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How I Got Here: Sustainability Specialist Sigrid McCarthy on building the role you want

PHOTOGRAPHY BY Claire Summers for Intent Journal

WORDS BY IZZY WIGHT

“I’ve made a conscious personal effort to acknowledge the unique value I bring and remind myself that my knowledge is specialised and not held by most fashion professionals.”

Have you ever stalked someone on LinkedIn and wondered how on earth they managed to land that wildly impressive job? While it might look like smooth sailing, there’s no doubt been a heck of a lot of hard work involved in getting there.

So what lessons have been learnt and what skills have proved invaluable in getting them from daydreaming about success to actually being at the top of their industry?


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Welcome to How I Got Here, where we talk to people who are killing it in their respective fields about how they landed their awe-inspiring jobs, exploring the peaks and pits, the failures and the wins, and most importantly the knowledge, advice and practical tips they’ve gleaned along the way.

This week we’re delving into the career journey of Sigrid McCarthy, the Sustainability Specialist at David Jones and the Country Road Group. In her final university research project, Sigrid saw an opportunity to exercise her love for fashion journalism and explore workers’ rights in the Australian manufacturing industry. She finished her degree with a wealth of new knowledge, an internship at Ethical Clothing Australia and a ‘fire in her belly’.

Now in 2022, Sigrid’s list of accomplishments is considerable (to say the least). She’s headed up two independent fashion publications (Intent Journal and Hessian Magazine), educated customers and readers alike on the importance of ethical consumerism and gained a role in the sustainability team of one of the country’s largest specialty fashion retailers. Here’s what she’s learnt along the way.

What do you do and what’s your official job title?

My day job is at David Jones and Country Road Group. As the Sustainability Specialist, I support brand teams across product, marketing and community partnerships.

I also moonlight as the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Intent Journal, a publication that explores fashion’s environmental, social and psychological impact.

Take us back to when you were first starting out. Did you study to get into your chosen field, or did you start out with an internship/entry-level role and climb the ladder? Tell us the story.

 

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Originally I saw myself getting into journalism or political science. I did a Bachelor of International Studies with this outcome in mind, focusing on languages, human rights, globalisation and international relations. In my third year, I was tasked with choosing any topic for my final research project. I’d always toyed with the idea of being a fashion journalist, so decided this project would be an opportunity to dig deeper into the industry.

I explored workers’ rights in the Australian manufacturing industry and interviewed Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) as part of this study. I went into the project ignorant and came out the other end with a fire in my belly, lots of questions and an internship at ECA. This internship then led to a permanent position at ECA heading up media and communications.

Back then, the conversation of ethics and sustainability in fashion was driven by NGOs, human rights advocates, and environmentalists (my people!). My role at ECA was focused on engaging the garment 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 (though that’s still part of it) and more so helping build the foundations required to do the work properly. After all, sustainability is much deeper than a conversation. This is where my role at David Jones and Country Road Group comes in – I initially met the Head of Sustainability via a fashion week panel discussion we both took part in.

A while later, I felt ready for a new challenge and reached out to her about 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 between all of this, I went back to university to undertake an Associate Degree in Professional Writing and Editing.

Given how critical communication, education and storytelling is in 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 moonlight publications — Hessian Magazine and Intent Journal.

What challenges/hurdles have you faced getting to where you are now? Can you tell us about one in particular?

 

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I think something many people in this space (namely women) experience is ‘imposter syndrome’, which leads to feelings of uncertainty and doubts around skills, talents, or accomplishments. Speaking to my peers (again, mostly women), it seems those of us who got into this work before it became a recognised and specialised career often question their expertise.

Identifying a gap 10-plus years ago, we built our work around this need but each of us brings different skill sets and experience. I’ve made a conscious personal effort to acknowledge the unique value I bring and remind myself that my knowledge is specialised and not held by most fashion professionals. When being approached with opportunities, I need to remind myself of this and channel the type of energy men seem more comfortable exuding.

An ongoing challenge (beyond imposter syndrome) is staying up to date with the pace of this industry and the information and solutions emerging. The industry is only just starting to comprehend its impact, so it’s my job to follow the global conversations, understand the issues research is unearthing, and decode the valuable information from the greenwash. To support brands in adopting more responsible practices and business models that meet the needs of a changing climate, I have to dedicate time to continuous reading and benchmarking. This could be a job in itself!

What do you want people to know about your industry/your role?

 

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It’s important for people to recognise that fashion is an industry that interconnects with so many other industries. This will help us understand just how vast its impact is, as well as how crucial collaboration will be in its reform. Agriculture, science, manufacturing, IT, psychology, politics, fossil fuels… it’s a complex web we’re working within.

I think over time we’ll see more specialised roles emerging, signalling the maturity of brands in their understanding of ‘sustainability’. We’ll also see greater cross-sector collaboration, I hope! Ultimately, I want people to know that change is inevitable. The viability of both our industry and the human race relies on bold, tangible and immediate action.

What’s the best part about your role?

Working within a big retail environment comes with its challenges, but the best part is the access it gives me to industry leaders and inspiring conversations. There are doors open that would be otherwise closed if I was simply an individual interested in this space; these allow me to connect with a vibrant range of people who are all driving change across our industry—scientists, farmers, conservationists, policymakers, academics, etc. The learning opportunities are immense.

What skills have served you well in your industry?

I think my marketing and communications background 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 engaging ways. The balance is ensuring that this translation doesn’t dilute the issue to the point of greenwashing. Having a human rights and sustainability background means I can help brands strike this balance.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be in a role like yours one day?

 

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The Australian fashion industry has various resource gaps that brands are looking for — some 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’ll require to future-proof their work/brand/business. Then take time to reflect on your potential contribution and how your skills might add value to this exciting time of transformation.

Are you passionate about a specific issue (i.e. textile waste or workers’ rights), or keen to work within a particular area (i.e. government policy or academia)? If your dream is to work for a fashion brand, I would look to global leaders and how they are resourcing their sustainability ambitions; if an Australian brand doesn’t have that same role resourced, then take the opportunity to tell them why they need it. And, of course, why you would be the perfect candidate. For those interested in driving positive change in fashion, this revolution has many lanes!

@siggimcc

Read the rest of the How I Got Here series here.

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