In our long-running series, “How I’m Making It,“ we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
You may never have heard of Claire Bergkamp, but she’s been quietly leading the fashion industry toward greater sustainability for nearly a decade.
As the first person ever hired to focus solely on sustainability at Stella McCartney, Bergkamp spent nine years developing the eco-conscious initiatives at a label now considered almost synonymous with sustainable luxury. Though McCartney’s personal commitment to earth-friendly practices has long been part of the DNA of the brand, it was Bergkamp’s expertise that helped put those values into practice in a way that made the company a global leader in the sustainability conversation.
Through years of her own supply chain research, as well as by building out Stella McCartney’s sustainability department, Bergkamp has become a power player, albeit an under-the-radar one. Beyond shaping the sustainability programs at one of the best-known luxury labels, she also helped influence sustainability policy and practices at Stella McCartney’s former owner, Kering, one the largest luxury conglomerates in the world, by using her position to show what’s possible.
For Bergkamp, this all stemmed from personal convictions that took her over long before sustainability became a buzzword.
“I grew up in Montana in a relatively small town around an interesting mix of conservationists and ranchers and environmentalists,” she tells Fashionista on the phone. “I hope that what I can do is be a part of the solution to think about how we can radically shift the way we source things.”
While she’s long been involved in that on the brand scale at Stella McCartney, it was a commitment to industry-wide change that led her to step away after almost nine years from her high-profile job to take up a role at a non-profit few people have heard of: Textile Exchange. But in many ways, the move shouldn’t be surprising coming from Bergkamp: Textile Exchange might not have the same name recognition as Stella McCartney, but it’s quietly poised to make powerful good happen.
“I feel quite panicked about climate change,” she says. “We have 10 years — that’s an incredibly short period of time. I want to do something about that. Because of my passion and interest, the best place for me is in helping the world rethink how materials are sourced.”
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Fashionista caught up with Bergkamp just a few months into her new role at Textile Exchange to talk about how she went from temping at Stella McCartney to working directly with the CEO, the different skills needed for human rights versus environmental work and whether or not we should even use the word “sustainability.” Read on for highlights from our conversation.
How did you get started in fashion?
I was always drawn to clothing. I originally thought I wanted to be a fashion designer, but got interested in costume design as a high schooler. Because I grew up in a relatively small town, I got to do costume design in our local theater. My first degree was in Boston at Emerson College in costume design. And after that, I moved to Los Angeles for about four years. I ended up in the world of costumes versus fashion originally, because I was fascinated by the psychology behind people wearing what they wear. I was lucky to work on some shows like “Heroes” that shot for a long time.
But the reality of costuming in Los Angeles is mostly that you just buy things for TV shows. It wasn’t the kind of theoretical exercise I imagined it to be. I spent literally all day at malls. And I got interested in where all the clothing came from, and why there was so much of it.
As I began working my way up, I could see where I was headed, and realized I didn’t want to get there. It didn’t fulfill me in any way. I knew I needed to go back to school, but I couldn’t find anywhere in the US at the time that had a program in textiles and fashion grounded in sustainability. What I did find was the London College of Fashion and their Center for Sustainable Fashion. So I moved to London. I got a government grant to go to India and study corporate social responsibility (CSR) and supply chains and then did my final dissertation research around waste and upcycling opportunities.
How did you make the jump from school to Stella McCartney?
I started at Stella pretty quickly after I finished my master’s. I think it was right place, right time, very specific degree.
Stella has always had sustainability at its core, but I was the first person to have a job dedicated to the topic. I was originally brought in as a temp to do end-of-year environmental reporting. I had the great privilege of developing everything into more structured activities. My role was to help shape consistent programs and do supply chain maintenance and develop a department over time.
How did you go from temping to heading up all the sustainability initiatives at Stella McCartney?
I was only a temp for a couple months. A lot of what I started doing was evaluating supply chains. I was getting an understanding of how the company ticked, a sense for risk and opportunity around the environment and human rights. I was also involved in what Kering created as the Environmental Profit and Loss, which became a very powerful tool for assessing those impacts.
Then I started building a team out. The first person I hired came to help on human rights. It’s something I’m passionate about, but it’s a different skill set. Innovation also came under me because of Stella’s interest in new animal-free materials. Toward the end, I was worldwide director of sustainability and innovation.
It’s not a super hierarchical organization and I was always working with people who were way more senior than me, just because of the nature of the role. I worked closely with our chief product officer and with the CEO and his team on planning how the stores were lit. I also grew with the organization — it was pretty small when I started compared to when I left.
Can you talk more about the difference between the skills needed to focus on the human rights versus the environmental side of sustainability?
Some people can do both, but I’m more of a systems thinker. I enjoy understanding a system and manipulating it. That works very well with the environmental side of things, because you’re looking for opportunities for reductions or changing sourcing patterns. A lot of people that land on the environmental side are a little more analytical.
On the human rights side of things, it’s a slightly different skill set. That’s a lot more about being able to handle complex situations in the moment. If there’s a concern about health and safety while you’re in a factory, you need to know how to work with people skillfully; you need to understand the nuances and cultural differences. It’s more, ‘I know how to handle the humans in this tricky moment,’ whereas I feel like I know how to handle the system in the tricky moment.
Tell me a little bit more about your role at Textile Exchange and why you chose to make that job leap after almost nine years at Stella McCartney.
Raw materials and farming are the parts of the work that I did at Stella that were the most exciting to me. There’s so much work that needs to happen on how we grow things, how we treat soil, how we raise animals, how we treat forests, how we recycle. And that’s the area that Textile Exchange focuses on — raw materials, what’s called tier four in the supply chain. There’s a dedicated group of people who are figuring out how we can address climate change through cotton, wool and everything else that the industry relies on.
I’ve joined as chief operating officer. I’m starting out focusing on strategy implementation, but will be working as a co-leader with La Rhea Pepper, who co-founded the organization, on everything as we move forward. And the first goal is around making sure that we’re set up as an organization to deliver this very ambitious target of a 45% reduction in tier four greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 for the entire global industry.
We can’t do it ourselves, obviously. But our goal is to guide the industry and provide what they need to achieve that. Our strategy is very grounded in partnership, because this is a collective effort.
The other part of this is that we’re grounding in more holistic thinking about climate. It’s important to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but if you focus only on that and don’t include things like soil health and biodiversity, you can lose sight of the role that nature more holistically needs to play.
Explain a little more about what Textile Exchange does.
The organization is very focused on materials. There’s a peer-to-peer benchmarking exercise, which is a way for companies to report on the adoption of preferred fibers. A large part of the organization is dedicated to standards setting and certification — things like the Responsible Wool Standard and Global Recycling Standard.
Now we’re trying to focus on impact incentives, which is about giving directly back to those people in tier four and incentivizing them to change actions. We’re focusing on people in the very, very beginning of the supply chain. And we run roundtables as well — there are over 2,400 people involved in those, and they bring together all the different actors in each key area, from cotton to wool to cashmere, to talk through issues.
What tools do you use to develop those rankings or benchmarks?
Right now, like the rest of the industry, we’re fairly tied to Life Cycle Analyses. LCAs are far from perfect, but they’re what we have right now to rely on. We’re focused on moving to what we’re calling LCA plus, which is more about trying to bring in actual impact data at a more site-specific basis.
I’m also very involved in the UNFCCC’s Fashion Industry Climate Charter. I’m a co-chair for the raw materials working group, where we’ve been working on a large report analyzing cotton, polyester and man-made cellulosic viscose data. We’re looking at all of the publicly available information that’s out there, trying to understand why it’s so hard to compare it. One of the things that becomes complicated when comparing different impact data sets is that they’re not always done using the same methodology.
But we don’t want to get so focused on getting perfect data that we don’t start working on impact. Data needs to be better than it is, but it’s never going to be perfect. If we wait for that we will not meet the targets that we need to meet. We know enough to know where impacts are driven.
I’ve seen different people say different things about where the biggest impact in the supply chain is. What’s your sense for the true hotspots?
There’s a report that gets widely cited which says that raw materials make up 15% of the supply chain impact and that mills are the largest percentage. That report is probably very good but doesn’t include animal fibers or leather. The percentage of impact and where it sits, whether it’s in manufacturing or raw materials, will depend very greatly on which materials you use.
The way that we measure right now would tell us that if you’re using a lot of polyester as a brand, your impact is going to be more in manufacturing. That’s because we don’t look at end-of-use, we don’t look at microfibers. We don’t even look at drilling [for the oil that becomes polyester], because it’s a byproduct. If you’re basically looking at just pelletization, you’re not looking at the extraction part of making polyester, then your impact starts to look very concentrated on dyeing and weaving.
Whereas a brand like Kering will say raw materials make up something like 65% of their impact, because they use a lot of natural materials. Natural materials can be quite good, but they require land and water. When you’re using natural materials, you do need to pay attention to the raw materials, because the difference between good and bad farming can be quite drastic from a climate point of view.
What do you hope to accomplish in your new role at Textile Exchange?
I want to use my time and energy to push things at an industry level. I’m nowhere near as knowledgeable as a lot of the people at Textile Exchange, but I want to support that knowledge and make it accessible and accelerate this change, because it’s a full industry effort that’s required. We need to look at soil health and water and biodiversity within wool and cotton and start to build back that resilience that we lost. Because nature is infinitely restorative and regenerative when it’s in balance.
You went from working at this very famous international brand with lots of name recognition to joining a non-profit most people haven’t heard of. What do you think are the benefits and the setbacks of brand versus nonprofit work?
Stella’s voice in this world is invaluable and working with someone like that and helping to shape the work there was extraordinary. There’s a real power to that voice. But I think what’s unique about Textile Exchange is that the primary focus is on very large systematic change.
There’s almost 500 different member organizations at Textile Exchange, including Stella, Louis Vuitton, Kering, Nike and Patagonia. Pretty much any brand you can think of is a member. But there are also farming associations that are members, as well as other nonprofits and suppliers. Textile Exchange has done an incredible job convening the industry together. It’s quieter, but it’s very powerful, to have all those people together in the room working collectively in a non-competitive way.
When you think about the future of sustainability, where do you imagine it going?
I think the future of sustainability has to involve a different way of measuring value. I think that value being completely linked to growth is a serious problem. We need to decouple the two. That’s a big shift the industry needs — to understand the value of something that was grown in a holistic way versus something that was grown in a destructive way. We have a lot to learn from indigenous wisdom. We need to look not only at crop yield, but at soil health.
And we have to stop treating clothing as disposable. There’s no way to achieve the reductions we need if we continue to consume and dispose at the current rate. That hasn’t been addressed because it requires a change to very fundamental parts of business.
There’s been a lot of conversation and disagreement about the word “sustainability.” Do you think it’s still worth using?
I think we should stick with it because if we replace it, we’re just going to make another word mean nothing. Any word that becomes a marketing word inevitably loses its value in the fashion cycle. So I think we’re just stuck with sustainable, and maybe circular, because they’re kind of out there at this point.
What advice would you give someone who wants to build their own career in sustainability?
You should do what you’re passionate about and make sustainability a part of it. Being very well educated about the complexity of the topic and bringing that into anything you do is critical. There are different kinds of power in different places in the industry. So whether you’re a communications person or a designer or a marketer or any of it, having the understanding of the system and its challenges is powerful.
The system as it exists in every company around the world, as far as I know, is problematic. It’s a system that has waste and generates a massive amount of greenhouse gas. If you want to work in sustainability, your job is to find solutions for those problems. It’s about being curious and educated and taking the time to learn.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.