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Greening the Fashion Industry

Over the last year, no area of sustainability has drawn as much interest from students in Columbia University's Sustainability Management graduate program than the environmental performance of the fashion industry. One of these students is Kwesi Blair, who has, himself, worked in the retail of fashion for a decade, and who has experienced, firsthand, the need for sustainability management in that industry. In this interview, Blair, discusses the integration of sustainability into the fashion industry. The M.S. in Sustainability Management program, says Blair, “has given me the tools to help integrate sustainable practices across all business units."

Kwesi Blair is the Senior Vice President of Strategy at Robert Burke Associates and former student in Columbia University's Sustainability Management graduate program.

1. What is your current job and what are the responsibilities associated with your position?

I am Senior Vice President of Strategy at Robert Burke Associates. I am tasked with developing solutions for how brands and retailers think through growth, positioning, consumer engagement and relevance. I travel often to cities all over the world to assess opportunities for brands, and determine optimal strategies for entering new markets. I also regularly advise investors who want to understand whether or not certain brands and retailers are viable investment targets.

2. What have you found in your field that needs to improve and how do you intend to do so once you achieve your degree?

I have worked in fashion and retail developing strategy for over a decade, and continue to be disappointed and concerned by the lack of awareness or action within the industry around sustainability. I would like to use my degree to help brands navigate realistic sustainable goals that will ultimately improve their businesses, while taking responsibility for their environmental and social impacts.

3. What do you think is the most important sustainability challenge?

I believe the most important challenge is clearly communicating what sustainability means and getting people to understand why it's critical from a business perspective.

4. How have you applied what you've learned in the program so far?

I was able to introduce the GRI framework to a client and help them develop a materiality matrix for defining what issues relating to sustainability were most important to the company. This served as the foundation for the company to develop a sustainability report and establish clear, measurable goals.

5. What do you think is the most beneficial aspect of the MSSM program related to your career?

I think the program has given me the tools to help integrate sustainable practices across all business units in the retail industry. I often interact with a variety of teams who work in silos (design, marketing, logistics, finance, etc.) and rarely communicate with each other. I have a better sense of how best to create a realistic sustainability plan that can be applied to an entire organization, and identify where to generate the most impact. I feel comfortable discussing the value of having a sustainability strategy within the context of dollars and cents, which is what all business leaders ultimately care about.

6. Beyond the classroom, what extracurricular sustainability related have you engaged in with your fellow sustainability management students?

I've enjoyed going to a few happy hours outside of classes. The students in our program come from so many backgrounds and places around the world, and everyone is eager to share what they know. I've found that most students are very generous with making connections to people who might be able to offer some professional guidance or insight. It's a very welcoming environment.

7. What is your favorite class in the MSSM program so far and why?

Having the experience to work on a real problem with my fellow students was extremely valuable, having the opportunity to travel to Butte, Montana, in Lynnette Widder's Responsiveness and Resiliency in the Built Environment class was great preparation for Capstone. Also I got to spend more quality time with a few of my classmates.

8. What tips do you have for your fellow students who are looking for a job in sustainability?

Every person that you meet in the program is a possible resource or connection. Ask questions and learn about what people do and who they might know. Also, the professors and lecturers are very committed to helping students, so don't be shy about asking them about tapping into their network.

9. How has collaborating with your fellow students in projects in the classroom benefited you professionally and personally?

It's been really valuable to work with people who have a completely different frame of reference and skill set than me. The idea of sustainability touches on so many parts of an organization, so it's been really good to better understand how different professionals approach issues and solve problems. I feel confident that I can effectively communicate with CEO's, architects, scientists, investors, engineers, marketers and everyone in between.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia's School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.

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Earth Institute Student Transforms Passion Into Action

Turning passion for the environment into action that transforms how organizations do business requires skills and training. Columbia University's graduate program in Sustainability Management prepares students to change organizations in this way, graduating students like James Ossman of Etsy. In this interview, Ossman answers questions about how he integrates sustainability across the firm's global operations.

James Ossman, global operations manager at Etsy

What are the responsibilities associated with your position?

I'm the global operations manager at Etsy, which is a marketplace where people around the world connect, both online and offline, to make, sell and buy unique goods. In this role, I'm responsible for internal operations at our nine global offices. I design and oversee our strategy for facilities management, health, safety and security, and I also partner with departments throughout the company to help implement their programs at our international locations. This includes things like our food program that features locally sourced lunches (called Eatsy), our community-based partnerships and employee volunteering programs, our team celebrations, and more.

On a day-to-day basis I spend a lot of time managing the global team that makes our offices creative, weird, sustainable and fun places to work. I also develop policies, tools, and systems that support Etsy's rapidly scaling physical presence and employee population.

I also wear a second hat at Etsy, serving as the co-leader of our Zero Waste task force. In this capacity I'm responsible for our efforts to increase the rate of waste diverted from landfill, and reducing the overall quantity of waste we produce.

Do your current job responsibilities align with the professional goals that you originally had when you began the MSSM program?

When I enrolled in the MSSM program, I didn't have a clear idea of what I wanted to get out of it. I knew I was looking for a career transition into the private sector, and that I was interested in working for companies that have a business model that promotes sustainability.

At some point along the way, I started to focus in on B-Corps, and the idea of working for a company that really embeds sustainability in the fabric of its DNA. I didn't want to be part of a sustainability department in a company where I would be fighting an uphill battle to convince other departments of the value of sustainable approaches, but rather, to do the job function that I know and love (operations) in a company that demands I take a sustainable approach to my work. My job at Etsy really achieves that goal 100 percent.

What inspired you to work in sustainability?

My professional life provides a huge amount of personal fulfillment for me, and because of this I really put my heart into whatever I'm doing. I need to feel connected to the mission and values I'm promoting through my work in order to stay motivated. It's also important that I can feel and see my impact. Working in sustainability keeps me connected to the environment around me and allows me to create and contribute to the world that I want to be a part of.

What has been your biggest challenge associated with sustainability?

I would say that my biggest challenge related to sustainability has been prioritizing where I focus my energy. Etsy is all about building for the long term, and I'm trying to instill that value into my approach to sustainable operations. I have had to resist the urge to jump into more glamorous sustainability initiatives, because it's most important that I build a solid base of systems and processes that set us up for success down the road.

What has been your biggest accomplishment associated with sustainability?

When I started in this role, Etsy was already doing amazing things to reduce its waste and increase its diversion to landfill. This year we took the next step and established formal sustainability goals that we will be publicly announcing. I led the effort around our waste reduction targets. It was great to be able to pull together all of our awesome work to build sustainable systems and engage employees under a single strategy. Now with a clear target in sight, I've been able to focus our efforts to set us on a path to achieving our goal.

What skills has the MSSM program taught you that you think have proven useful to your current position?

I've used a lot of the analytical skills, such as cost benefit analysis and accounting, in my current role. I also have applied many skills gained through my capstone project developing a zero waste strategy for a municipality in upstate New York.

What was your favorite class?

I approached the program looking to leave with a new tool kit of hard skills. GHG reporting, cost benefit analysis, decision models, GIS and others all helped me to achieve this, and were classes I really enjoyed.

How do you intend to utilize your degree in furthering your career?

At the moment, I'm feeling quite settled in how the MSSM program has helped to advance my career. It's great to know though, that I always have a network and the skills I gained in the program to fall back on when I'm ready for my next step.

What tips do you have for your fellow students who are looking for a job in sustainability?

Think beyond jobs with the word sustainability in the title. There are lots of companies out there modeled around sustainable products and services, or that hold sustainability as a core value. In companies like this, you can work in any role and sustainability will be a major part of what you do.

What do you think is the most beneficial aspect of the MSSM program with regard to your career?

I walked away from the program feeling more confident in my analytical skills, and well-versed in the science, theory and language of sustainability. For me, this has been the difference between being interested in and passionate about sustainability, and being able to lead sustainability initiatives with authority.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia's School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.

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