Given the slate of pressing systemic problems plaguing fashion, sustainability professionals may soon give creative directors a run for their money.
A Next-Gen Job Search
Amid the festering issues in fashion, a crop of young hopefuls see sustainability as the cure. “From a job-seeker standpoint, we have seen a huge increase in job seekers being vocal about wanting to work for companies that support sustainable fashion with the onset of the COVID-19 lockdowns,” according to Chris Kidd, founder of StyleCareers.com, an old-school fashion job search platform headquartered in St. Louis.
Fashion professionals can scour industry-specific positions on the site, including store-level roles. Of the numerous fashion-specific job listings, around 75 of those jobs have “sustainable” or “sustainability” in their descriptions.
In New York City alone, thousands of job opportunities pop up on career resource Indeed.com, which sports 265 fashion jobs with mention of “sustainability.” More broadly, LinkedIn boasted 884 results at the time of publication for a nongeographic search for “fashion sustainability adviser.” However, not all results may be relevant.
Companies with active postings include Free People, hiring a managerial role for sustainability and social impact in Philadelphia, and Nike Inc., hiring a sustainability operations analyst in Beaverton, Ore.
Roles are incredibly data-focused, measuring and reporting on internal and external sustainability targets while owning the ins and outs of a company’s supply chain – and how it stacks up to industry standards and frameworks.
“For the most part, sustainability seems to be a bigger issue with job seekers than employers,” according to Kidd. He believes the industry is more or less slow to react with the pandemic being an accelerant to the newfound appeal of sustainability. “Sustainability expertise comes into play with high-end luxury brands, publicly traded companies and niche (mostly direct-to-consumer) products. Sustainability is much less important for companies that cater to mass markets,” he claimed.
Regardless of actions implemented across categories, the industry is more or less aware by this point of the sustainable call-to-action. But where does a firm go for help in meeting monumental tasks, like achieving net-zero emissions?
Seeking Outside Help
Citing a sharp increase in sustainability expertise over the past year, Karla Mora, founder and managing partner at Alante Capital, which consults on apparel innovation, said, “Many brands are looking for ways to more effectively get involved with sustainability and innovation [in our case] that help them reach their public sustainability targets while improving their product offering to consumers.”
A gamut of consulting firms — including Accenture, Boston Consulting Group, PWC and more — have sent consultants to fashion companies to assess gaps in innovation, sustainability reporting and supply chain mapping. For insight, Mora said Alante can charge anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000 depending on the project’s scale. The firm consults on innovation across the entire apparel life cycle, including stages of production, design and product management, sales and distribution, use, recycling and end-of-life.
Companies like footwear brand Rothy’s and outerwear purveyor Canada Goose also enlisted the help of sustainability advisers this year (including the likes of Bill Nye) — forming what they call “sustainability councils” — to advance aims, or at the very least sustainability messaging.
Mora is wary of such moves, saying: “I’m not interested in a sustainability figurehead if there is not a dedicated team of operators at the brand level with the buy-in from the C-suite to actually move sustainability work forward.”
Oftentimes, consumer-facing sustainability councils exist in unison with dedicated sustainability teams and aims. They are not to be confused with ESG councils, per eBay, or Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability committees, per Nike, which typically fall under investor relations.
Where does the scientific community draw the line on seeking help?
When Sustainability Advisers, Councils Are a Bum Steer
With sustainability often open to interpretation, simple may be better when it comes to defining roles.
Andy Pitman, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes at the University of New South Wales, believes, at the bare minimum, any company of significant size should have someone looking across the business to see how it can do things better.
“You can — if you see a particular risk emerging from supply or a particular region — ask a climate scientist what they think is going to emerge in that region in terms of climate change. You can have a dialogue driven from within the company on what the risks are to that company and how that might be managed. That doesn’t need a massive team. That needs a good actuary with access to the information and the ability to reach out to nearby climate scientists and talk it through with them. You don’t go to a commercial climate solution provider who provides you a whole load of data that you don’t understand.”
Here, Pitman argues it’s not about blindly forking over money or even building out impressive teams. In fact, he likens the practical use of “sustainability advisers” to actuaries, or essentially, forensic accountants who sit down for a few months with the focus on combing through the last five to 10 years of company records in order to identify climate risk.
“I think that some of these sustainability advisers that have emerged are doing a really good job. I think by having quite a holistic view of an organization, they can identify places where an organization can do better. I’ve got no problem with that,” Pitman stated.
However, there should be obvious boundaries between what any run-of-the-mill sustainability adviser can do.
Climate (and the compounding extreme weather events), surprisingly, is a contentious area. “When it comes to reducing emissions and managing risk, that’s not a sustainability adviser,” said Pitman. “I have argued for a long time that the companies with the largest sustainability units tend to be doing the least and the companies that have put reducing emissions under the auspices of the [chief financial officer] — reporting directly to the board where their bonus depends on reducing emissions — have a much, much faster and more dramatic effect.”
He calls for more regular consultation between scientists and the business community, and moreover, firmer role delineations. In this case, sustainability advisers are, at best, data-driven individuals who stay in their lane. At worst, they can be a bit of a red herring.
“Often, the chief financial officer has the responsibility for managing risk. Climate change is merely another risk,” reiterated Pitman.