The Future of Retail and Social Impact

Over 130 attendees gathered to hear from retail executives Amy Hall, vice president of social consciousness, Eileen Fisher; Jennifer Gootman, vice president of sustainability, Williams-Sonoma, Inc.; and Jesse Sneath, director of social innovation, Warby Parker. Business for Impact at Georgetown University’s McDonough School Business, together with Georgetown’s graduate Retail and Luxury Association (GRLA), hosted a panel discussion, “The Future of Social Impact in Retail,” on Feb. 11. Vishal Agrawal, Provost’s Distinguished Lapeyre Family Associate Professor, moderated the event.

The retail executives discussed how sustainability is transforming their companies and the retail industry. Also, they shared how social impact has helped to drive their own career paths. Hall (SLL’83) kicked off the discussion and noted that she is a Georgetown alum (B’ 83) who majored in Chinese and is an avid cyclist who built her own bike from bamboo. “After spending nine years fundraising for nonprofits, I answered an ad to be an assistant at Eileen Fisher, then a small women’s clothing company, where I held several jobs before combining my fundraising ability with a desire to contribute to helping people,” said Hall.

As a Chinese speaker during a time when almost all of the company’s production was occurring in China, Hall found herself in a fortuitous position — she was able to communicate directly with suppliers. As the company’s new manager of social accountability, she immediately began to focus on the company’s supply chain as news about sweatshops was beginning to make national headlines and decided to take action to bring a human rights lens to the company’s work. Today, Hall is continuing the work she began to position the company as leaders in human, environmental, and economic stability. Hall is also guiding the company to align with its Benefit and B Corporation status and Quadruple Bottom Line framework, and wants to influence their customers and future generations on sustainability. “Create change from the bottom up,” said Hall. “When visiting the base of your supply chains, you need to understand how farmers or whoever is crafting the product are growing the materials. Look into their practices and then engage them to think differently about improving those practices.”

A friend of a friend told Sneath that one of her friends was working on a startup and that she should get in touch. Nearly 10 years later, Sneath is now the director of social innovation at Warby Parker. Sneath recalled that the first conversation with the founders. “It surprised me, as I did not think my belief system could be mirrored in a company’s mission,” said Sneath. Her first job was in customer experience where she realized in order to take good care of the customer, it was equally important to focus on the employees. “If the employees are also mission driven, then the customer would be in good hands,” said Sneath.

For the last eight years, Sneath has been running the company’s social innovation team, which includes the company’s Buy a Pair, Give a Pair program. Sneath expanded on this program and began the Pupil Project, which gives free screenings and glasses to students in New York City schools. To date, we’ve distributed over 100,000 pairs of glasses and plan to screen over 270,000 students in NYC this school year.The program is currently serving students in New York City, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. “Look for these careers as the job can live under many divisions within a company and it’s a continually evolving space,” said Sneath. “Our employees usually come to us for our social mission, and all teams need to understand what they are doing and why they are doing it.”

Gootman is now the vice president of sustainability for Williams-Sonoma, Inc., where she spearheads social and environmental impact across the company’s eight brands. Before Williams-Sonoma, Inc., Gootman had several careers shifts, including being a travel writer and working as an executive in several nonprofit. She realized she wanted to find a career where she could follow her passion. “While in Nicaragua for a summer program, I did a consulting project to encourage youth to stay in school, which inspired me to combine my love to create with business,” said Gootman. In 2013, Gootman went to work for West Elm, a modern furniture and home décor company, a brand of Williams-Sonoma, Inc. She started there when the brand made its first public commitment to scale handcrafted products. Then, she launched the company’s partnership with Fair Trade USA, the leading certifier of fair trade products in North America. The company just celebrated five years of partnership, and is the first global home retailer to partner with this organization. “A commitment to craft and how things are made is what drives me, and those who work in sustainability see things how they could be not how they are,” said Gootman. “A company needs both visibility and ripple effects. The Board and the CEO need to be interested and engaged — you need that level of accountability and insight. Cross function ownership is key, and is the only way to drive programs forward.”

Students from the GRLA helped to organize this event along with Business for Impact. “It is critically important to connect students with business leaders who inspire them,” said Daniel Schneider-Weiler (MBA’21), president of GRLA. “All three companies are  great examples of how the retail industry is responding to sustainability.” Olivia Wujek (MiM’20) said, “I care about the underlying mission of a company, as I want to align my work in the future with purpose. I am looking for companies that truly make a positive impact on the world.”

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