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ESG Outlook: Debbie Shakespeare of Avery Dennison Retail Branding and Information Solutions

ESG Outlook is Sourcing Journal’s discussion series with industry executives to get their take on their company’s latest environmental, social and governance initiatives and their own personal efforts toward sustainability. In this Q&A, Debbie Shakespeare, director, sustainability, compliance and core product line management, Avery Dennison Retail Branding and Information Solutions, discusses the power of traceability and visibility.

Debbie Shakespeare Avery Dennison ESG Outlook
Debbie Shakespeare, senior director, sustainability, compliance and core product line management, Avery Dennison Retail Branding and Information Solutions (RBIS). Courtesy

Name: Debbie Shakespeare

Title: Senior director, sustainability, compliance and core product line management

Company: Avery Dennison Retail Branding and Information Solutions (RBIS)

What is Avery Dennison’s best ESG-related achievement over the last 5 years? 

Avery Dennison originally defined its 2025 sustainability goals in 2015 and we’ve just recently recased those goals based on the significant progress we’ve made. We reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 42 percent, from the 2015 baseline, and achieved 92 percent certified paper use. We’ve joined forces with industry associations to advance circularity, reduce deforestation and empower women through education.

But the most meaningful ESG contribution that Avery Dennison has achieved over the last half decade is enabling transparency, traceability and accountability for the apparel and retail industries through our digital and technology solutions, which allow industry leaders to see clearly where they can exact change within their supply chains to positively advance the triple bottom line.

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Our teams have set an example and translated our success into valuable innovations and solutions that are now driving our customers, retailers and consumers toward a sustainable ecosystem where circularity and regeneration can be realized. Beyond that, we are expanding our ambitions and setting our sights on 2030 and 2050 with broader goals for waste reduction, responsible sourcing and net-zero emissions.

What is your personal philosophy on shopping and caring for your clothes?

I work within the perfect industry as I love shopping and am very content investing my time and money there. However, my habits have changed considerably in the last few years. I am far more mindful about the volume that I buy, ensuring that I will get the wear out of each purchase. I am avid about using second-life websites to purchase and resell clothing, and have found some real gems. From a care perspective, I repair more and even installed a micro-waste catcher in the washing machine to collect the microfibers that are released from clothing in the cleaning process; it’s been fantastic but also horrifying to see the amount of waste that would otherwise come out in the rinse.

How much do you look into a brand’s social or environmental practices before shopping? 

Understanding the social and environmental practices of brands I choose to support are fundamental to my personal purchase decisions. Packaging is always a trigger point for me. I don’t like to purchase items that are packaged in excess or needless plastic or paper. On the surface, it’s easy for consumers to overlook, but it’s a major tell. If a company is not thinking about the simple things, they are not tackling the big issues that drive change. That’s a dealbreaker for me.

Anything new you are doing to boost sustainability beyond the fashion industry?  

Avery Dennison’s products and solutions touch countless industries from apparel to food, beauty to automotive, and many others in between. Our retail branding division has learned a lot from the labels and graphics side of the business, which has been at the forefront of recyclability and partner collaborations that are the crux of a sustainable ecosystem. The result is our Sustainable ADvantage portfolio, which addresses the physical characteristics of products we offer and brings us closer to 100 percent recyclability.

Now, we are moving into the digital space, thinking about how we can support brand transparency and aid product recycling using digital identities. On the apparel side, we envision a future where every garment is connected, meaning that manufacturers and consumers alike can understand each garment’s makeup from source to closet; alongside the product care instructions is the garment’s provenance and instructions for the product’s end of life. This level of transparency is scalable across many retail businesses and is a key to true regeneration, changing how societies manage manufacturing and consumer waste.

What are the biggest misconceptions consumers have about sustainability in fashion?

People tend to believe three assumptions about the fashion industry: It is glamorous. It is exploitative. It is wasteful. The audience reading this already knows which are true and false.

As consumers shop the latest seasonal trends, they may not realize the full scale of the complex ecosystem of designers, suppliers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers operating across global borders; but they are not blind to it either. They expect brands to be conscientious. They want brands to help them be more environmentally friendly and ethical. In fact, many consumers say they are willing to pay for more sustainable products. Manufacturers and retailers that are incorporating sustainability into their supply chains have a true business value proposition; those who don’t will find themselves losing out on revenue and cost savings.  I am looking forward to a time when the companies that are investing and innovating in this space are directly rewarded by all stakeholders, including consumers, but also brands and retailers.

There are two things I want consumers to know: the first is how much power they have to shape the industry’s waste problem through their own decisions to resell, donate, recycle and upcycle their clothing. Our retail solutions like digital care labels are helping to bridge that gap in awareness. The second relates to great care that has been taken through decades of audits, regulations, collaboration and increasing transparency to enact responsible governance that ensures employees within the broader supply chain are treated fairly and with respect.

What was your company’s biggest takeaway from the Covid crisis?

People come first. The RBIS division of Avery Dennison employs more than 20,000 employees around the globe. Covid-19 had, and continues to have, a tremendous impact on our teams in many areas. The safety of our employees is our number one priority—that includes the communities where they live.

The first thing we did was adjust our operations to ensure that we were protecting people from risk of exposure. Then, we turned to our Avery Dennison Foundation to financially support critical programs in the communities where we operate. We are also offering vaccination programs in locations where we can do so. It makes me very proud to work for a company that really cares about their workforce, and the communities in which it operates.

What is your company’s latest sustainability-related initiative?

Avery Dennison’s commitment to sustainability goes beyond initiatives. Our new 2030 sustainability goals and net-zero emissions by 2050 commitment are central to our processes and innovation. To achieve them, we are pioneering the intersection between digital and sustainable operations.

We’ve talked a lot about transparency and traceability because that visibility is what empowers companies to manage their supply chains with unprecedented precision. That capability directly correlates to waste and greenhouse gas reduction while accelerating speed to market. It also stretches beyond operations to consumers, activating their participation in the circular economy. Implementing digital infrastructure and offering physical products created with environmental benefits in mind is how we are advancing our customers’ and our own sustainability goals.

What is the apparel industry’s biggest missed opportunity related to securing meaningful change?

To activate the circular economy and create a foundation for a regenerative future. We are dogged about arousing companies and consumers to re-imagine waste through the broader value chain. The dramatic growth of the apparel industry and technological advancements over the past decade resulted in a new supply chain model that includes new systems, processes and innovations. As the landscape continues to evolve, it’s up to individual players across the industry to enact process improvements that enable waste regeneration through garment reuse and recycling.

Trust and collaboration are crucial to advancing environmental and social impact across the apparel industry. The integrity of a company’s supply chain in today’s world relies on the basic building blocks of accurate data and real-time information shared across industry partners from first thread to the consumer’s closet. We are developing a digital ecosystem to help our customers and industry at large better understand the physical world and the impact of decisions we make.