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10 Tips to Starting a Career in Sustainability

Stella McCartney’s worldwide sustainability and innovation director, Claire Bergkamp, shares her insight on how best to start a career in fashion's growing sustainability sector.
Illustration by Chelsea Carpenter for BoF
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LONDON, United Kingdom — Having grown up in Montana, in a "conservation part of the world," sustainable values have always been ingrained in Claire Bergkamp. But following her dream to work in fashion, Bergkamp studied costume design at Boston's Emerson College before moving to LA for four years to work as a shopper and costumer on TV and film sets; an experience that had a lasting impact on Bergkamp.

“When you are genuinely just buying clothing for ten hours a day, everyday, it does wear thin — and when you are confronted with that level of consumption, if you have an environmental heart, you wake up to it,” says Bergkamp. “[I realised] I don’t want to be a part of this. So, I started reading and trying to understand more about it.”

In 2010, Bergkamp moved to London to study an MA in business and management at London College of Fashion, with a focus on sustainability and upcycling. Two years later, after stints at WGSN and Arcadia Group, she joined Stella McCartney as a sustainability manager. Today, she is the brand's worldwide sustainability and innovation director. In 2017, a Citigroup analyst estimated Stella McCartney sales were around €260 million ($320 million), not including partnerships with Adidas or Procter & Gamble.

Stella McCartney’s worldwide sustainability and innovation director, Claire Bergkamp | Source: Courtesy

During her tenure at Stella McCartney, Bergkamp has helped establish the brand’s reputation as a leader and pioneer in sustainable practices; developed its environmental and social improvement strategy; and worked across the brand’s international supply chain. With a focus on sustainable raw material development and procurement, she also works closely with innovators, start-ups and universities to find new sustainable business models and solutions. Since Bergkamp joined the company, the label has also launched a sustainable viscose, introduced an environmental profit-and-loss report and launched a charter with the United Nations on climate action within the industry in December 2018 — among a number of further projects.

There is an increasing interest in careers in sustainability as the industry awakens to its environmental and social responsibilities, meaning the demand for roles in the field is increasing — but the sector is still young. Awareness and information around sustainable practice and jobs are few and far between; reliable resources are limited; and learning to divorce personal ethics with professional practice can be a challenge. Here, Bergkamp shares her insight on how best to start a career in fashion's growing sustainability sector.

1. Choose Your Sustainable Path

The way that I see it now, sustainability teams are divided into three camps. There's environmental sustainability, which is reduction of impact: looking at sourcing, farm projects, raw material projects, all of that. There is also social sustainability, which some call ethical trade, and that's the human rights side of things. The environmental and the social are quite different and [attract] different types of people. Those who are good at social sustainability understand humans — they are comfortable walking into situations where you might have to mitigate something concerning labour practice, for example. That's a very different set of skills to someone who can think about carbon.

The third area is around innovation. Sports companies have always had more of a foot in that area because high-performance products are so techy. But now, innovation teams around the world are trying to focus more on sustainability, which is great. It’s no longer innovation for innovation’s sake; it’s not just making the best running shoes but thinking about what kind of foam you could use that is biodegradable. Even if it’s not in your job title, part of the work in innovation will involve looking at sustainable start-ups and speaking to sustainability centres, like the Fashion for Good centre in Amsterdam, for example.

If you’re thinking about getting into sustainability, think about which one of those three is most relevant to you and what you’re naturally drawn to. Are you drawn to science? More human issues? Then focus your research on that area.

2. Identify Your Market Sector

Depending on what part of the sector within fashion you’re interested in working, it requires different sets of expertise. In luxury, innovation, new materials, understanding supply chains and traceability are critical. Within that, there’s a lot of opportunities to affect positive change — looking for opportunities to do regenerative agriculture on farms, for example. A lot of luxury brands are also waking up to possibilities in material innovation. That’s what we’re always looking at: how to make sure the next product is better than the last thing.

One way of getting into sustainability is just finding a company that cares.

In the high street, it’s different. That level of traceability is much harder to achieve if you are a giant brand. The upcycling/recycling circularity conversation, while it’s incredibly important for luxury, is even more critical for the high street. The amount of waste generated by the industry as a whole is more [concentrated to] the high street, because with the nature of more [products] being made, there’s more waste.

Understanding recycling technology is the crux of the whole conversation around what the circular economy really is. Not the buzzword part of it, but the meaty bit of it.

3. Broaden Your Knowledge

If you want to be in sustainability, you need to understand what you’re talking about. You need to do your research — to understand all the pain points and the serious issues that we’re addressing. This is a fun job but what we’re talking about, like working with the UN on climate change, is no joke.

You have to feel informed enough to be a part of that conversation and be able to bring that conversation back to your business in a way that makes sense to them. I’m not an expert in everything but you have to know the basics — a wide breadth of knowledge to be able to focus in on what you need to.

4. Use the Right Resources

In terms of reading, from the environmental sustainability point of view, Common Objective and Sustainable Angle are good. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation reports are also a wealth of knowledge and have a huge amount of information on circularity. The Centre for Sustainable Fashion in London does some publications as well, and a lot of major publications are starting to look at this topic too.

The human rights point of view is not talked about as much, but the Ethical Trading Initiative has good resources, as do organisations such as the Fair Labor Association. There are also conferences and talks in almost every major city internationally. Join some organisations and go to events. We joined Ethical Trading Initiative and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and getting to talk to other people doing this job in different businesses was very helpful.

5. Gain Field Experience

There is no substitute for meeting the people making the products. If you meet someone, you can understand their context and what kind of change can happen. If you tell someone what to do without understanding the world they’re in, it’s unlikely the change will stick. If we’re talking about human rights and social sustainability, you need to understand what issues that factory is facing. Are there issues with timing? With delivery? What’s impacting hours and wage? Getting to know the people that make the products, whether they’re farmers or factory workers, is truly invaluable.

Just because you care about sustainability doesn't mean you need to do my job.

You have to understand the systems you’re addressing, to see where the levers are and how you’re going to affect things. You also have to understand unintended consequences because when you change one thing, something else is also going to change — and if you’re not able to understand the system, you may accidentally be creating negative change.

6. Make the Business Case

I did a business degree and it made me understand the business behind fashion a lot better. You need to make a business case for [sustainable change] because there needs to be a good reason behind it outside of doing the right thing. It's easier said than done because it does cost more, but waste is bad financial planning — bad design decisions. There's a saying: "Waste is a design flaw." Look at how to reuse things, how to repurpose materials that you already have in stock. If you can find a use for that, not only are you removing the need for more raw materials, but it's also often good f0r a business financially.

7. Create Reasonable Expectations

Integrity and being willing to stand up for what you believe in is critical. If you have a manager or chief executive who doesn't understand, there can be a lot of pressure and confusion. I know that if you're a publicly traded company and evaluated on a quarterly basis, you might need a progression-based type of report. Then, it's tricky. But with integrity, being able to stand up and say, "This project, to do it right, will take two years. Let's give it that time and show progress," requires a lot of knowledge. Give it time and show progress.

8. Create Change Before Coverage

The other thing is patience. If you’re really trying to change things and not just have a press story, nothing happens in a few months; it takes a couple of years typically to make lasting change. But the good thing is, if you take the time and do it right, then it’s hopefully permanent. The viscose [used by Stella McCartney, made from recycled materials] took two years [to develop], but it was worth it because now it’s just there. We don’t have to redo it every year. We didn’t even announce our partnership with Bolt Threads [a biotechnology company harnessing natural proteins and renewable raw materials to create sustainable high-performance fabrics] for a couple years. You have to see where you’re going.

9. Find Companies That Care

It’s hard to give advice on how to get into [sustainability] because it depends what you want to do. Just because you care about sustainability doesn’t mean you need to do my job. But whether it’s your full job or not, one way of getting into sustainability is just finding a company that cares.

If you want to be a designer, be a designer — and when you’re designing, ask for organic cotton instead of conventional cotton. That decision is just as powerful as anything I can do.

10. Ask Questions

Curiosity is the number one skill. To be inquisitive, to question, to want to understand the truth and the full picture is very important. That mindset, that entrepreneurial let-me-go-do-it feeling, is what makes people good at this. The most important thing for the next generation entering companies is to ask questions and make the request for things to change. No matter what position you have in the business, you have a voice and if you have the desire to change things, you can.

Here are some of the exciting opportunities in sustainability available on BoF Careers:

Senior Director, Strategic Sourcing, Gap Inc. — San Francisco, United States

Sustainable Business Manager (Environment), Farfetch — London, United Kingdom

VP of Supply Chain, Nanushka — Budapest, Hungary

Head of Sourcing, Zalando — Berlin, Germany

Business Development Manager, Positive Luxury — London, United Kingdom

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