Justin Pariag is the Head of Sustainable Business at de Bijenkorf. Here he talks to us about the fast pace of change in the retail industry, the power of collaborative working, and the inspiration he draws from being part of a group of progressive business leaders. 

Sustainability and the natural world have always been my passion. My first degree was in environmental studies and ecology, and I went on to do multiple Masters in environmental science policy and management. I always thought I would work in government, but after three years as a researcher in environmental policy I realised that was not for me. Progress was too slow and the environment was too bureaucratic, and though I didn’t know it yet, I had a passion for the commercial world.  

It was during my first commercial job at PVH/Tommy Hilfiger that I realised I loved the pace and unpredictability of the retail industry. The excitement of new insights, and the ability to translate them to action at speed really suited my personality. After six years, I was hired by de Bijenkorf to develop, implement and lead their sustainability strategy, and it has been fantastic to see our progress so far; from our first vision of a mere direction of travel, to sustainability being the key driving force and mission within our business. 

A day as the head of sustainable is broad and diverse — which is what makes it so fun. Any given day could start with the development of our carbon reduction strategy, and within an hour I could be working on our ‘giving back’ and volunteering initiatives, or working with brand partners, or on-product communication.

The biggest challenge we are facing right now is the dire threat to our planet. It sounds a bit overly dramatic – but we really do have just ten years to make a systematic shift, to decarbonise our economy — and there is still so much to do. To relate this challenge to our own business it means we need to find a way to continue to grow in a profitable manner within our planetary boundaries. This is easier said than done, as our business is resource and energy intensive. From the materials (such as cotton) in the products we sell, to the shipping, packaging and use of these products by our customers, there are significant impacts all along the life cycle of everything we bring to market. We are working hard to address these challenges within our own operations, and with our brand partners, and have worked hard to decarbonise the physical space of our stores and set science-based targets. We need to embed sustainability at every level of the business at de Bijenkorf, we all need to change the way business is done. A change like this doesn’t happen overnight, it takes work, focus, continuity, and clarity. 

It sounds a bit overly dramatic – but we really do have just ten years to make a systematic shift, to decarbonise our economy — and there is still so much to do

In 2016, de Bijenkorf became the first Selfridges Group banner to join the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and in fact the first premium retailer to join the coalition. It seemed like a missed opportunity not to have retailers as part of the coalition, as our consolidated power could really change the industry. As customers to the brands, we have the power to drive progress if we work collectively, and really change the brand portfolio and the options they bring to market. We are members of the advisory council for the coalition’s brand and retailer module, perhaps the most relevant tool for the retail industry to improve transparency and insight into our brand partners. I am really proud of that work.

It is really exciting to see collaboration in the industry, and companies that would have traditionally been seen as competitors coming together to address our shared challenges. The rise of science in sustainability is really moving us towards real, focused, and measurable change. Developments in production processes, production locations, material innovation, even communication approaches are springing up almost monthly, and offer opportunities to all industry players to work together to reduce the overall impacts of our very impactful industry. The industry knows it needs to change and the majority of our brand partners know they cannot do this alone.

To me, the single most exciting opportunity to effect change is the fact that we are part of a group. And there are leaders in this group who want to foreground the talent, creativity, and drive of our people to make the world better, and the future greener. This is the reason why I am excited to come to work every day — it really is inspiring.