Moving the needle on sustainability in fashion
To see a sustainable transition in action, look no further than the career of Director Catherine Nekavand.
The word "refinement” probably conjures a vision of exquisitely tailored suits and beautiful accessories sourced from fine materials more so than production logistics in the energy sector. Catherine’s career demonstrates that there is in fact a lot of overlap. A 14-year tenure as an engineer in the energy services sector focusing on operations and procurement ultimately set her up to pivot to executive roles steering the luxury fashion industry toward sustainability.
“Shifting to luxury meant reengineering processes and challenging the hypothesis,” says Catherine. The task of streamlining supply chains and reducing carbon footprints required the analytical approach of an engineer. “As an engineer, you start by architecting a process with sustainability at its core,” she says. “You embrace the designer's vision and then engineer a pathway to realize it in the most sustainable manner possible.”
Consider the creative vision behind something like Virgil Abloh’s final show for Louis Vuitton, where the waterway was widened for the runway barge, adorned with birch trees and black paper planes, a motif typical of Virgil Abloh's designs.
The role of operations and procurement teams is to ensure the event is executed with environmental responsibility in mind. “We work behind the scenes to align the event's logistics and execution with sustainable practices, ensuring that the spectacle of fashion remains both magnificent and mindful of its ecological footprint,” explains Catherine.
Beyond their obligation to the planet and communities they touch, luxury brands are reliant on biodiversity and a “circular economy” for longevity, since you cannot have perfume or cosmetics without florals, for example. Garments made with viscose, a regenerated fiber made from the pulp of trees, contribute to the loss of 300 million trees a year. Better practices are crucial if the industry is to secure its own future.
On this dimension, luxury brands are, in her experience, very true to their values. “It was our responsibility to drive sustainability not only as a company ourselves, but also to drive our vendors,” she says. That could mean building strategic benefits into a contract for long-term commitments to sustainability, such as shifting to an electric fleet.
Catherine has since brought her experience to the Performance Improvement team at AlixPartners in New York. Here, she helps clients achieve substantial transformations by applying the same innovative approach to procurement that she honed in the luxury industry. It comes down to creative thinking and an engineer’s mindset.
Luxury brands, she says, can lead other industries, as they did with early adoption of recycled cardboard packaging (Gucci, since 2010), and promotion and support of LGBTQ+ rights, the visibility of which filtered down to mass-market retailers like H&M, and ultimately invest in their longevity by moving the needle on ESG practices.
“They're willing to let go of short-term gains [to] build long-term value,” which consumers—particularly younger consumers—want and are willing to pay for, Catherine explains. Around two-thirds of consumers surveyed by Carbon Trust in 2020 across multiple countries thought carbon labeling was a good idea. Over 60% of Americans said they would pay more for sustainable fashion, according to research by Publicis Sapient.
The durability of luxury items is a great case-study for sustainability and a key reason that high-end brands are leaders in the movement toward more responsible consumption and production practices, Catherine points out.
“Sustainability, ethical practices, and transparency in the supply chain are not just additional features; they represent a significant added value and a competitive edge.”
Catherine views the alignment of sustainability goals as a pivotal factor for forging partnerships with vendors. She advocates for choosing partners who are not just adhering to sustainability standards for compliance but who genuinely recognize that embracing these principles is the way forward for the business.
Here, Europe is a leader in sustainability thanks to a cultural emphasis on environmental consciousness that starts in early education. “Sustainability really is integrated in their mindset, and I think it starts early on at school, with really educating the kids on the importance of sustainable practices,” she says.
AlixPartners’ global network complements to this background, allowing the team to pull from a diversity of expertise and put into action proprietary tools like AlixPartners’ Should-CarbonTM methodology for calculating scope 3 carbon emissions. By extension, the company can inject client work with purpose and conviction. Good ideas spread. Great solutions are quickly adopted.
Over time, Catherine has seen a positive shift in how industries talk about sustainable practices.
"There's no question in terms of priority; it's more, 'How are we going to solve it?’”