Eco-Age CEO Simon Whitehouse on Sustainability, Leadership, and Mental Health

Our Chief Brand Officer Harriet Vocking asks Eco-Age’s newly-announced Chief Executive Officer Simon Whitehouse for his views on the conversations shaping the future of business globally. 

Note for readers: this article discusses mental health and suicide.

On February 19th, finally the secret was out and Eco-Age was able to share the exciting news that Simon Whitehouse has joined the company as Chief Executive Officer. Previously the CEO of JW Anderson and following that Art Partner, Simon’s varied experience across fashion, art and advocacy work is an invaluable addition to the Eco-Age team. As the company’s co-founder Nicola Giuggioli takes on the position of chairman, this moment marks a new chapter in Eco-Age’s history since its beginnings in 2008.

“Eco-Age is a very special company, quite unique, and Simon’s experience but mostly his humanity makes him the best CEO Nicola and I could have ever dreamt of,” said Creative Director Livia Firth. So, with Simon settling in, we thought it was about time to get his thoughts on a few of the pressing issues facing businesses and brands across the globe.

On Leadership

What three things should be on the top of every CEO’s priority list at this moment in time?

Wow, you go right into the direct questions, haha! A CEO’s priorities are a complex cobweb at the best of times, made even more abstruse by the global pandemic we are all experiencing. It helps to keep it simple, and I align myself with:

  1. Are our people OK? (Human beings)
  2. Are we all clear where we’re going? (Purpose)
  3. Are we all on the same page? (Teamwork)

The fourth is what do we need to be better (resources), but you only asked me for three!

Of course, there are a plethora of deeper considerations. But fundamentally, I feel for any organisation, if the human beings are all OK (meaning stimulated, recognised, healthy, free to give ideas), with a clear purpose for the business (a big meaningful goal, inspired to create, doing the right thing, pioneering) and all working together for the same cause (meaning supporting, challenging, driving each other, having the courage to be candid, going the extra mile for the team) then you’re already half-way there. Keep it simple. What’s the proverb – if you want to go fast, go alone… If you want to go far, go together.

In terms of specific ‘issues’ as priorities, I believe questions such as: am I ensuring our team is diverse, culturally empathetic, driven and progressive? Are we doing the right thing for our planet, and our fellow human beings? Are we future proofing our business for scale, with/from technology, and crucially: in an ethical way? Are we on the right track financially, and are we being fair and moral with those profits? And if we are doing so in all of these aspects then, are we compounding these things to influence the world around us into the positive change we want to see on a societal level?

What should leadership look like in action, and what can today’s leaders learn from the next generation? 

Leadership is many things… Leadership is never asking someone to do something which you would not do yourself. Leadership is always choosing to be positive. Leadership is constantly moving forward, while always supporting from the back. Leadership is injecting urgency but knowing when to take a time-out. Leadership is taking ownership and accountability. Leadership is building people up, not knocking them down. Leadership is challenging others, and more importantly oneself, to strive to be better – always. Leadership is showing the way, walking the difficult path to make it easier for others to follow. Good leadership earns respect, not fear.

Anyone, at any level, in any position, can be a leader. Leadership is not hierarchy. In my opinion, they are two very different things, and just because someone has a business title does not make them a leader. The first step is to be positive, always. On its most fundamental level – no gossiping, no criticism of colleagues, not taking things personally, turning any negative aspect into a positive learning opportunity to become a better more professional form of oneself. These things may seem trivial but it’s human nature, and they happen in some of the largest corporations in the world. Eradicate all negativity, for what is for certain is that negative things will come by themselves – that’s just life and that’s business! Leadership is how we deal with those negative things when they come at us.

The question is not what today’s leaders can learn from the next generation. The next generation are already today’s leaders, in my opinion. The question, I feel, is how we can step out of the way and help to build the framework for the new leaders to influence the here, the now and the future.

On Sustainability

What does sustainability mean to you, and where do you think the conversation is heading next?

Sustainability to me means doing the right thing when nobody is watching. Not doing the right thing in a greenwashing campaign while everyone is watching – please excuse my frankness! To me, it means absolute authenticity and transparency. The literal definition is ‘the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level’, meaning a commitment to ensure that we leave our earth and her resources at the level in which we found her and them. But this isn’t enough, and all the facts, figures and horrifying images we see of our earth melting, on fire, prove that. No sane person can deny the planet is in crisis, and so to be sustainable is not enough.

We need to progress towards replenishment, and regeneration, so that we can reverse the deficit that extreme capitalism and our collective ignorance have created. And we need to do it NOW. URGENTLY. And I say collective ignorance because we are one entire human race that inhabits this planet, despite how politics and society have divided us. Wherever we feel we are on the scale of ‘I do my part, and others are to blame’, we cannot step back – we have to take deeper accountability. We all simply must work harder and better to have the science and facts unite us. And surely our common goal must be to leave planet earth in a healthier place than how we found it. This needs to happen at absolute macro global level, NOW. URGENTLY.

What does true innovation within sustainability look like in action?

We need to be vigilant about innovation and sustainability today – as I said before, things are going so fast right now with innovation that ethics could be, once again, forgotten. For example, innovation as regards to certain fibres is great, particularly if they can be recycled infinitely like our client Aquafil’s regenerated nylon, ECONYL® .

Innovation as regards to applications that allow us to map incredibly complex supply chains, such as Sourcemap, is great.  Or HB Antwerp, again our client, which guarantees traceability of diamonds from the moment they are unearthed to when they end up on your piece of jewellery. Innovation in creativity and all the things that you can do today to tell a story, like what Eco-Age achieved with the Green Carpet Fashion Awards last year, mixing holograms and real game engines for augmented reality, then it’s fantastic and exciting.  But there is a whole side of technology and sustainability which is scary, like automation in factories, for example, dressed as efficiency … Are we going to remove human beings from the equation? We need to be vigilant and we need to be authentic, and this is what excites me about the wealth of knowledge from the Eco Age team; they have both qualities to help navigate this moment in history.

On Eco-Age

So tell us, what’s next?

Any CEO worth their salt will always take time to digest everything, from all angles, before major commitments, so it’s a little early in the day for me. What we do know for sure is that our commitment to our clients is as strong as ever, and we’re looking into major progressive elements of sustainability to service them even better for our collective futures. We’re also refining our communication strategies in pioneering ways, and creating incredible strategic partnerships to extend our depth, reach and impact.

With the world changing at such incredible pace living through this cultural and technological revolution in our lifetime, all accelerated by the pandemic, the importance of learning with/from and developing our team is paramount so we can all be anticipating the opportunities and threats that come with this vast transition. All of this will benefit our core business of being the strategic partner, a critical friend, to our clients. And, of course, we have the Green Carpet Fashion Awards 2021 on the horizon for October…

At Eco-Age, creativity is intertwined with a progressive approach to sustainability. What does creativity mean for you? Why is it so important and valuable to the conversation?

Creativity is art.

Art is freedom of expression.

Without art we have nothing, and we are nothing, just void.

And so, creativity is the greatest catalyst for change.

On Mental Health

You have long been a campaigner for mental health. Could you tell us more about why you think it is so important? 

I am a vocal advocate of mental health because I have lived it first-hand. My family has been ravaged by it. I live with chronic depression. My brother lives with schizophrenia. I know several people who have committed suicide, as did I almost back in 2009. I speak openly while I recognise others may struggle to do so. And so, I feel the understanding, empathy and vocabulary around the entire spectrum of mental health needs addressing. NOW. URGENTLY. Because we all have some experience of it, whether personally or within our families, so why should we feel any shame about this?

Not only that, but with regards to the resources in general that are provided at governmental level to provide proper support to those in need I find – quite frankly – disgusting. So many of the most genius minds, historical figures, on the planet were supposedly “mentally ill” yet we celebrate them generations later for how they changed the world for the better. Then we still ignore the ostracisation of children in schools based on them being “special needs”. And this stigma persists throughout adulthood; the ostracisation continues throughout working society, as we remain in awe of the taboo of this stigmatised conversation. All the while, the world we live in degrades across many levels – it doesn’t make any sense! We should not marginalise these “crazy” people, we should be seeing what genius ideas and solutions they have to make the world a better place…

My personal project EBIT™Enjoy Being In Transition™ is an artistic movement of cultural moments that emerge to provoke dialogue around mental health in fashion, music, and all aspects of art. Initial projects with Glen Luchford, Michel Gaubert, M/M (Paris), and DJ John Digweed, together with Soo Joo Park across all elements with me to bring it to life. I just felt to approach the whole conversation from a totally fresh perspective and be the first to do so in the fashion arena in a meaningful, subliminal, and progressive way. It’s also a play on the words ‘EBIT’ and ‘EBITDA’, which literally mean profit (Earnings Before Interest & Tax) and the way extreme capitalism has affected all of our mental health. What happens when we put our Interest before Earnings; our purpose before profit? We believe it’s profound, and the legacy will be even more so. That’s for others to discover and to judge.

My advice to business leaders on the subject of mental health overall is to listen. Listen to your people. Understand how they are feeling and build your policies and strategies around that. View everyone as human beings, with fragilities, with families, with fears, and not as employees. And then maybe work with the incredible charities such as Mind, who provide a wealth of information both for individuals, families and for workplaces.