We recently sat down with Helen Sahi (@HelenSahi), senior director, Global Sustainability, at Avery Dennison and long-time SB Corporate Member whose made many contributions to the SB Advisory Board, to discuss her career and what keeps her excited about sustainability.
Many of you already know Helen and that she is a woman of many talents. Read more to get her take on where sustainability has been, where it currently is, where it should be and how we can get there quickly.
What project are you most excited about right now?
HS: We’re working on several projects right now. One that I’m really excited about focuses on using more sustainable materials, embedding sustainability into operations and partnering with suppliers and customers so that we can affect sustainability across the entire system. We’re looking at sustainability at a higher level, considering the bigger picture.
There’s a lot of working being done around digital technology right now. There’s one solution, Janela™, which is Portuguese for window, that I’m excited about. It is the ability to use on product trim as a connector to digital content by leveraging an internet of things platform with our partners at Evrythng. By giving every product a digital profile in the cloud, brands can drive 1:1 consumer engagement which enables incredible use cases for sustainability consumer education and traceability. For example, if you have a jacket with an RFID tag that has a corresponding QR code, a shopper can scan the code on a mobile phone and see where the product was made, what it’s made of and more.
We’re beginning to roll out a pilot project to communicate with consumers about the sustainability of their products. We’re doing this in tandem with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). It has the Higg Index, which measures how sustainable a product is. For the pilot project, Janela informs the consumer how environmentally friendly the factories are that produced the garments.
Ultimately, I’m just really excited about digital and how digital can make us a more transparent world, giving the consumer the information they need to make a more informed decision.
What inspires and drives you to work on sustainability?
HS: I’ve been working in sustainability for almost 30 years now. When you’re in the thick of things, the tendency is to keep wanting things to move ahead faster knowing that there is more to be done. But when you actually stop and think where we were 20 or 30 years ago, you realize that as a society, we’ve come a long way. Companies have come along way. Sustainability isn’t just a “nice to have” anymore, now, it’s part of how many companies do business. When I look ahead five, 10, 20 years from now, I see the possibilities of doing so much more.
A lot of us, especially in sustainability, have been doing this for a while and can get a bit discouraged. I really encourage us to take a minute to stop, recognize where we were, where we are today, and where we need to be. It’s exciting that we still have a lot to do. You’ve got to get up every morning to push that agenda.
Can you share something about yourself that would surprise us? Any hidden talents?
HS: I’m a pretty open book, but something that people might not know is that I’m an amateur archer. I've picked up my bow again recently and started practicing. I'm hoping to start competing soon. I got into archery years ago when my kids got into it. For years I was a national archery judge. I travel a lot, so it's tough to fit it in, but when I'm home, I try to practice a few times a week. We have a target in our yard and basement. When I travel, I carry around a band so I can practice my form in the hotel room. Also, many of you probably already know that I love to cook!
If you had unlimited time and resources, what type of work would you want to collaborate with fellow SB Members on?
HS: I would love to work with at least four or five members within a supply chain and really dig into the Future Fit business benchmarks and how to actually grade products and services on them.
At Avery Dennison, we know that the materials, products, and solutions we have are more sustainable. But the question is not only are they more sustainable, but are they truly sustainable? When we look at the Natural Step sustainability principles, upon which our goals are based, and the Future Fit Business Benchmarks, the benchmarks can serve as a way to measure whether you're meeting the Natural Step Principles.
We have done some work with Natural Step, as well as with Supply Shift, in putting some of our data into a database that looks at the 21 KPIs within the Future Fit business benchmarks. It would be great to have other members collaborate with us on that and take this work further.
What do you work on in your free time?
HS: I'm working on my MBA at the moment at the University of the People. I chose them because I love the founder's philosophy that everyone should have access to education at every level, for free. It's a fully accredited university with a small application fee. I want to support that. There are professors and students from all over the world, and it's all online.
I decided to get an MBA because I wanted to formalize many concepts or work that I’ve been doing for years in my career. I also love going to school and learning. Getting the online degree makes it work with my busy travel schedule.
Why is your participation in the SB Member Network important?
HS: I could go on forever as to why SB Membership is important! I've made new friends through the network, who I love — people from all over the world who I continue to keep in contact with. I've learned so much from people that have been in the network for years, just from conversation in networking breaks. I've learned from panel discussions, breakout sessions, from people who have been doing this for 20+ years to new entrepreneurs speaking about projects that they're working on. Last year, we heard from local high school students about what they're doing — so for me, that's fantastic from a personal level.
I also love the SB Member Network because you have people from all walks of life — from HR to finance to sustainability — there's something for everyone at each meeting, whether it's in Copenhagen, New York or Detroit. Or even New Metrics, where we dig into those numbers that CFOs and sustainability geeks love.
I've brought my finance partner to both the Flagship Conference and New Metrics. I've brought someone from sustainability, HR, communications and procurement. Everybody's gained something very positive out of it — not just learning but making new connections. To me, Sustainable Brands is the all-encompassing Member Network.
Anything else you'd like to share with fellow SB Members?
HS: What stands out to me, especially with New Metrics coming up, is the fact that for so many years companies have always been trying to do less bad. I’ve seen the tide change and see more companies trying to do good and using science-based targets.
The other big takeaway that I've seen over the years is an increase in collaboration. Even though we all have competitors, or operate in different fields, we’re all working on sustainability. We’ve realized that to really make a difference, we need to collaborate. Otherwise, none of us will be in this business.
When I first started in this role, I didn’t realize how crucial collaboration would be. At first, my mentality was such that I recognized that driving sustainability within the company conveyed a huge market advantage. However, over time I realized that a true leader brings everyone else along as well. If you’re out in front and nobody is following you, you’re not a leader. Healthy competition is supposed to push everyone forward. Striving in common means we’re all pushing ourselves to get better.