What to Expect in the ‘Datafication’ of Sustainability In Retail

Who is coming out on top after a grueling year, and why does sustainability need a data push?

Companies that spent time looking at environmental, social and corporate governance, or ESG, factors performed better amid the pandemic, according to Jill Standish, head of global retail at Accenture, who spoke about the datafication of sustainability at the Fairchild Media Group Sustainability Forum.

The reason is a matter of trust, which has been proven by mission-driven B Corps in the past (being 63 percent more likely to survive a global recession as per data from B Lab).

Standish equates trust to a form of currency in an era of increased transparency and rising interest from public and private sectors to meet the moment.

According to Accenture’s research, 73 percent of consumers indicated that transparency and traceability are important enough to pay for it. The majority, or 85 percent, of chartered financial analysts said they took ESG into account last year.

“It’s becoming a way of evaluating businesses — even more so,” said Standish, who acknowledged the regulatory changes underway, saying: “We’re going to see things happen a lot faster,” mentioning the upcoming EU Taxonomy on sustainability and President Joe Biden’s administration’s bold stance on the climate crisis, which could bode further change for industries like fashion.

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In this case, Standish reaffirmed a technology-driven ESG management approach that Accenture has advocated and highlighted four growth quadrants: the cloud (robust data storage), artificial intelligence-driven retail (identifying demand, waste), scenario modeling (future-proofing supply chains) and the future of work (upskilling).

By her accounts and back-to-work surveys, Standish foresees roughly half of the work-from-home workforce returning to the office full time, with hybrid models having increased appeal. Overall, companies are being strategic about the necessity of in-person work depending on roles.

As for the role of technology in retail, much can be done now to ensure talent and companies are staying ahead of the transition. “If you look at the minute talent categories, there’s certain areas today that are really sought after, especially in the areas of digital and the areas of AI. I think what’s going to happen here is companies are going to say, ‘how do I bring in talent, or how do I upskill talent?’” she said.

Retail “academies” — where store managers, district managers, merchants and planners can be given new career pathways and morale — are a purist vision for upskilling talent, in Standish’s view.

By upskilling retail talent, businesses can retain the “embedded business sense” and knowledge of the industry, as opposed to the alternative: “Instead of hiring technicians who came from another industry, wouldn’t it be great to marry the two, and have that business sense and teach [existing talent] some of these tools?” she said. “The tools have improved to where a business person can use them; you don’t have to be a programmer now.”

Across the board, key performance indicators are being reframed for fashion.

With growing awareness of ESG across stakeholders, the social issues are especially warranting revaluation. “When you’re talking about KPIs for a lot of the social issues, I think that there’s a ton of training that can be happening for your store employees. Look at the brands that were doing unconscious bias training, so that people in stores can actually understand if they do have those.…There’s also one around supplier diversity. That’s a lot of the work that we’re doing now, so helping companies see what their brands or their supplier makeup is,” she said, for metrics that go beyond hiring practices.

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