Spanish fashion MBA students from Universidad de Navarra in Madrid sampled the front lines of business through a group consulting project with Saga Furs, yielding surprisingly positive findings for both sides.
Associate Professor Javier de Rivera Mendizábal, who worked closely with the MBA students, acknowledges that “Of all the private sector companies we work with, Saga Furs is the most challenging.” Why? “The students allocated to Saga Furs tend to fall into two groups, they either love fur or they’re totally against it. Only a few are indifferent.” That means from the outset the two extremes begin trying to sway each other over to their respective sides.
For Saga Furs, from a stakeholder dialogue standpoint, this dynamic offers maximum learning. This year the programme even went one step further. Charlie Ross, Saga Furs Business Manager Sustainability and Supply-chain Management, who has been multiple years with the Universidad de Navarra partnership, says: “For the first time ever, we wanted to delve into the personal experiences and journeys of the individual students.”
According to Ross, the fact that some of them weren’t thrilled to be working on a fur project made it even more interesting. “The students didn’t know what to expect but as they did their research, they gradually gained respect for the industry and for Saga.”
Framing the problem
The young millennials set out first to frame the core challenges for Saga Furs in telling their sustainability story and keeping their competitive sustainability advantage in today’s difficult market? Notably asking the question: what is the message that would motivate millennials to buy fur sourced from Saga?
On the research side, de Rivera Mendizábal encouraged the students to delve more deeply into language use. The students needed a definition of sustainability. They began with the Brundtland Report, which defined sustainability in 1987 as: the ability to meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
“It’s interesting,” says de Rivera Mendizábal, “that this widely accepted definition of sustainability has no mention of animal rights, which is not to say it’s not important, but it was a sign to the students that we might be mixing things.” This sparked a long and complex debate. Might there be things other than sustainability behind animal activism?
Looking through the layers
For students used to consuming content on social media as sound bites or tweets, it was not easy at first to look through all the layers and perspectives. For example, animal activists say animals have rights. Saga Furs is not saying animals don’t have rights. Fur animals sourced from Saga Furs supplier farmers are raised under strict animal welfare guidelines, which are audited and suppliers are held accountable.
The students also found themselves getting emotional, or worse, confrontational. De Rivera Mendizábal explains that in the Spanish language there is only one translation for the English verb to discuss, that is discutir. “In our minds it means to argue or confront.” The students had to ask themselves: what’s going to take us further, a discussion or a confrontation? The goal was to try to put on other glasses. Look at the world in different contexts. Then apply it to larger management and teamwork learning goals.
Among the nine students, those against fur and those in favour succeeded in opening up space to discuss their differences and share their thoughts and values. “This brought a shift in the mindset within the whole group,” de Rivera Mendizábal asserts, adding “this ability to tackle problems with purpose, based on values and through exploring all perspectives will make them better people and better professionals.”
What do millennials want?
In their final presentation and report, the students conclude that millennials continue to want fur for fashion but that sustainability must be a guarantee. A supplier farm must be environmentally sound with the highest standards of animal welfare, but the millennial customer doesn’t need to see it to be convinced.
Ross says: “What the students were very strong on was not wanting to see animals or anything in the shape of an animal.” They’ll make their own opinion based on online research but visually they’re only interested in the final product. “With this in mind,” Ross concludes, “if there’s any value in the Saga sustainability program it’s the confidence these students and other millennials have been able to gain in us.”
“It’s a complex discussion,” de Rivera Mendizábal affirms “and a very successful partnership that we need to continue.”
Throughout the six-month project, Saga took an active role in mentoring the students in best practices reviewing their presentation materials and skills, teaching them professionalism and helping them think strategically. Julio Suarez-Christiansen, Business Director, Saga Furs, who’s been associated with the programme for 15 years concludes: “We get rich and relevant content from them and in return we give them business and professional training. It’s quid pro quo with a lot of value on both sides.”
|“This year was special because for the first time the mandate for the students was to look into their emotional responses to fur and then to look beyond these to explore the wider context.”
Javier de Rivera Mendizábal – Associate Professor, Universidad de Navarra
“The students were consulting for the first time to a publicly-listed company, to people they didn’t know, and dealing with a controversial subject. They did a great job.”
Charlie Ross, Saga Furs Business Manager Sustainability and Supply-chain Management
“If you were to ask why are we doing this? Teaming up with the right resources. These young millennials represent the future of the fashion industry.”
Julio Suarez-Christiansen, Business Director, Saga Furs
“After a lot of time researching the many anti-fur movements, we realized there were no counter movements for people in favour of using fur in apparel. This would help balance the public debate.”
Executive Fashion MBA Students, Universidad de Navarra
|“We’ll make our opinions on Saga Furs’ sustainability record based on online research and their ability to earn our trust, but we don’t want to see animals in cages.”
Executive Fashion MBA Students, Universidad de Navarra
|“It was reassuring to see that students openly opposed to fur production at the outset of the project converted to a new viewpoint after carrying educated sustainability research. Certainly all of them are now able to see the clear ecological benefits of using fur in fashion.”
Marika Peuhkuri-Grön, CSR Programme Manager, Saga Furs