The missing piece to sustainability: putting people at the forefront with Livia Lee, CEO, lala Berlin
GUESTS FOR CHANGE with LIVIA LEE
Within the Guests for Change series, thought leaders, pioneers, visionaries, and game-changers are interviewed to give us more insight into the world of sustainability and circularity. Deep cultural roots and a humanistic approach is what sets lala Berlin apart. We are honored to have spoken with Livia Lee, CEO in this episode of Guests for Change.
Livia Lee, CEO of lala Belin GmbH, has helped to drive this renowned German brand into the forefront of both public acclaim and profitability. Her role impacts all areas of the business from finance to logistics, distribution/sales, e-commerce and brick/mortar retail while incorporating many of her core strengths in brand development and merchandising. Having had over two decades of experience in the fashion industry her skills in merchandising and operational excellence were honed during executive stints at global companies such as Lacoste, Victoria’s Secret, Diesel and the Gap.
Mostly having been involved on the product side of the fashion industry in the two decades leading up to this position, Livia shares exclusively with THE GUESTLIST that she never had the ambition to run a company. Moving into her current role at lala Berlin, she notes “On paper, no other company would have said ‘You’re a CEO, I can see it in you.’ It’s a belief in people and seeing what other assets they are able to contribute, and to really build on that to form a successful partnership as Leyla and I have been able to do in the last four years.” Leading up to this role she has had the opportunity to work with some amazing talents, absorbing the nuances involved in successfully leading a company. “I realise how much I’ve learned over the years in the roles that I’ve had in all these companies,” Livia shared with THE GUESTLIST. “Even if I had never managed finance, or if I had never managed HR, you absorb a lot if you’re listening. I have the opportunity now with lala Berlin to transfer that knowledge and those skills. It’s a good place to be, and it’s an exciting project for me.”
Image via lala Berlin GmbH
"where the world is today has propelled all companies, regardless of their size, to really think about their social positioning and where they stand, what they stand for, how they are affecting the world at large - not just the planet, but the community and our general surroundings."
The brand is built on Leyla’s heritage from Iran and the team behind it is made up of a diverse group of people from all areas of the world. And highlighting the personable within the brand is something that Livia strives to bring focus to, especially while navigating the topic of sustainability in her role as CEO. She shares that “This has been a topical moment for us. We’ve started to engage in discussions on social governance and also in the context of sustainability and what that means for us. Yes, we are a small business. But I think that where the world is today has propelled all companies, regardless of their size, to really think about their social positioning and where they stand, what they stand for, how they are affecting the world at large - not just the planet, but the community and our general surroundings. This is where lala Berlin is at. We are at a crossroads right now, having honest, open conversations around these larger topics. And because of our size, we are recognising the importance of it if we want to grow - or even sustain our business where it is.”
"what’s missing is a more holistic view of sustainability... Companies have a really good intentions in terms of sustainability and protecting the planet, but they are really focusing more on 'natural resources' versus the 'people resources.'"
Image via Getty Images
She continues, “The bigger issue for me, within the fashion industry and within industries in general, is that what’s missing is a more holistic view of sustainability. This is where, let’s say ‘greenwashing’ (not in the traditional definition of the word) has come to light. Companies have a really good intentions in terms of sustainability and protecting the planet, but they are really focusing more on ‘natural resources’ versus the ‘people resources.’”
There are case studies of companies that have gone this way. Such cases have become a lesson for many people - because that’s still greenwashing in Livia’s eyes: “You can create a product based on leftover fabric, not produce anything bad, be really transparent in terms of the resources that are used, but in the meantime the entire staff is not happy with the way that they’re being treated. They have forgotten about the sustainability of people, of the people in their organisation.”
“You can create a product based on leftover fabric, not produce anything bad, be really transparent in terms of the resources that are used, but in the meantime the entire staff is not happy with the way that they’re being treated. They have forgotten about the sustainability of people."
“This, for me, is the crux of where a lot of companies fall short. We think about saving the planet - we want to save a tree, the ocean, reduce plastic - and we forget about the people piece of it, the education that is required internally and externally, and the social positioning of lifting up underserved communities. Because once that happens, then we are all truly moving on the same path and lifting each other up to the same educational level in terms of what it means to use the resources indefinitely or in an irresponsible way that doesn’t secure the future generations that may have nothing by the time they’re my age.”
"My focus has always been people. Yes, we sell clothing, yes, that’s what drives our business, but it couldn’t happen without people."
This has formed the crux of the sustainability and social governance approach at lala Berlin. “We are ensuring that we have an eye on the resources - also in terms of people resources, because the planet is made up of not just the natural and ecological effects that we want to support. People are part of the planet too. My focus has always been people. Yes, we sell clothing, yes, that’s what drives our business, but it couldn’t happen without people,” Livia says. “So when we think about the extended lala family - our key clients, our key customers - they’re all part of that community that we want to stay connected to.”
"This means that we are parallely introducing new product lines and new items within the collection that we can proudly say have been responsibly made from root to nuts."
Forging that connection through the brand and the company as a whole is something that Livia and Leyla have actively pursued, both in the past and within the current global pandemic. For Livia, it’s about taking small and consistent steps in the right direction. She reflects on their response to the pandemic. “When I think about last year, in March, when Corona had its first effects on the world, Leyla and I were having some very feisty discussions in terms of how can we help? And, quite frankly, if you’re going to have a fiesty discussion, it should be about something like how are we helping people as opposed to anything else! This was when we came up with this idea of the masks. We had leftover fabric, so let’s just create some masks. This was before the requirement of FP2, so we did that, and we donated 100% of the proceeds to charities that we felt we were close to. One of the major charities was assisting mothers who were dealing with their children without support in isolated situations during Corona.”
Image via Gpoint Studio
"I would be happy if they know us as lala Berlin who supports their community in a different way. I’m happy to be known for that as well.”
This type of humanistic approach is woven into the DNA of the brand. Livia shares, “When Leyla first started lala Berlin, as an immigrant coming from Germany herself, she started to work with Syrian refugees who were coming from Syria to Germany. She worked with them to try to give them a start in life - whether it was starting out in the office or helping to sew in the atelier. These are the things that we try to do - sometimes on an ad hoc basis - but now we are going to strategise this in a more formal way so that we continuously have these projects in place to support that wider community. We’re not just the lala Berlin that’s a great contemporary brand with our influencers who like us. It’s also about reaching out to other people who otherwise would not know us - and we may not want them to know us as a fashion brand. I would be happy if they know us as lala Berlin who supports their community in a different way. I’m happy to be known for that as well.”
"we are not running a charitable business. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t do good and contribute. And contributing is spreading the message to the wider community.”
In this vein of being known not only as someone who clothed, but also as someone who helped, demonstrates just how important people are in this regard. It takes the stance of a profitable brand that opens doors - in a myriad of ways.
Social governance and sustainability go hand in hand. “The people aspect and the educational aspect whether internally or externally act as a driving force for everything that we do. So if our internal teams understand the importance of sustainability, and what that means from a resource point, and if we can spread that message outwardly and we have the opportunity to share our best practices with other companies, this is how we can spread the message a bit more worldwide - broader than ourselves and the four walls that we live in. This is where social responsibility becomes hugely important because social is society, it’s people, it’s all these things connected. So if we have a message, because we are still here to make money, so all of these decisions are obviously tied still to profitability, you can be profitable while doing good. And this is for me to create this balance along with Leyla, in terms of how we balance both of those things - because we are not running a charitable business here. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t do good and contribute. And contributing is spreading the message to the wider community.”
Within this mindful approach, if there was one piece of advice that Livia would like to share with the world today, she mentions something simple: “Be kind to each other. I think that’s what we miss in the world today at the most basic level - to just be kind to one another and recognise each other as human beings."