Most of us had a lot of time to think during the global pandemic caused by COVID-19. We thought about our health, of course, and keeping our families, friends, and loved ones safe. And a great many of us also pondered what is truly important to us, as we spent our days in virtual lockdown, in a new world where it was hard to separate one day from another.
A good number of us came to the conclusion that we wanted to be better people going forward. You saw that in many ways. For example, despite the economic downturn of 2020—which caused record unemployment and devastated entire industries such as restaurants, airlines, and hotels—most people who con- tribute to worthy causes said they planned to maintain, or even increase, the amount they donated according to Fidelity Charitable, which has become the largest grantmaker in the country by managing thousands of individual donor-advised funds. A quarter of donors planned to increase their giving in response to the hard- ships caused worldwide by COVID-19. Another 54 percent said they would maintain their level of charitable gifting despite all the problems in the economy.
Younger generations planned to step up their donations in even greater numbers. Some 46 percent of Millennials —that’s nearly half—said they would be giving more than they had in the year before, even though research showed that young people were hit disproportionately harder than any other cohort by the downturn.
The New York Times reported that a study of 32 foundations, which manage charitable accounts directed at a specific city or region, showed an 80 percent increase in donations from March to May of 2020 during the early days of the pandemic, compared with the same period the previous year. The study was conducted by the Community Foundation Public Awareness Initiative.
This desire to do better, in turn, gave a turbo boost to two trends already underway. The first is the Environmental, Social, and Governance movement. ESG refers to the three central factors in measuring the sustainability and societal impact of an investment in a company or business. These criteria go beyond the financials to give a more complete picture of a firm to people thinking of working for, investing in, or doing business with an organization.
And the second movement is usually referred to as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), where businesses engage in and support ethically-oriented practices.
For Samsonite, the global luggage manufacturer and retailer, both trends—ESG and CSR—fit naturally into what the company has always believed. Here’s how CEO Kyle Francis Gendreau put it in his message explaining the company’s position on sustainability:
“The world today looks very different from when our found- er, Jesse Shwayder, started a small trunk manufacturing company in Denver, Colorado, back in 1910. People are increasingly concerned about climate change and the future of our planet. More and more consumers are making purchasing decisions based not only on their taste and budget but also on sustainability credentials, including environmental impacts.
“We have charted a path to lead the industry—not only in in- novation, quality, and durability—but also in sustainability,” Gendreau continues. “We commit to increasing the use of the most sustainable materials, models, and methods to create our products and will encourage good practices and positive impacts in our supply chain. We are also committed to taking action on carbon. As well as continuing to design products that last, we are also committed to increasing the use of recycled materials, reducing our impact on the planet.
“Building on our enduring values and our heritage of innovation, quality, and durability, we are now setting out our vision to become the most sustainable lifestyle bag and travel luggage company in the world.”
In large part, it is up to Christine Riley Miller, Samsonite’s global director of sustainability, to make that happen.
“Samsonite has been proud to lead the industry in innovation, quality, and durability for 110 years, and we expect to also lead in sustainability,” she says about her task ahead. “The objective of the ‘Our Responsible Journey’ campaign, the name of our sustainability strategy, which was launched in March 2020, is to reach specific stakeholder groups with this message.”
“Our ESG report and corporate website are targeted to investors primarily and employees secondarily and are intended to provide a comprehensive yet succinct summary of our ESG efforts over the previous year,” she adds. “The brand websites and product marketing materials are targeted to consumers and intended to raise awareness about Samsonite’s efforts to more sustainable materials in our products.
“As expectations of corporate ESG commitments continue to rise among key stakeholders,” Miller says, “it’s increasingly important for Samsonite to continue to communicate our efforts to lead the industry in sustainability.”
Samsonite’s immediate goal for Our Responsible Journey is to continue communicating its efforts to consumers, employees, and investors, Miller adds. “Success would be that these stakeholder audiences would recognize Samsonite as the industry leader in sustainability.
“The intermediate goal is to develop more concrete action plans and then to establish interim milestones for achieving them,” Miller says. “While it was true that Samsonite had always paid attention to its global environment and social footprint, prior to the development of Our Responsible Journey, the company did not have a formal framework or goals against which to develop action plans and demonstrate progress against our most material issues.
“With the introduction of Our Responsible Journey, the organization is aligned on four key pillars and the global goals, and collectively, we can now work toward prioritizing resources against accomplishing those objectives,” she says.
Putting the Sustainability Platform Into Action
Samsonite’s Responsible Journey focuses on four key areas important to its business: product innovation, carbon action, a thriving supply chain, and its people.
“The four areas are underpinned by specific targets which were developed after a thorough process of consultation with our internal and external stakeholders,” Miller says.
1) Product Innovation
The goal is simple—and ambitious. Samsonite’s objective is to create “the best products using the most sustainable and innovative materials, methods, and models.” The company is committed to increasing its use of sustainable materials in its products and packaging to lessen its impact on the environment.
“Redesigning packaging is a big focus for us,” says Patrick Kwan, Samsonite’s senior director, Supply Chain Asia. “While we must always ensure that our products arrive to the consumer in perfect condition, we’ve taken steps to use less packaging and switch to more sustainable materials. For example, in Asia, we’ve replaced Styrofoam, which can’t easily be recycled, with folded cardboard, and use recyclable paper tape to seal our boxes, so our packaging is 100 percent recyclable.”
The overall objective of these efforts? To “continue to develop innovative solutions to ensure the durability of our products,” the company wrote.
The company is well on its way to achieving its 2030 Goal, which is to: “continue to develop innovative solutions to ensure the durability of our products, extend the life of our products, and develop viable end-of-life solutions to divert as many of our products from landfills for as long as possible. By using durable mate- rials and increasing the life of our products, we are decreasing the burden on landfills,” the ESG report noted.
And the company is doing that in two other ways as well.
“We are using recycled materials wherever possible, giving waste materials a second life.” And “many/most of our products can be repaired worldwide so you won’t need to replace them.”
Three quick proof points to bring the idea home: Since 2018, Samsonite has launched more than 50 luggage collections worldwide that have included a recycled material such as recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate, the chemical name for polyester, and a clear, strong, and lightweight plastic), recycled nylon, post-industrial recycled polypropylene, wood waste, and cork.
RecyclexTM, the fabric used for linings and soft-side bags, is made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic bottles. So far, this has saved approximately 52 million 500ml plastic bottles from going to the landfill.
Then, there is something as simple as hangtags, the tag attached to a piece of merchandise that includes information about the manufacturer or designer, the fabric or material used, the model number, care instructions, and sometimes the price.
“All the hangtags on our Samsonite recycled collections are printed with soy ink, a sustainable alternative to traditional petroleum-based ink, made of paper from responsible sources and carry the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC®) logo,” Miller says. “This standard provides an assurance that the paper used comes from well-managed FSC®-certified forests, recycled materials, and other controlled sources. In addition, we have removed the rubberized coating from the hangtags for our TUMI brand since it prevented them from being recyclable.”
2) Carbon Action
Samsonite’s approach to decreasing its “carbon footprint” is comprised of two parts: reducing emissions and increasing the efficiency of its manufacturing operations.
As the company writes in its ESG report, “we are working hard to minimize our impact on climate change and have set clear carbon reduction targets that mean we will be carbon neutral by 2025,” when the company expects to be using 100 percent renewable energy.
You can see the progress the company is making.
The company reported that the production of finished goods increased by 60 percent from 2017 to 2019. Compared to 2017, when energy use increased by only two percent at manufacturing facilities, and greenhouse gas emissions decreased by four percent. This was made possible by on-site solar installations at manufacturing facilities in India and Belgium, energy efficiency upgrades across manufacturing centers, and economies of scale gained in production processes.
3) Thriving Supply Chain
Today, manufacturers invariably rely on others in producing their goods and getting them to market. Recognizing that fact, Samsonite has made optimizing the supply chain a key part of its ESG and CSR efforts to “encourage good practices and positive impacts beyond our direct business.”
There are two major objectives. The company wants to make sure that: 1. All suppliers respect human rights and 2. All are engaging in responsible sourcing.
“Our suppliers are critical to the success of our business and we want to ensure that we work with like-minded partners: companies that share our values and our ethical way of working,” says Paul Melkebeke, Samsonite’s Chief Supply Officer. “We have robust policies and business codes in place to explain how we work and what is expected of our people and our suppliers, and we go to great lengths to check that these are being adhered to. This will help us to reach our pre-customer journey and human rights targets, ensuring we maintain our thriving supply chain in the years to come.
“We may have high expectations of our suppliers, but we expect them to have high expectations of us too,” he adds. “Our Golden Rule, to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves, extends to our supply chain; we always want our people to work in a straightforward, honest, and transparent way. We build relationships based on trust and mutual respect. Many last for years; some have been going for over three decades.”
It is easy to overlook the role that employees play in a company’s sustainability efforts. But the reality is without employee engagement, nothing major is going to happen. That’s true at every company, including Samsonite.
“First and foremost, on a practical level, I am a team of one,” Miller says. “And so, I can’t implement a global sustainability strategy without relying on my colleagues to do a lot of the heavy lifting. And a lot of the work, I just functionally can’t do. I don’t manage the machinery in our facilities. And so, I have no way of knowing how to improve the energy efficiency of those machines.
“I have to rely pretty heavily on my team to implement the strategy. And so, it’s important from my perspective to have engagement,” she adds. “Not just to say, ‘Okay, it’s a nice thing to do. I’ll get to it when I get to it.’ We need employees to say, ‘This is important to my job. This is important to the company. This is important to me.’
“And I’ve been very fortunate at Samsonite to have a large group of colleagues who are very committed to the work because they feel like not only is it important to the company, but they also feel it’s important to them. Fundamentally, they understand the value of ESG personally and professionally.”
Samsonite’s approach, when it comes to people, is focused on diversity and inclusion, as well as engagement and development.
Clear on its goals, the initial implementation steps included communicating the new sustainability strategy to external and internal audiences, including its global and regional sustainability committees and employees worldwide.
“So far, implementation has been going really well,” Miller says. “The strategy development process required significant stakeholder engagement, and we are using the same approach to- ward developing implementation plans. Everyone at Samsonite is very engaged in, and committed to, the success of Our Responsible Journey.”
Here’s a quick example. “While we are still early in our strategy, we continue to expand our use of more sustainable materials in our products,” Miller says. “You’ll continue to see RecyclexTM, our fabric made from recycled PET bottles, introduced in more product lines; 2020 saw the introduction of Clean Chroma®, a spin dying process that has fewer environmental impacts than traditional dying; and RapidFixTM repair kits that enable the consumer to make simple repairs to broken zippers on certain luggage lines, thereby extending the life of the luggage.”
Speaking of durability, “we have had kind of an ‘aha’ moment about the connection between durability, repairability, and sustainability,” Miller explains. “That’s new among consumers since we started this effort. They didn’t see the connection. Now they do.
“If you look at products that are not well-made, they break, they end up in a landfill, and then you have to replace them,” which requires the use of more material and energy to produce the new item.
“When we realized that, we said ‘hey, we have a product that is durable, it’s made to be on the road or the trail with you as long as possible. Oh, and by the way, if it breaks, we also have this extensive network of repair centers, and we have some brands that will do repairs in store,’” Miller says. “So that no matter where you are, you can repair that product and continue on your way.
“We had this moment of, ‘Oh, we’ve been doing this longer than we realized. And we’ve been committed to this before it even fit into that definition of sustainability.’”
“I think it will be interesting to see if there is a rise in conscious consumerism post-pandemic,” Miller says when asked about the future. “When you can’t get out and shop as much as you used to, you start to realize the impact of human behavior on communities and the environment. You begin to think like, ‘Oh, maybe the consumption mindset that I have isn’t sustainable. How do I invest in items or belongings or things that are going to last? What are the categories of things that I should invest in? There might be some things I have been buying that aren’t worth it. How do I think about well-made in a lot of different contexts?’”
Putting that comment in the context of the book, think about that old pair of jeans you have been wearing forever or that tote bag you have had for years, if not decades. You love these things because of the memories associated with them; that’s what makes them relevant.
The fact that they have lasted this long—i.e., they are sustain-able—is an added and treasured benefit. Well-worn doesn’t mean worn out.