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LONDON, United Kingdom — I originally pursued a career in fashion because I recognised its power to influence for both good and harm. My career path has since been steered by a balance between making sacrifices to stay true to my values and needing to compromise my standards for a greater good.
This dilemma is one that many young people entering the fashion workforce face. There is a real hunger among young people in fashion wanting to make the industry more sustainable, and with that comes a demand for jobs in the sector. The National Union of Students Sustainability Skills 2017/18 report noted 75 percent of students surveyed in the UK would be willing to make a salary sacrifice to work in a company with a positive social and environmental record. The younger American workforce show a similar sustainable drive — 75 percent of millennials surveyed in 2016 by media company Cone Communications said they would take a pay cut to work for a responsible company, compared with the US average of 55 percent.
When I graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2012, the topic of sustainability was only an obligatory concern during my undergraduate course in Fashion Design and Marketing — it had almost no demand from fellow students. An active minority of us felt like outsiders. During my masters in Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Management at Imperial Business School, sustainability was included in every course and yet, fundamentals, such as the circular economy, were not taught. Writing my dissertation on the circular economy in fashion was an option that lead me to where I am now.
There is a real hunger among young people in fashion wanting to make the industry more sustainable.
Today, an ecosystem of idealistic sustainable practices and research is now cultivated in universities. The industry is making progress towards a sustainable future — a 2018 report from The Boston Consulting Group found that 75 percent of fashion companies improved their sustainability score in 2017, compared with 2016 — creating opportunities for an ethically-oriented workforce to find jobs in the sector.
But while many companies make a fanfare around their endeavours towards sustainability, the sector is still in its infancy. Having worked with an array of London-based emerging brands, the willingness to be more sustainable is there, but in practice — unless it’s their differentiator — there is not the time, resources or support network allocated for the initiative. Some supported by the British Fashion Council say that practical solutions to sustainability are not provided.
In my personal experience, progress on the ground in fashion companies is lagging — and sustainability is too often compromised for commerciality. Kering Group has worked with London College of Fashion for four years now and the Kering Award has produced a number of promising innovations such as mushroom leather alternatives. Part of the award is an internship, but winners for the Stella McCartney Prize are currently working elsewhere or went down the route of entrepreneurship, bringing up the question of how large companies are fostering innovation and retaining talent.
The annual Corporate Knights’ rankings on 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World has seen the number of fashion companies included drop from four and five in 2015 and 2016 respectively, to only three resurfacing in 2017 and 2018, with Kering and H&M the only constants.
Those seeking employment within the sustainability sector will invariably face a two-pronged approach to carving their career path — that of being entrepreneurial or intrapreneurial. You must ask yourself, “Do I want to drive change within an established company that still needs to make fundamental adjustments to how it operates or do I work within or create a company that is pioneering change?” I have found that both approaches are necessary for the industry to progress. This led me to launch my own start up in 2016, a fashion rental company, as well as working in operations.
While the Future of Sustainable Fashion report by consulting firm Accenture deemed fashion rental as one of five major trends shaping sustainable fashion today, back in 2015 the industry was, and remains, very young. As a result, there was little choice in terms of where to work in fashion rental, so I created my own.
Every element of a business, any role within a company, can have an element of sustainability.
When your personal ethics bleed into your career, it can be a hard career path to follow — if you try to live sustainably, like me, you might not want to work with brands that produce items in leather and fur, don’t research their materials, and lack consideration for post-use and recycling.
While there are certain aspects of sustainability in fashion, such as textile innovation, that get much of the attention, a career in sustainability is not about a particular job role. Every element of a business, any role within a company, can have an element of sustainability — it does not need to entail the creation of a new role or team. For now, the answer for those pursuing a career in sustainable fashion might instead lie in seeking out the job you’re suited for and guiding your company in the right direction. The sustainability sector and employment opportunities within it will gradually begin to change.
Since effective sustainability should be holistic and culturally embedded, a career in sustainability is about looking at whatever it is you are faced with or want to pursue, asking whether it can be improved and being prepared to speak up and rally people and resources to see ideas become reality. To do so requires the willingness to keep up to date with new research in the area in addition to your expertise. From careful textile choices and operational work, like recycling and proper waste disposal, to changing business models, exploring circular economics and reverse logistics — the adjustments can start big or small. But if there aren’t people driven by sustainability and ethics involved in those companies, change might never come about.
Above all, following an entrepreneurial or intrapreneurial path requires resilience and the leadership skills to motivate people around change. This starts with all of us playing our part to nurture a corporate culture that can be an engine for sustainable change. A strong sense of values and authenticity are the fundamentals of great brands and this retains talent and attracts loyal customers.
Sara Arnold is the founder of sustainably minded fashion rental company Higher Studio and founding member of Circular Vision, a community dedicated to fostering creative startups in the circular economy.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.
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