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The GreenBiz Interview

Meet Samsonite's first global director of sustainability

The luggage maker discovered how to set its own benchmarks, using fashion leaders as a frame of reference.

If you’re like me, you love travel as much as you love sustainability. This often has been a challenging thing to reconcile, not least of which because of my closet full of suitcases. That’s why I was both delighted and surprised to hear that Samsonite recently has appointed its first global sustainability director. 

Samsonite’s story is so interesting because it reminded me of the role that Stock Exchanges — particularly in Asia — have had in driving corporate sustainability. I spent several years based in Asia, advising companies on their sustainability work, and saw firsthand how listing requirements in countries such as Hong Kong, India, Singapore and Thailand have had a real hand in driving sustainability reporting and other investments. These requirements affect American companies listing there as well, as is the case with Samsonite.

I caught up with Christine Riley Miller to learn more about her work since joining Samsonite in 2017.

Mia Overall: Samsonite is a 100-year old, multi-billion dollar company, and you are its first global director of sustainability. Congrats on the role! What led to the creation of your position? 

Christine Riley Miller: Actually, it came about as a result of the listing requirements of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange (HKSE). One of the listing requirements is to complete an annual ESG report. Samsonite had previously worked with outside consultants to complete the 2016 ESG report, but by 2017 it recognized the need to create a role to manage ESG reporting. It also recognized the need to create a global strategy to manage ESG issues and make progress on them.

Overall: Given that the position emerged in relation to investor reporting, how has that shaped the role?

Riley Miller: Shareholders are a key stakeholder group for us. That’s why I recommended that we conduct a materiality assessment at the outset. I was tasked with developing a strategy and I knew shareholders were interested in how the strategy came to fruition. I also knew it would be far more credible if it was built on a third-party materiality assessment. 

Having a strategy is more than an ESG report. Samsonite already had a number of initiatives in place, some consumer facing, some internal. The development of a strategy was designed to tie them all together, and for that we needed to know what was material. 

Overall: We all know sustainability is a journey. How would you characterize Samsonite's level of maturity on sustainability across issues at the time when you joined?

Riley Miller: The company is very new to the topic. A lot of what I’ve been doing is education, particularly as I’m rolling out the results of the carbon footprint assessment, materiality assessment and now the strategy. This is different than a marketing campaign. The outcomes of these process are based on a deliberate stakeholder engagement process. If I were going into an organization that had been doing this for a long time, the education would not be as big of an issue, but given that Samsonite is new to sustainability, educating people on the materiality assessment process, how we got to the conclusions we reached and why they have led to a given outcome, has been huge.

In some ways it makes it harder not to have a benchmark, but in some ways it makes it easier because it means we get to set the benchmark.
Luckily, my team is very interested in sustainability. Everyone has been interested in the learning process — what is this sustainability thing that we don’t know much about.

After a year and a half, we are finalizing the strategy, starting to develop an initial communications plan and preparing to launch our 2018 ESG report in Q2. In the next year we will be developing goals and looking to announce some targets in the future.

Overall: In my work with companies on their sustainability programs, I’m often surprised at the variety of starting points. What was your starting point and why? 

Riley Miller: For me, doing materiality assessment was really the starting point because I was tasked with developing a strategy. I also wanted to get a sense for the company’s appetite and ambition for sustainability. I wanted to know if people were participating enthusiastically and wanted to do more, or if this was simply a Stock Exchange requirement. I was surprised to find overwhelming engagement and an interest in something more than report writing.

We completed our first materiality assessment in Q4 of 2018. Simultaneously, there was a directive to understand our carbon footprint and develop a carbon reduction strategy. The reason for doing carbon reduction is that there were already a number of initiatives underway which were recognized as having two benefits: improving the bottom line and reducing environmental impacts. The materiality assessment served to identify the other priorities, in addition to carbon reduction.

It was a high touch process. Samsonite is a house of nine brands that operates in North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia, each with a regional president. We were hands on and engaging of people in the process. Now, as we develop and roll out our strategy, I have to figure out a way to implement in a way that is simple, flexible and can have some level of consistency across all brands and regions to ensure that we can report as a corporate entity.

Overall: One of your biggest initiatives has been calculating your carbon footprint. This is always a gargantuan task. How did you manage it?

Riley Miller: We recognized the need to reduce our carbon footprint so I created a carbon reduction committee with folks from manufacturing facilities, supply chain and distribution. There were different voices, different brands and people who had ownership of or were participating in different projects. I strategically picked allies who were interested in energy reduction. 

Having a strategy is more than an ESG report.
The committee helped review proposals and select a third-party firm to work with. This was important because they were going to be working with that firm. If they didn’t feel comfortable with the firm, they would not have wanted to give them the data. We then worked with this firm to identify all the data we needed, including utility bills from around the world.

It was a very time-consuming process. We had 30 people pulling data over three months to get the initial data pull. This was done by deliberately building relationships with people. Some people wanted to fill out a spreadsheet. Some wanted to upload invoices. So we provided various options by brand and region, putting resources in place to help alleviate the burden. We pulled 2017 data in Q4 of 2018. In Q1 of 2019, we pulled all the data for 2019. We now know our 2017 carbon footprint and are working on calculating our 2018 carbon footprint.

People went above and beyond their day job but appreciated seeing the results. It showed the value of their effort in forming the foundation of the strategy.

Overall: In your industry, there aren’t a lot of competitors to benchmark yourselves against. Has this made things easier or harder, and who do you look to for inspiration?

Riley Miller: In some ways it makes it harder not to have a benchmark, but in some ways it makes it easier because it means we get to set the benchmark. It’s our opportunity to set that bar and set it high where we can. The best frame of reference is fashion leaders such as LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy), Kering, Nike, some of the programs they have established and the direction they are going in — because there is real leadership there. The supply chains are not entirely different.

Overall: What’s the single best thing you did as a newcomer to secure the support of your colleagues?

Riley Miller: I asked questions and listened. I did a listening tour early on and it helped me understand the organization and the ambition. We’re multi-brand, multi-region, so it can quickly become big and amorphous, but that helped me understand who people around me were and how they felt, and that they were eager to do more.

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