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How effective stakeholder engagement shaped Samsonite’s ESG strategy

Samsonite factory interior in Hungary

The interior of a Samsonite facility.

Samsonite

In March, Samsonite announced "Our Responsible Journey," a new global sustainability strategy that outlines its commitments across four priority areas: Product Innovation; Carbon Action; Thriving Supply Chain; and Our People, including engagement, development, diversity and inclusion.

Samsonite is proud of its 110-year history of industry leadership in the innovation, quality and durability of its products. With Our Responsible Journey, Samsonite strives to lead the lifestyle bag and travel luggage industry across key sustainability indicators, including the use of recycled materials in its products and packaging and achieving carbon neutrality across its owned and operated facilities.

With strong support from the entire senior management team and especially from Samsonite CEO Kyle Gendreau, the company has embarked on this journey to make sustainability a key tenet of its brand promise. The goal is to keep the world traveling while staying true to Samsonite’s long-standing ethos, the "Golden Rule," which guides how we treat each other and care for the world we live in.

Our CEO and the Samsonite leadership team wholeheartedly supported the initiative and even encouraged us to up-level some key goals in order to truly lead the industry in sustainability.

Samsonite first disclosed the state of its environmental, social and governance (ESG) journey with the publication of its first ESG report in 2016, a requirement for the company’s listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. When I joined as the company’s first global director of sustainability in December 2017, I was tasked with developing a global ESG strategy that would include attainable goals and the action plans that would enable the company to demonstrate continuous improvement and progress toward achieving those goals. We report our progress annually in Samsonite’s ESG report.

From the very beginning, the Samsonite executive team empowered me to take the lead on developing an industry-leading approach. The team was directly involved in every phase of the project, including providing feedback, participating in interviews and dedicating resources from their respective regions and functional areas. With executive support, I engaged with Brodie, a London-based consulting firm, to co-lead our materiality assessment.

Materiality assessments matter

I am a firm believer in the value of materiality assessments, especially when a company is first developing a sustainability strategy. It enables you to identify and validate your issues objectively; educate your company and colleagues about your ESG efforts; effectively allocate resources for your ESG strategy and strengthen credibility with external stakeholders.

As we progressed through the internal interview process, I was continually impressed by the number of initiatives already underway to increase the use of sustainable materials in our products and to reduce our carbon footprint.

For example, Samsonite North America launched its first product made with post-consumer recycled PET fabric, in January 2018, one month after I started. And by the end of my first year, we already had diverted nearly 30 million PET bottles from landfills through our global use of post-consumer recycled PET fabric in our products. In addition, the company already had installed solar panels on its manufacturing facilities in Hungary and Belgium and had plans to install them on its manufacturing facility in India. It became clear that one of my primary responsibilities would be to identify and organize all of these existing efforts under a comprehensive, focused strategy.

Based on the outcomes of the materiality assessment, we identified four key pillars focused on Samsonite’s products, carbon footprint, supply chain and people. One key learning ;from the materiality assessment was that when people thought about sustainability, they often defined it in the context of the environment. As a result, we realized we had to include a brief overview of the issues that fall under the umbrella of ESG so people would evaluate the business across a broader range of initiatives.

We further identified two action platforms within each pillar that would allow the company to set goals and to communicate our progress.

For example, one pillar focuses on product innovation because Samsonite’s ambition is to lighten the journey of its customers by creating the best products using the most sustainable and innovative materials, methods and models.

Within that pillar, we have an action platform that focuses specifically on materials innovation to drive continuous improvement toward developing new, more sustainable materials and increasing the use of more sustainable materials in Samsonite products and packaging. The other action platform targets the product lifecycle and underscores the company’s efforts to continue to make products that are built to last, repairable and, eventually, recyclable.

Samsonite factory

Goals that are specific, yet ambitious

The next step was to articulate specific goals and, ultimately, we identified nine global goals with targets set for 2025 and 2030.

One of Samsonite’s goals is to achieve carbon neutrality across its owned and operated facilities by 2030. Recognizing that the company’s impact extends beyond its own facilities, we also set a goal to estimate, track and support actions to reduce Scope 3 emissions — those emissions tied to Samonite’s business but outside our control.

Our CEO and the Samsonite leadership team wholeheartedly supported the initiative and even encouraged us to up-level some key goals in order to truly lead the industry in sustainability. One of our original goals focused on developing a recyclable suitcase. The feedback was that this was too narrow in its scope.

The final goal is more aspirational and states that the company will continue to develop innovative solutions to ensure the durability of its products, extend the life of products and develop viable end-of-life solutions to divert as many of its products from the landfill for as long as possible. The directive was to expand the company’s ambition and further incentivize continuous innovation. The resulting set of goals better reflect Samsonite’s vision and its ambition.

Complementing this effort, we needed to establish a global carbon footprint across 1,500 retail, office, manufacturing and distribution facilities worldwide. Partnering with Industrial Economics (IEc), an environmental consulting firm, we collaborated with cross-functional leads worldwide. Specifically, we worked with individuals responsible for the equipment and operations at our owned and operated manufacturing and distribution centers; representatives from our IT and HR departments who source office equipment and train employees on energy-efficient behaviors; and employees from our retail and development teams who make decisions about lighting and real estate. We also worked with global finance teams to collect hundreds of utility bills to ensure an accurate and representative sample size. From all this data, we established a baseline using 2017 data.

An extended dialogue

While the process is relatively straightforward, Brodie, IEc and I did not do it in a vacuum. Critical to our success was engaging a wide-ranging group of internal stakeholders and subject matter experts.

Samsonite operates using a primarily decentralized management structure across its four key regions: North America; Asia; Europe; and Latin America. With the strong support of our regional presidents, we formed a global sustainability committee and a global carbon reduction committee. Membership is varied across functional areas and included human resources, marketing, sourcing, facilities, retail, finance and product development. Participants are nominated by their regional president based on their contribution to the company’s sustainability efforts and/or their interest in the topic.

Another way we engaged internal stakeholders was by holding extensive feedback sessions with representatives from different functional areas about the respective goals to ensure that they would be able to successfully implement initiatives and provide data that would be useful and practical when demonstrating progress.

The directive was to expand the company’s ambition and further incentivize continuous innovation. The resulting set of goals better reflect Samsonite’s vision and its ambition.

For example, when we first set a product-related goal, we recommended establishing a target percentage of sustainable materials across our product lines. As we engaged the design and sourcing teams, it became clear that the target percentage was distracting us from the intent of the goal to increase our use of sustainable materials. There were endless ways to define that number, and we would need to spend significant time determining how to measure it. Rather than significantly delaying the goal-setting process, we decided to develop the quantitative target as part of measurement process.

Now that the goals have been announced, we are actively working with marketing, design and sourcing to clearly define how we will demonstrate progress against our goal to increase the use of materials with sustainable credentials in all our products and packaging to lessen our impact on the environment.

The global carbon reduction committee was involved in the process of choosing the environmental consulting firm, reviewing proposals, meeting with the candidates and making a final recommendation to work with IEc. The individual committee members, along with others, also provided feedback on the data-collection process. We shared both the results and the credit with everyone who was part of the process.

This extensive stakeholder engagement meant that the process took two years from launching the materiality assessment to announcing the strategy. I am proud Samsonite has a sustainability approach that everyone can feel ownership of, and ultimately all of us are invested in its successful implementation.

The world has changed a lot over the past two years, and especially during the past six months. Sustainability is increasingly important to consumers as more and more, we recognize the impact of our behaviors and consumption habits on the environment. I am proud that Samsonite has developed an ESG strategy that aligns with my personal and professional commitments and with Samsonite’s ethos, the "Golden Rule," which guides how we treat each other and care for the world we live in.

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