Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) is a hot topic for many companies today, and communicating their commitment to doing good is a top priority.
But making the impact of your ESG efforts truly meaningful to the people that count—customers considering social good in their buying decisions and employees seeking purpose-led employers—presents challenges at every turn, from creating a strong story to gaining buy-in from critical stakeholders.
In this edition of our “Getting It Done Right” series, we share insights and inspiration from an ESG leader in the retail space.
An interview with Adrian Sherman, Vice President of Environmental & Social Responsibility, The Children’s Place.
The Children’s Place is an omnichannel children’s specialty portfolio of brands with an industry-leading digital-first model. Its four brands support growing families across every demographic with apparel that builds confidence and promotes inclusivity.
Adrian Sherman is responsible for leading the development and implementation of the company’s environmental and social roadmap in partnership with the CEO and Corporate Responsibility, Sustainability, and Governance Committee.
What’s the biggest challenge you face in communicating your company’s ESG strategy, efforts, and achievements?
I feel incredibly proud of our accomplishments over the last five years: the strategy we’ve established and the progress we’ve achieved and reported on in our ESG reports.
Our ESG team’s primary focus was on building a strong program that allows us to contribute to a healthy planet and equitable society for the benefit of future generations. As a children’s retailer, this is the core of our value system.
We are doing this by implementing initiatives that make a positive environmental impact, foster a workplace that includes a diverse range of perspectives and backgrounds, and ensure that we have strong corporate governance structures underpinning our operations.
We’ve made significant progress on our commitments. As just a few examples, we: continued strong gains in emissions reductions; we are ahead of schedule in achieving our 100% responsibly sourced cotton goal for apparel by 2025; we set a new goal regarding responsible sources for the man-made cellulosic fibers used in our products; we increased the content of recycled materials in our consumer-facing packaging; and we maintained our industry-leading gender diversity statistics for women across our senior leadership team, board of directors, and associate workforce.
From a communications perspective, the challenge is to find new and innovative ways to communicate this work in ways that inform, engage, and inspire our stakeholders.
Another challenge is to find compelling ways to convey the effectiveness of our programs and to demonstrate continual and quantifiable progress toward our goals and commitments while also keeping proprietary competitive advantages and confidential data private.
Our ESG report is central to this effort, and the process of publishing an informative, compelling, and compliant annual ESG report takes a lot of time and effort. For us, reporting on our continued progress on our public ESG commitments holds us accountable, and so reporting is an important part of our ESG strategy.
How have you addressed that challenge?
As you can see in our 2022 ESG report, we brought our initiatives to life by defining our specific ESG focus areas, detailing our specific targets for each focus area, and highlighting metrics that demonstrate progress on our public ESG commitments. We used charts, pictures, and quotes to further engage our readers, and used project and product spotlights for specific initiatives that show our strategy in action.
We are also focusing on evolving our ESG report into a customer-facing story. We partner with our marketing team on how to better engage our customers in what we’re doing around sustainability. Approximately half our business is through our e-commerce channel and half is through our retail locations.
We’re finding ways to communicate using different marketing and messaging approaches for our digital and in-store channels: identifying the things that resonate and determining the best ways to incorporate our sustainability initiatives, and who we are, into that messaging.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about what ESG means in your industry?
ESG is a newer term in our industry and is a framework for investors to assess how companies are mitigating risks and building on opportunities with regards to social responsibility and the environment. With the recent media focus on the broader ESG acronym, sometimes individual efforts and programs that benefit associates, customers, and communities—and that help companies manage a multitude of complex risks and opportunities—get lost in the rhetoric.
For example, when we communicate about the sustainability work that is a part of our ESG strategy, we have to talk about what that means to our customers and associates—what are the real-world impacts of the fossil fuels we burn and the water we consume? We put those into terms that customers can relate to and understand.
How do you get people excited about your ESG efforts and reporting?
Making meaningful change is a journey requiring ongoing effort and dedication from each of us. Fostering equitable and rewarding experiences for all associates requires a commitment from leaders. In 2022, we focused our training programs around the role our leaders play in developing our inclusive culture.
We are keenly aware that sustainability and social purpose are on the minds of our associates and the customers who love our brands. I’m very impressed with how much our associates care about the work we’re doing. We think our report is one way to help build internal awareness and support of our programs.
Tactically, we engage our associates through lunch-and-learns and department meetings, where we talk about what the company is doing and why it’s important. When it comes to recruiting talent, we share stories and snippets from our ESG Report at job fairs and through our internship program.
A lot of the time, folks don’t know the “why.” I think it’s really important to not just say how much we’ve reduced our water use in our manufacturing processes, but to explain why that’s so important to at-risk communities in water-stressed regions. Connecting the dots from what we’re doing to the impact it’s actually having—that, to me, is what’s interesting and inspiring for our team.
And that is just as true on the customer side. Sharing stories about what we’re doing is such an effective way to bring our ESG efforts to life for them. One example of a story that resonates and connects to our mission to support children and families in need is the childcare center we funded in Ethiopia near one of our manufacturing hubs. The region is going through a period of tremendous industrialization and growth, with lots of young women and men coming from the countryside and integrating into this new manufacturing world. We recognized that childcare was an important need that we could help meet there.
Having a robust strategy and a great ESG story to tell is key to inspiring and engaging our people.
To me, these stories are so engaging because they show how we’re going beyond our four walls to have a positive impact in our communities.
What are the most effective ways you’ve found to “sell” your ESG communications plan to leadership?
I think this is where we excel. It is critical to the sustained success of our business that we do our part to make a positive impact in the world for future generations. Our leadership is aligned around the importance of communicating our progress in this respect. Having this alignment has been very effective in helping us set a vision and internal communications roadmap, and leadership is invested in what we’re doing.
And part of that is demonstrating the business value that is created and celebrating our wins. The governance process we have in place aligns our strategy with what is needed for us to succeed, whether it’s planning for potential ESG regulations or determining how we can do our part around important initiatives that impact our operations such as climate change.
What are the top three tips you would give someone in an ESG or sustainability role who’s trying to effectively communicate their story and make it relevant and meaningful to their audiences?
First, you have to have a passion and a belief in the work. You have to be invested in what you’re doing if you want to get other people excited about it!
Second, you must build relationships and partner on a shared vision. Sometimes you’re educating peers on the value, sometimes you’re harnessing the support you have to move things forward.
You need to make those connections with leaders and colleagues at the company who will champion ESG efforts and help share the story.
You can’t do it alone—you need to build that network of support.
For example, we continue to identify ways that we can extend our influence to encourage more sustainable practices from our third-party vendors and manufacturers. We engage in active dialogue with these suppliers about things we want to do with them: move to preferred materials, support worker well-being programs. And often we find that we are each learning from the other’s ideas and strategies. So that dialogue is key.
My third tip is to find outside experts and partners who can help you navigate this often complicated and technical world of ESG. I think it’s important to create a space to engage with partners and learn from them.
What predictions do you have about where ESG reporting in the retail and/or children’s apparel industry is going in the next 3-5 years?
New legislation and regulatory requirements that will shift when and how reporting will be done. But in a larger sense, there will be more disclosure, more detail.
We’re moving past setting goals in areas such as reduction of greenhouse gasses and so on to showing actual performance and progress toward those goals—being transparent about how we are getting there and how we actually make it happen.
As we look ahead, we will continue to enhance our data collection and reporting processes, which will allow us to better target our activities and communicate our tangible, quantifiable progress.