Sustainability expert Sigrid McCarthy on creating the role you want
“I have made a conscious personal effort to recognize the unique value I bring and remember that my knowledge is specialized and not held by most fashion professionals.”
Have you ever stalked someone on LinkedIn and wondered how they managed to land that insanely awesome job? While that might seem like smooth sailing, there’s no doubt been a lot of hard work to get there.
So what lessons have been learned and what skills have proven invaluable in taking them from daydreaming about success to actually being at the top of their industry?
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welcome to how i got herewhere we chat with successful people in their respective fields about how they landed their awesome jobs, exploring the highs and lows, failures and victories, and most importantly the knowledge, tips and practical tricks they gleaned along the way.
This week, we take a look at the career path of Sigrid McCarthy, sustainability specialist at David Jones and Country Road Group. In the final university research project, Sigrid saw an opportunity to exercise her love for fashion journalism and explore workers’ rights in australian manufacturing. She finished her degree with a wealth of new knowledge, an internship with Ethical Clothing Australia and a ‘fire in her stomach’.
Now in 2022, Sigrid’s list of accomplishments is considerable (to say the least). She ran two independent fashion publications (Intent Log and Hessian magazine), educated customers and readers on the importance of ethical consumption and landed a role on the sustainability team of one of the nation’s largest specialty fashion retailers. Here’s what she learned along the way.
What do you do and what is your official function?
My day job is at David Jones and Country Road Group. As a sustainability specialist, I support brand teams through product, marketing and community partnerships.
I also work in Moonlight as the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Intent Loga publication that explores the environmental, social and psychological impact of fashion.
Take us back to your beginnings. Did you study to get into your chosen field, or did you start with an entry-level internship/role and work your way up? Tell us the story.
Initially, I saw myself going into journalism or political science. I did a bachelor’s degree in international studies with this in mind, focusing on languages, human rights, globalization and international relations. During my third year, I was tasked with choosing any topic for my final research project. I had always toyed with the idea of being a fashion journalist, so I decided this project would be an opportunity to dig deeper into the industry.
I explored workers’ rights in Australian manufacturing and interviewed Ethical Clothing Australia (CEA) as part of this study. I entered the project ignorant of it and came out of it with fire in my stomach, full of questions and an internship at the ECA. This internship then led to a permanent position at ECA as head of media and communication.
At the time, the conversation about ethics and sustainability in fashion was led by NGOs, human rights advocates and environmentalists (my people!). My role at ECA focused on engaging the apparel industry, as we needed to speak their language in order to help them see the immense potential for positive transformation. It’s hard to believe there was a time when brands didn’t want to talk about their impact, but back then engagement was a real struggle.
Jumpcut to 2022 and sustainability is well and truly mainstream. My focus now is less on convincing people there’s a problem (although that’s still part of it) and more on helping build the foundation needed to get the job done right. After all, sustainability is much deeper than a conversation. This is where my role at David Jones and Country Road Group comes in – I first met the head of sustainability via a fashion week roundtable that we both attended.
A little later, I felt ready for a new challenge and contacted her for job opportunities. She eventually offered me a position on her team and since then I’ve been in the retail trenches as a sustainability specialist. Somewhere in between all of that, I went back to college to pursue an associate’s degree in professional writing and editing.
Given how essential communication, education, and storytelling are to driving positive change, I wanted to arm myself with as many influential tools as possible. This learning experience has supported the launch and success of two moonlit publications – Hessian magazine and Intent Log.
What challenges/barriers did you face to get to where you are now? Can you name one in particular?
I think something a lot of people in this space (namely women) are going through is’impostor syndrome‘, leading to feelings of uncertainty and doubts about skills, talents, or accomplishments. Speaking to my peers (again, mostly women), it seems that those of us who got into this job before it became a recognized and specialized career often question our expertise.
Identifying a gap over 10 years ago, we have built our work around this need, but each of us brings different skills and experience. I have made a conscious personal effort to recognize the unique value I bring and remember that my knowledge is specialized and not held by most fashion professionals. When I’m approached with opportunities, I have to remind myself of that and channel the kind of energy that men seem more comfortable exuding.
An ongoing challenge (beyond impostor syndrome) is staying up to date with the pace of this industry and emerging information and solutions. The industry is just beginning to understand its impact, so it’s my job to follow the global conversations, understand the issues that research uncovers, and decode valuable greenwash insights. To support brands in adopting more responsible practices and business models that meet the needs of a changing climate, I have to devote time to continuous reading and benchmarking. It could be a job in itself!
What do you want people to know about your industry/your role?
It’s important for people to recognize that fashion is an industry that interconnects with so many other industries. This will help us understand how far-reaching its impact is, as well as the critical importance of collaboration in its reform. Agriculture, science, manufacturing, computing, psychology, politics, fossil fuels… it’s a complex web in which we work.
I think over time we will see more specialized roles emerge, signaling the maturity of brands in their understanding of ‘sustainability’. We will also see more cross-sector collaboration, I hope! Ultimately, I want people to know that change is inevitable. The viability of our industry and the human race depends on bold, tangible and immediate action.
What is the best part of your role?
Working in a large retail environment has its challenges, but the best part is the access it gives me to industry leaders and inspiring conversations. There are open doors that would otherwise be closed if I was just an individual interested in this space; these allow me to connect with a vibrant array of people who are all driving change in our industry – scientists, farmers, conservationists, policy makers, academics, and more. The learning opportunities are immense.
What skills have served you well in your industry?
I think my experience in marketing and communication has been a real asset. Concepts around environmental and social impact can be quite technical and dry, so it’s important that brands are able to translate these issues for the customer in an engaging way. The balance is to ensure that this translation does not dilute the problem to the point of greenwashing. Having a background in human rights and sustainability, I can help brands find that balance.
What advice would you give to someone who one day wants to play a role like yours?
The Australian fashion industry has various resource gaps that brands are looking for – some of which we don’t even know we need yet – so my advice would be to reach out to industry professionals and ask them what tools they will need to sustain their work/brand/business. Then take the time to think about your potential contribution and how your skills could add value to this exciting time of transformation.
Are you passionate about a specific issue (like textile waste or workers’ rights) or do you want to work in a particular area (like government policy or academia)? If your dream is to work for a fashion brand, I would look to global leaders and how they fuel their sustainability ambitions; if an Australian brand does not have the same role, take the opportunity to tell them why they need it. And, of course, why you would be the ideal candidate. For those who wish to drive positive change in fashion, this revolution has many avenues!
Read the rest of the How I Got Here series here.
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