size Matter? Responsible Sourcing, Sustainability, and the SME.”

20200210 Vicenzaoro PanelA panel at Vicenzaoro discussed ways businesses of all sizes can become more sustainable. Panelists were, from left, Giorgio Bodei of Pomellato, Moya McKeown of Carbon Expert, Enzo Liverino of CIBJO, Iris Van der Veken of RJC, and Philip Olden of CIBJO, joined by show organizers.
The panel discussed the challenges faced by small to mid-sized businesses in meeting sustainability and social responsibility goals, and posited possible solutions.

It was Moya McKeown, an environmental consultant at Carbon Expert, who was the standout in this conversation.

From reducing the number of company cars to turning off the lights in unoccupied rooms, McKeown brought simple, actionable steps to the table in a way that made the whole process seem less daunting.

The takeaway from the panel was that environmental consciousness is important, regardless of company size.

McKeown argued that rather than it being harder for small businesses to reach sustainability, it may in fact be easier as they’d have fewer employees and operations to manage.

Panelists also considered sustainability a must, much like the women on the NRF panel.

“Sustainability is not anymore an option, it’s a to-do,” said Iris Van der Veken, executive director of the Responsible Jewellery Council.

Van der Veken highlighted the importance of an independent audit, rather than gauging sustainability progress in-house.

Overall, both the NRF’s Big Show and Vicenzaoro made a concerted effort to bring the issue of sustainability to the forefront.

However, in terms of practicing what you preach, the award would have to go to Vicenzaoro.

At the NRF conference, there were water stations stacked high with disposable plastic cups and towers of plastic bags filled with printed-out flyers and brochures.

At Vicenzaoro, food and beverages were served with reusable flatware and the press room had tote bags available.

Several exhibitors, including Italian jeweler Damiani, had flash drives with additional information and images or provided email addresses where I could request them.

The problem with buzzwords is that we can say them so many times, we forget what they mean.

Sustainability should be viewed as a verb, an everyday effort to proceed with purpose and to make decisions with the planet and the public good in mind.

I applaud the commitment of the individual who carries a reusable straw and always recycles Diet Coke cans, but the onus is on companies to make these changes so that the effect can be felt on a larger scale.

The company and organization representatives I heard from all said the right things, but companies have to walk the walk too.

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