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The sustainable skills challenge

Sustainable jobs employment hiring

As sustainability becomes business critical, retailers and brands are finding that recruiting for the area presents unique problems.

Sustainability proved to be one of the key trends sweeping the UK fashion industry last year, and the vogue for eco-friendly fashion looks set to last, as retailers and brands face increasing pressure from both customers and the government to ensure their green credentials are up to scratch.

In any new specialism – be it ecommerce, social media or sustainability – a workforce armed with the right knowledge is key. But although there are eager graduates well versed in sustainability, recruiting for higher-level roles can prove challenging. Moreover, meeting the demand for highly technical skills may require hiring from outside the fashion industry. 

Nick beighton 2

Nick Beighton

Retailers need the brightest and best brains on their side to tackle some of the challenges ahead when it comes to creating a greener, circular fashion industry – from changing shoppers’ established behaviour to pioneering new, recyclable materials. In this climate, those who do not develop strong sustainability strategies leave themselves open to reputational risk. 

Millennial-focused etailers Boohoo, Asos and Missguided were all grilled on the transparency of their supply chains at an environmental select committee at the end of last year. Asos CEO Nick Beighton stressed the importance of sustainability to his shoppers, and told committee chair Mary Creagh: “I am commercially incentivised to get [sustainability] right, because unless we demonstrate our responsible behaviour, our customers will buy less from us.”

Growing importance

Sustainability roles are no longer the sole preserve of luxury or premium retailers whose higher prices can more easily offset the cost of doing business sustainably, argues Lisa Toms, senior consultant at recruitment agency Shirley Parsons.

There is definitely a noticeable increase in the number of retailers recruiting for sustainability roles

Gerry Pearson, Shirley Parsons

“A few years ago, it was only really luxury brands looking for sustainable roles,” she tells Drapers. “Now, price isn’t a barrier and high street retailers are also looking for this talent.”

Retailers are stepping up the search for green talent, but concrete sustainability legislation from the government would focus their minds on the issue still further, argues her colleague, Shirley Parsons managing director Gerry Pearson.

“Retailers are signing up to targets on circular strategies for brand protection and brand enhancement, but what would really drive them to look at sustainable roles would be more regulation from the government,” he explains. “There is definitely a noticeable increase in the number of retailers recruiting for jobs in this area, particularly when it comes to the areas of ethical trading and sourcing. But while there is an increase in demand, we are still at the beginning of the journey when it comes to sustainability roles. ”

It remains to be seen what legislation – if any – emerges from the findings of the environmental audit committee’s inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry.

Climbing the ladder

Fashion roles are particularly popular with sustainability graduates, Toms adds, but retailers can struggle to find talent with the relevant specialisms further up the career ladder.

“Fashion is very attractive to those fresh out of university because it is seen as an interesting industry to work in, but it can be hard to source the right people for environmental manager roles, especially those jobs linked to specific legislation,” she explains.

“There are roles, for example, that might require specialist knowledge of particular chemicals. That’s more complicated, because you’re looking for someone who is both a specialist and has wider sustainability skills and there’s simply a smaller pool of people with the relevant experience.”

Pearson agrees: “The biggest challenge, which applies across all sectors, not just retail, is finding sustainability or corporate social responsibility directors. That top talent is hard to find because sustainability is still a relatively new function within a lot of organisations.

“You need someone who has experience of setting strategies and driving sustainability targets while also improving the bottom line. Money talks and, ultimately, although consumers say they are interested in sustainability, often they aren’t prepared to pay more.”

The most important thing we look for is a genuine passion for making the fashion industry a more sustainable place

Giorgina Waltier, H&M

One retailer known for blazing a trail for sustainability on the high street is Swedish giant H&M group, which has invested in new materials, and, last year, launched a sustainable activewear line. It has set itself ambitious green targets, including using 100% recycled or other sustainability sourced materials by 2030. The H&M group, which includes sister brands & Other Stories, Arket and Weekday, now employs 200 people in sustainability-focused roles around the world.

“Sustainability roles have been an integral part of our business structure for many years. However, as the wider industry and, indeed, consumers become more aware of the effects of fashion production on people and the environment, it is safe to say that the importance of sustainability and the roles required to enable sustainable operations will increase,” explains Giorgina Waltier, sustainability manager for H&M in the UK and Ireland.

eco hm

H&M’s sustainable activewear

Although understanding and passion are two of the most important attributes for H&M when recruiting for sustainability-focused roles, Waltier adds that there are areas that require specialist skills: The most important thing we look for is a genuine passion for making the fashion industry a more sustainable place, as well as a clear understanding of the issues that need to be overcome.

“However, our transition from a linear to a circular business model does mean that we are continually experimenting with entirely new technologies and innovations in areas such as material development, recycling technologies and sustainable artificial intelligence and this does require specialist expertise.

“That being said, we fundamentally believe that to achieve a fully integrated shift from a linear to a circular way of working, adapting and optimising existing key roles and functions within our business is essential.”

Waltier argues that specialist skills are in particular demand in pioneering areas of sustainability, such as recycling textiles. Circular economy charity the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that less than 1% of clothing is recycled into new clothing each year, and 73% of all clothing ends up in landfill.

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“We require some very specialist areas of science in our work,” explains Cyndi Rhoades, CEO of Worn Again Technologies, which uses polymer recycling technology to separate polyester polymers and cellulose from cotton and non-reusable textiles, before turning them into new raw textiles. “We need people with expertise in dissolution chemistry, an understanding of polymer science, environmentally friendly solvents and chemical engineering. Because these skills are so specific, a lot of our talent isn’t necessarily from a sustainability background but from other sectors. The good thing is that the market for sustainable roles has matured to the point that there is quite a lot of talent out there, whether they’ve done a qualification in sustainability or have worked for a big brand and trained up there.”

Finding the right talent through traditional channels can be a challenge, Rhoades adds: “Often, we’re looking for entirely new jobs with new titles. It can be a case of putting a job specification out there and just seeing who it attracts. Mind-set is also key. We need people who are flexible, entrepreneurial, and not scared of taking risks.”

Retailers seeking to build strong sustainability strategies need to attract open-minded individuals with an understanding of the issues and a passion for change. Hiring for high-level roles may be difficult at present, but there is an increasing pool of green talent out there – and it is up to the fashion industry to find it and use it.



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