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How Sustainability Became a Path to Fashion’s C-Suite

As big brands get serious about transforming their businesses for the future, executives with experience driving climate and social impact strategies are in hot demand.
Executives with experience in environmental sustainability and social impact are increasingly finding roles in fashion's C-suite.
Executives with experience in environmental sustainability and social impact are increasingly finding roles in fashion's C-suite. (Shutterstock)

Key insights

  • As big brands face growing pressure to deliver on social impact and climate targets there is growing demand for top-level executives with expertise in sustainability.
  • The rise of sustainability executives within fashion’s C-suite reflect a broader series of social and operational upheavals reshaping the sector.
  • Sustainability leaders within brands are finding a swifter path to promotion, helped by a mix of technical expertise and early access to top executives.

At the start of this year, H&M Group chief executive Helena Helmersson laid out a bold ambition: by the end of the decade the fast fashion giant would double its sales, while at the same time halving its carbon footprint.

Decoupling growth from the fashion industry’s environmental impact is a gnarly and increasingly pressing challenge for the sector’s top executives. Helmersson, who served as H&M Group’s head of sustainability and then COO before stepping into the role of chief executive in 2020, is perhaps uniquely positioned to drive her company’s efforts.

But as pressure for fashion brands to stand behind their values and deliver on high-profile environmental and social targets mounts, companies across the industry are stepping up their efforts to recruit executives with expertise in creating and executing environmental, social and governance, or ESG, strategies.

“More and more what we’re seeing with CEO mandates [is that] a huge component within that mandate will be experience in ESG,” said Catherine Broome, vice president for global fashion and luxury at at executive search consulting firm Kingsley Gate Partners. “This used to be dealt with at an organisational level, but it’s definitely now seen as a key strategic driver.”

At Prada, Lorenzo Bertelli, the son of designer Miuccia Prada and chief executive Patrizio Bertelli, is tipped to take over control of the business. In the meantime, he is serving as both the company’s marketing director and head of corporate social responsibility. His goal is to drive “sustainable growth for the next decade,” Bertelli told analysts in November, speaking at the company’s first investor day in seven years. Luxury group Richemont appointed its first chief sustainability officer in February, building on its pre-existing corporate social responsibility function.

The C-suite teams at almost all of Europe’s 25 biggest fashion companies now contain at least one executive with ESG experience, Broome said. That number is expected to keep growing.

“Since the pandemic, the biggest sectors that have risen in terms of C-suite opportunities were chief supply chain officers and chief diversity officers, and this is the next wave,” said Lisa Butkus, leader of the retail and luxury goods practice at executive search firm Hanold Associates. “We’re really just at the beginning of the growth trajectory for this role.”

A Strategic Skillset

The rise of executives with experience driving social impact and climate strategies reflects a broader series of changes within the top ranks of the fashion industry, as shifting consumer values, regulatory pressures and supply chain upheaval reshape the sector.

How brands are going to shift their businesses to align with global climate goals and deliver on promises of equity and inclusion have become key strategic questions for business leaders. And since the bulk of fashion’s environmental impact and most of its workforce sits within the manufacturing supply chain, these issues are closely interwoven with business operations.

As a result, sustainability teams who once might have focused on raising awareness and project management, are increasingly seen as critical to decision making at the highest level of organisations, said Esther Verburg, Tommy Hilfiger’s head of sustainable business and innovation. The executive has led sustainability strategy at the brand since 2014, but stepped into a newly created position on the company’s leadership team in 2020 with a mandate to oversee environmental sustainability, diversity and inclusion and innovation.

“Good intentions aren’t enough ... the mission is to enable that transformation,” Verburg said.

Brands are also finding value in executives who are able to match deep technical knowledge and business transformation skills with an understanding of how the fashion business works.

Sustainability executives are “often the best at knitting together hardcore sustainability material issues, but also work with brand and marketing and bring that together in something that delivers in business value and reputation,” said Lucy Shea, group chief executive at sustainability consultancy Futerra. Many of the sustainability focused executives at brands Shea has worked on in recent years have gone on to leadership promotions, she said.

Path to Promotion

For young graduates entering the industry, the career path is looking increasingly appealing. Tech platform TrusTrace, which helps brands trace their supply chains, has seen the number of graduates reaching out about internships or to cover the company as part of their masters thesis increase tenfold, chief executive and co-founder Shameek Ghosh said.

“These are students coming from industrial management or marketing and economics and they are choosing to visit because they want to know if this transformation to responsible production is really happening, because if it’s happening, they want to be part of it,” said Ghosh.

The opportunities for graduates are diverse, with more roles opening up in the industry for those who have studied subjects like sustainability or environmental science, or built up experience in roles outside the industry. Verburg studied engineering and management before going on to work at beer company Heineken and then moving into sustainability consulting, which led to her role at Tommy Hilfiger. There’s also growing scope for individuals in roles like design and marketing to build up expertise and carve out a career niche.

Once in the function, employees are also finding a swifter route to promotion. Because sustainability cuts across multiple divisions, its leaders within a brand have an opportunity to gain experience across the organisation. The importance of sustainability strategies also mean they often have visibility at C-suite and board level much sooner in their careers.

“There’s a much shorter path to the C-suite now for people with that skillset,” said Butkus. “Someone who’s more of a rising executive or up-and-comer is tapping into the C-suite sooner because it’s such an area of expertise.”

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