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Meet Samsonite's first global director of sustainability

Updated: Apr 22, 2019

The following article appeared in GreenBiz on April 10, 2019

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.

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