Careers in Sustainability: What, Why and How

With an increasing demand for jobs that fulfil a sense of purpose, Joanna Standley explores the concept of the ‘green career,’ and speaks to three professionals about how they started working in the sustainability sector.

Sustainability has been given a makeover in the last two years. Consumer awareness has soared; a new breed of small businesses are getting the attention they deserve, and consequently the fashion industry, we hope, is waking up. The buzzwords of this year seem to be rental, secondhand, thrift and green. People want to do better – not only through buying better but also being a part of something better. The demand for green jobs – a phrase coined by the United Nations Environment Programme – is noticeably rising and this year the term ‘sustainable jobs’ has been searched in Google +30% compared to 2018. But what do green jobs entail, why do we need them and how do you get one?

One of the most interesting observations about emerging sustainability-focused companies and the jobs they’re advertising, is that they often combine very different areas of interest. Science, specifically, has become the unlikely and hopefully long-lasting partner of fashion. Companies such as Aquafil, which produces ECONYL® regenerated nylon fibre, combine both to create innovative fabrics that tackle the world’s waste and landfill issues. Design is also having a technological renaissance, allowing samples to be created in 3D rather than wasting fully-made garments. These advancements are generating a new wave of positions that allow people to combine their professional prowess with a love of fashion and helping the planet.

Of course, a new way of working goes hand-in-hand with the demise of the old way of working and, therefore, sectors based on fossil fuels such as oil and gas could take a hit, which could affect employment rates and local economies. That said, if the emergence of sustainability doesn’t affect these jobs, ironically global warming will. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has projected that rising temperatures and the ongoing strain on environmental resources could result in the loss of 72 million jobs in the next 10 years. However, an ILO report suggests that, if correctly legislated, 24 million jobs could be created globally by 2030 if we move towards a greener economy.

Seeking a career in this evolving industry could mean evolving your skills. If you’re serious about a career shift but have little knowledge on sustainability, there’s currently a diverse range of online short courses to get you started. FutureLearn runs free courses on everything from Fashion and Sustainability: Understanding Luxury Fashion in a Changing World and Upcycling: From Green Ideas to Starting a Business, to Concepts in Sustainable Development: An Introduction to the Key Issues, which will all provide a solid introduction.

If you’re in marketing or strategy, Central Saint Martins runs the Promoting Sustainability in Fashion short course, which focuses on promotional opportunities and changing consumer attitudes. Is developing your skill set enough, though? What about experience?

Here, three professionals who have dedicated their careers to, or pivoted to, sustainability share what their jobs entail and how they’ve got to where they are now:

María Rodríguez, founder of Kind Bag

 

Before founding Kind Bag, you worked in Law. What inspired you to alter your career path?

Living in big cities like Madrid and London, I increasingly became aware of environmental issues, especially around plastic pollution. I wondered where the plastics that wrap single fruit and vegetables were going. A couple of years ago I travelled around Asia and saw so many beautiful sceneries, but they were often polluted by plastic waste. I was born and brought up in Tenerife, Canary Islands, surrounded by beautiful nature, and it was really shocking to witness this. This was definitely my wake-up call to decide to do something that can lead to positive change for the world.

Since launching in 2019, how have you grown your team?

I initially started the company with my savings and I was growing Kind Bag along with my full-time job. I was doing everything from fulfilment, operation, sales, product development and more, so it was really difficult as you can imagine! We’re now a team of three and growing (plus our dog Wispa!) and we still do most of the work in-house – from marketing, design, or even photography. We’re a small but very strong and passionate team!

How do you think sustainability is affecting the fashion career scene?

It’s definitely wonderful to see how more companies are focusing on sustainability, as well as more people realising how important it is. We really hope people won’t go blind to the words “sustainable” or “ethical”. Sometimes we find that these words are used in the wrong way by big firms and people can overlook some dirty facts behind those nice-sounding words. I think whatever position you have or whatever you’re looking for, it’s very important that you’re able to thoroughly examine what you’re dealing with.

What advice would you give to someone applying for a role in a sustainability focused company?

I think it’s very important that you feel passionate about the role and how it can contribute to a better world. If you’re really passionate about creating positive changes, you’ll naturally be motivated, committed and focused and will become a significant part of the team. I also recommend researching the current issues around sustainability in that particular industry, so you understand the problem better and hopefully find a solution for it.

Georgie Hyatt, CEO and Co-founder of Rotaro

 

You were previously in trend forecasting, what made you want to pivot into sustainable fashion and particularly the rental market?

I was working closely with luxury and fast-fashion brands as a consultant, helping them develop products, move into new markets and adopt trends, so I witnessed first-hand the increase of trend-churn. I began to have serious eco-anxiety about my role in fashion and how I was contributing to the detriment of the environment. Simultaneously, as a trend-forecasting business, we were tracking the rise of the circular fashion economy, and it became glaringly clear that I needed to be part of a fashion solution, not a fashion problem, and that is why I founded Rotaro. Rotaro is a mission-based fashion rental platform, helping change the way people consume [clothes], with sustainable practices as a key pillar of our business.

It could be quite daunting to leave your full-time job to pursue a passion, what advice would you give to people in the same position?

Firstly, have a clear understanding of why you are doing this. Once your personal mission is clear to you, it is something you can refer back to when times are tough to maintain your initial motivation. Believe in yourself, and your idea above all. Be your own biggest supporter and always back yourself. And remember that networking and collaboration is key.

Have you noticed an increased demand of people wanting to work for a company like yours?

Many of the people who approach us do so because they strongly believe in our mission. They share our values, which is finding joy through fashion, but in a more mindful way. We have seen that people are looking for companies that align with their core values, and when we hire people like this, it enables us to flourish and work more successfully towards a common goal.

How do you think fashion careers are being affected by sustainability?

There are a lot more diverse roles and companies to work with as people’s awareness around ethical consumption change, as opposed to working for traditional big-name retailers. There are so many excellent sustainable fashion brands and services launching, it is thrilling and very promising for the future of fashion. It is a very dynamic, exciting and ever-evolving career scene, for someone who loves fashion but also wants to have a positive impact on the planet!

Sarah Johansen, Independent Consultant

What does being an Independent Consultant in Environment, Climate and Development involve?

Being a consultant involves doing analysis and advisory work. As a consultant specialising in environmental, climate and international issues, my mission is to help governments, businesses and global non-profits drive economic growth and poverty reduction while addressing important energy and land-use challenges around the world.

How did you get into this career?

After studying an undergraduate degree in Environmental Science at the University of Leeds, I joined an environmental consultancy company where I learnt how to help companies assess their resource efficiency. This included auditing factories and helping them make better use of water, energy and natural materials. In 2009, I specialised in climate change by studying again and gained a Masters degree in Climate Change and International Development at the University of East Anglia.

I think the combination of work experience in a global consultancy firm and a masters in a unique subject really opened a lot of doors for me to build a successful career as an independent consultant.

Have you noticed an increased demand for your work?

Definitely. In 2010 there were hardly any consultants qualified to work in the niche area of climate change and international development, and it was rare to have a masters degree in climate change. Over time, more consultants have specialised in this field but the work demand is still increasing. We are seeing companies and non-profits, as well as government agencies requesting specialist analysis and advice on climate change and environmental issues. The demand for this work is worldwide, so it’s not unusual to work with organisations based in London, Nairobi and Bangkok in the same week.

Why is it so important now?

Providing organisations with analysis and advisory services in the field of environment and climate change is more important than ever. This job involves working out how to address some of the greatest challenges of our times: how to meet the wants and needs of rapidly growing populations, eradicating poverty and at the same time managing the natural resources upon which life and wellbeing depends. These are critical issues that need to be acted on by everyone so that humans tread more softly on the planet now and for generations to come.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to pivot their career into something similar?

Aim for a good balance of academic qualifications and work experience. Volunteer in a relevant field whilst at university, so you have something that sets you apart from others applying for that first graduate job. Be open minded when you start out – it is worth it in the long run to begin as a generalist, then specialise as you gain more experience. Develop a good few years’ of experience working within a larger consultancy firm before taking the plunge and going freelance – you learn a lot on the job, and your colleagues are often the best teachers.

Whether you want to join a company that aligns with your beliefs, or set out on your own, moving towards a green career is definitely the future of not just fashion, but a myriad of industries – and what an exciting future that appears to be!