An insight conversation with sustainability expert, Rossella Ravagli, about her career in Luxury, commitments and real changes inside the Fashion Industry and ways to build a better future.

Sustainability advocate, passionate and driven by purpose could very well define the character and personality of Rossella Ravagli. She is an executive trailblazer and change maker working in the field 24 years ago. 

After earning a degree in Statistical and Economic Sciences from the University of Bologna and a master’s degree in quality, she started her career in consulting services. In 1996 she became CSR manager for different types of companies and sectors, auditing, training and dealing with certifications at worldwide level business. 

From 2008 to 2020 she was “Head of Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility” at fashion luxury brand Gucci, owned by Kering Group, where she created the CSR department, defined, developed and implemented the sustainability strategy and all the projects and targets related. 

She led the company to achieve internationally recognized leadership on sustainability, besides increasing the culture and raising awareness around the topic globally. Builder of relationships with key global stakeholders and Chair of Sustainability Committees, she’s been a member of the Board since 2009. 

She was co-author of The Evolution of CSR in Gucci: From Risk Management to Stakeholder Engagement, almost a decade ago. Their views remain current and necessary to build the future for a more ethical fashion

Interviewer: Is sustainability now a hot topic or is it a fad?  

Rossella Ravagli: It is an urgent topic, in fact. Fashion, fortunately, is becoming more and more careful about its impact worldwide, the businesses are changing, and there is a lot of movement around the fashion system right now. Sustainability needs to be included in the agenda of all companies; it is not a fad. 

But you are raising an important topic, we need to be very careful to avoid “greenwashing”. Meaning, to talk a lot, and to have very poor projects in place or even the wrong ones.

Sometimes I hear that a company says, “Oh, we are sustainable” but then, if we fact check them, they only just have a single piece of sustainable sourced product in their collection. That is not enough. Or when a company decides to donate a lot of money as a philanthropy activity, it is good, but it is not enough. 

To be sustainable, in fact, all businesses need to have a strategy in place, and that means having a vision, a roadmap of activities for the short, for the medium and for the long terms. These integrated business strategies need to be analysed and approved on a top management level, because it is the only way to start a real change inside of the company.

I: Then, would you say some practices and business models are part of the problem? 

RR: A change of culture is a must. That is a fundamental point to approach sustainability, because it is something that needs to be managed in a holistic way, in a 360 degrees way, not only related to external communication, but also H.R. related and so on.

In the end, people are at the center of the strategy. It is crucial to create a culture where people are on board, all the people inside of the company. 

Production is a strategic part of the value chain, with sourcing raw materials and producing the goods that will be sold in stores, so the retail department has to be involved, sales assistants, managers too. It is a difficult road, but it is easier now than 10 years ago. 

Now we are addressing key topics such as waste, strictly connected to the business model of fashion, we need to think on the optimisation of the collections to avoid it, and to create a more effective production, processing less waste or to figure out how to reuse it. 

 “When you buy a product that is respecting the environment and respecting people you are buying values”

I: To achieve optimisation, we must start with design then, as a key tool, is that accurate?  

RR: Absolutely, creative departments need to have a designer that starts to think with the criteria of the ecodesign, testing new materials, and imagining all different possibilities. 

Creativity needs to be absolutely open, because you cannot put a barrier on it, but it is fundamental to share with the creative department that there are some materials that, in terms of impact or social and environmental perspective, are better than others. Cotton, for example, we need to be careful with the source of it, because from Uzbekistan or India might mean child’s labor. Besides, considering its incredible use of pesticide, water and land use that requires. 

It is fundamental to train people inside of the company, create a culture in the whole supply chain, that is why you must engage with your suppliers. From a design perspective we must figure out how to deal with overstock, and warehouses full of products that cannot be burnt and must not end in a landfill.

“Now there is a mantra. Less is more”

I: Circular or a more ethical fashion can change (or is changing) the structures of the fashion system as it is right now. What are the key issues?

RR: As I said, it has to be with a real change of culture. I think the pandemic was a sort of an accelerator, in all levels, for raising attention to unsolved issues. Now, these fashion or consumerism problems are under the light of many people, we must think about new business models

Circular economy is an incredible approach to fight overproduction. The second hand market, for example, is part of the solution, but it was not something very common some years ago, especially in the luxury sector, but now we are seeing some progress.   

On the other hand, the key issues are in terms of transparency and traceability, meaning seeing very well where your clothes are made and where your materials come from as an effort to a more ethical way of producing. 

In this new approach of a business model, customers also have a responsibility about their consumption, they need to be more aware about the value of the product and the work conditions that made it possible. 

“It is a responsibility for all, the future luxury customers and future generations”

I: As a global effort, where does it need to start? Governments, citizens, fashion holdings, or stakeholders?

RR: I believe in a multistakeholder approach. The government needs to have a responsibility, as policy policymaker, it is fundamental for the creation of new laws for new types of monitoring and controlling the investments.

Corporate business, especially the big fashion conglomerates, have an incredible role in terms of changing the business models. They can have a big impact because they work as a system and work with many suppliers around the world engaging with a lot of people directly and indirectly; they have influence. 

They can offer new experiences in terms of e-commerce, for example. But the ultimate responsibility is also to offer customers a sense of purpose when they shop. Fortunately, many companies are starting to speak inside the need of a new culture, a culture based on values, to be a purpose driven company.

“The sustainability lead inside the company needs to be an orchestra director”

I: How did you start in this field as a sustainability advocate?

RR: I started 24 years ago around quality, certification bodies, but since the beginning I met social responsibility. However, to be honest in 1997 the definition of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) was not in place because the definitions may vary, even until today, all of them related with Sustainable Development.

It was all very informal inside companies at international level. I remember when a CEO of the company told me that was some new topic that we would like to assign you because we think that you are the best person to develop everything. The fact was, everything was new for everybody.

I spent a lot of time researching, reading many books and traveling a lot. It was an incredible experience, I had the occasion to visit some factories in China, Pakistan, Brazil and in Africa, I had an incredible experience in the agricultural sector in Kenya. I saw some critical situations in terms of violation of human rights and worker rights environments. So, I gained this experience and every year I told myself: No, this cannot continue, they [the company] need to absolutely embrace this challenge. 

Then I prepared many tools and many courses to raise the awareness needed, to imply to the CEO and the Board that it was a good strategic topic to reinforce. Building a strong reputation means to be able to manage everything, the bright side, the difficulties and, obviously, the expected criticism.

“In terms of sustainability, to be honest, I always try to work to make a difference”

I: Do you think fashion’s inside corporate culture has changed since you started? How?

RR: In my experience, yes. I come from a company where I started to believe everything is possible. When I joined Gucci at the end of 2008, and I was alone, I managed to build everything. I started using the training leverage again, because it was a challenge to create a Social Responsibility culture for a fashion company where, the primary mission in theory, is profit.

The first year I trained 700 people inside the brand from managers, employees and production teams to understand why this is necessary and what are the implications of their management decisions, such as, opening a store, to be thinking of the suppliers, the sourced materials, the workers conditions abroad, for example. It is a step-by-step. 

In the beginning it was very difficult to work with the Creative Department, the quality of sustainable materials back in the day was not very good. But now, the effect inside the design teams is incredible, they are engaged, they have a list of material that they can use, or not to use and which ones are better to use.

As an example, when we started the process of auditing the supply chain, at the beginning, the supplier was scared with the process. And then after a short time, they said: “Why do you not visit me this year? I want you to come and see us!” They understood that, in the end, it is an added value.

The holistic project it is called (Gucci) Equilibrium, it is a balance, you cannot do everything right away, right? But you have to start and, I can tell you, it is possible to change. 

“People define me as a pioneer, but I am passionate for sure about it, because it felt right inside me. Now I am very happy to realise that, yes it was all true, because this [sustainability] is the way”

I: Gucci, as a brand, has been very active engaging in social issues lately.

RR: Yes, no doubt, the refugees or the diversity and inclusion programs, are something on which I am very proud of because these last years, fortunately, inside of the company conversations about these fundamental issues started, which is not always easy to implement; mainly due to stereotypes related to women, LGBT community, people with disabilities, racial issues. In this sense, to train people is the only way, because, even if you have an open culture, you can discriminate even if you do not intend to.

Inclusion inside the company is a value. Sometimes it all starts, unfortunately, from some concerns and discrimination, but it was a sort of call to action to the company. They have now in place a committee or a person in charge to manage diversity and inclusion.

I: Very unusually forward for a fashion brand… 

RR: Personally, in the last year, I suggested taking part in migration issues, to integrate some refugees in the company. It was an incredible project, we organized a “Human Library”, a space where refugees could share and tell their experience. I remember I received a lot of emails from my colleagues saying good things about this action, people cried at the end of some speeches, it was a really emotional involvement, it was an incredible moment. 

The project finished with the incorporation inside of the company of ten or thirteen refugees. It was remarkable because it opened the door, we needed to demonstrate that it is possible.

“Regeneration; I think that the new word after sustainability is regeneration”

I: What are your next professional steps? How do you see the future of CSR?

RR: To embrace new challenges, a new professional life. I love activities where I permit myself to transmit knowledge, I always tried to maintain a strong connection with academics, mentoring as many students as I can. Also, I am in contact with many startups because I believe that the change of business mindset has to be through innovation.

As for the future of CSR, from one side, the awareness of these topics has increased a lot in fashion companies, they now have a strong commitment and good implementation of their strategy. But, on the other side, the definitive way to create a significant impact and guarantee a social justice for everybody, around the world, is still a long journey.