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How To Establish a Career in Sustainable Fashion: UNEP’s Rachel Arthur Shares Her Top 5 Tips



We spend an average of 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime, and the desire to spend this time in the most meaningful way is an aspiration that surely many of us can relate to. Easier said than done – job hunts are nerve-wracking, and a career is a constant work in progress. Wondering how to land a much-desired job in sustainable fashion, we want to learn from those who have done it.



rachel arthur by holly falconer
Credits: Holly Falconer

Rachel Arthur is the Sustainable Fashion Advocacy Lead at the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), alongside a number of other roles, and recently started a series of virtual drop-in sessions open to anyone seeking answers, a network of peers and help to navigate an intricate job market. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Rachel has a respectable career path that has led her from business reporting at titles including trend forecaster WGSN to consulting for global corporations including Google as well as all manner of fashion brands on sustainability and transformation. She is also the co-founder of FashMash, a global community of like-minded changemakers in fashion. Today, Rachel has remarkable achievements under her belt fighting overconsumption and striving for a global industry shift. But let’s rewind – we asked Rachel to share her top five career tips. 


Tip #1: Say No

No matter what stage of your career or transition into sustainability you’re at - whether fresh out of university or fueled by the drive of a definite career change - it’s a really helpful exercise to try and zoomout every now and again and think about what your core values are. In which professional scenario could you live up to them? Does your current work achieve that already, or does it otherwise provide you with contacts, knowledge or experience to help you reach that point? If none of those things are true, are you in a position where you can consider moving on; being courageous enough to say “No” to jobs that hold you back. 


With the birth of her first child, Rachel’s desire to contribute something meaningful to the next generation was bigger than ever. When she took this important measure and stepped away from projects that neither aligned with her core values nor enabled her to reach her ultimate goal, she reached a turning point in her career.


Of course, this requires secure foundations in terms of financial standing and professional positioning, which is a privilege to have and not something afforded to everyone, she notes, but there are versions of this we can all apply to the work we are doing day by day. 


Tip #2: Say Yes

After just preaching that you should say “No” to anything that doesn’t bring you closer to your goals or purpose, guess what – the next tip is to say “Yes”. This is not a sudden frenetic mood swing but a key learning that brought Rachel where she is today. With her dad’s saying, “You snooze, you lose”, in her ear, Rachel advocates for showing up to things - be it events, conferences, networking occasions, meetings, talks, dinners or beyond. Saying “Yes” to opportunities that come her way, even if seemingly unrelated to her work day-to-day, is a conscious practice Rachel follows. 


Back when she was working for WGSN, there was an inkling of an opportunity to go to NYC to build relationships and networks for the company. What could have been a single trip turned into three months and then turned into four years, providing Rachel with a remarkable career and life opportunity that she would never have imagined from the outset. Don’t always be guided by rational career choices; sprinkle in a healthy dose of “Why not? What’s the worst that could happen?” Rachel explains.


rachel arthur at the global fashion summit
Rachel Arthur launching UNEP and UN Climate Change's Sustainable Fashion Communication Playbook at Global Fashion Summit

Tip #3: Never Stop Learning

It is as simple as that – never stop learning. When we live in a world that is moving and changing as fast as sustainability is, it’s essential to keep up to date and on top of all of the latest insights. It’s also highly valuable to expand your breadth (as well as depth of knowledge), something that will only be looked upon favourably by future employers.There is a lot out there for free you can already dive into. But for some of those bigger courses, remember that this doesn’t always have to be at your own expense. Many companies support career development and training so ask for what educational experiences you can have access to, whether it’s a one-off workshop, a summer course or a full masters programme. A little proactivity never hurt nobody. 


Cambridge University’s 8-week Business Sustainability Management course was an example of something Rachel embarked on as part of her ongoing career development. Back in 2019, when she started actively saying “No” to roles she didn’t believe supported system change, this pivotal course not only enabled her to make more informed decisions, but also provided her with a fruitful network of like-minded changemakers – which has resulted in many useful and meaningful moments ever since. 


Tip #4: Network Horizontally Not Just Vertically

Early in her career, Rachel co-founded FashMash with a friend to bring together people working towards similar goals quarterly to have a drink and chat. Fifteen people became thousands, and her peer-to-peer network not only turned into a friendship group, but in many cases became her strongest advocates, leading her to some of her most significant career opportunities to date. 

It’s not always about meeting the most senior person in the room, Rachel implores. If there is a company you really want to be in, try to meet someone at a similar level rather than someone higher up. Network sideways and not just upwards. Ask them about their experiences and day-to-day work. Those people likely face the same challenges you do; you’ll learn with them, and your careers will likely track alongside each other for many years. You can never have enough allies in such a way. Of course, if you get the opportunity, there’s value to be had in shadowing that role model and striving for learning from someone holding a role you aspire to. However, never forget your peer-to-peer network has the potential to be your most valuable career asset in the long-term.

 


rachel arthur at the H&M foundations' open perspectives event
Rachel Arthur at the H&M Foundation's Open Perspectives event

Tip #5: Ensure You Put Yourself First; You’ve Got to Be Healthy Before You Can Contribute to Change

Ultimately, we are striving for a healthy ecosystem and isn't it only natural that every component of it should be vigorous? Don’t forget that you are a crucial part of this system. Under the constant urgency of the climate crisis and the personal aspiration to step forward in your career, it is easy to miss signs our mind and body send. Burnout is real when we are doing such important but such hard work, so setting ourselves up to thrive in these conditions is vital. Part of this is about establishing boundaries with the work you do, which Rachel is a big proponent of (and is still learning herself), but sometimes that actually means stepping away from it all (in a planned sense before the burn out hits). Rachel has done so on two separate occasions - taking a month off each time. In hindsight, she realises just how much she needed to. Others she knows have taken six months or a year at various stages of their careers. That all comes down to personal circumstances, but what’s key here is recognising when the need arises to hit the reset button. Further, it’s also about accepting that it’s ok to do so - that actually not much changes while you’re gone – the emails wait, the deadlines extend, the feeling of FOMO isn’t actually real.


Do you want to join Rachel’s Open Office Hours? 

Speaking to Rachel was not only reassuring but also incredibly motivating. Building a career in sustainable fashion exposes you to so many intimidating systems – from the job market to crumbling ecosystems strained by global markets. To help young professionals navigate this, Rachel introduced her ‘open office hours’. In groups of eight, you can join the monthly Zoom Meetings and ask away whatever career-related questions you have. To join, follow Rachel on LinkedIn, where she posts the sign-up links for upcoming sessions. Make sure to turn the notifications on; her drop-in sessions are distributed on a ‘first come, first serve’ basis and the slots for her first-ever session were filled within 30 minutes. You got this!


 

What inspires Rachel:


UNEP's "Global Roadmap Report" on how we get to sustainability and circularity in the textile value chain for a really clear overview on all of the different stakeholders (and thus the job roles) that need to be a part of it.




"Mother the Mountain: The Art of Living with Nature" by Anastasia Vanderbyl and Julia Vanderbyl.


"Fashion Reimagined", a film following the incredible story of Amy Powney's sustainability journey at Mother of Pearl – there are lessons for all of us in it and Amy is an incredible role model.



"Planet Critical", a podcast by climate corruption journalist Rachel Donald.



Find Rachel on




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