Navigating the spectrum of sustainable fashion jobs: Insights from a sustainability recruiter | Interview with Acre’s Liam Goldsworthy

14 February 2024 by Liam Goldsworthy
blog author

​​Liam Goldsworthy, who heads Consumer Goods and Retail at recruitment agency Acre, unveils the distinction between dark green and pale green roles, what the recruitment process is really like, and the evolving landscape of sustainable fashion roles in the nonprofit sector.

Can you tell us a bit more about your role at Acre and what role Acre plays in the impact job market?
I’ve been working at Acre for close to eight years. For most of that time, I’ve been firmly focused on the fashion and luxury goods space, advising clients on optimal structures regarding sustainability.

As an organization, Acre has been around for about 20 years. So all the current Chief Sustainability Officers that you see on LinkedIn, across all sectors, we’ve coached and developed through their career — likely placing them into their first roles through to where they are in leadership and sustainability roles today.

70% of the client base that Acre engages with is corporate. That includes listed, non-listed, large, and small companies. But we also do work with — and partner heavily with — the multi-stakeholder initiatives that are catalyzing industry transformation across certain sectoral issues and topical issues. This includes advocacy-focused nonprofits.

You’ve mentioned that in the recruitment world, you often differentiate between “dark green” jobs and “pale green” jobs. What sets the two apart?
This is Acre internal terminology. But it does resonate with the market and the different opportunities that exist within sustainability.

When we talk about “dark green” jobs, we're typically referring to roles that you’d expect to see when searching for sustainability job titles. For example, your Chief Sustainability Officer sits within corporate structures and works with topics like climate, nature, human rights, and reporting.

Dark green jobs are more technical roles that advise the business, provide input on strategic sustainability direction, and engage with stakeholders to operationalize sustainability.

“Pale green” jobs are slightly different. These roles are hybrid, blended roles. They can be traditional roles — such as marketing, procurement, and finance — within a purpose-driven company.

With pale green jobs, sustainability is intrinsically linked to the nature of the business, and you're touching upon those topics through the function that you're working within — even if it isn’t in your job title.

These are also roles that can sit within business units that partner with dark green jobs, to help to embed sustainability within all business functions.

We also refer to roles within not-for-profit contexts as pale green.

Why is this differentiation useful when job searching?
This differentiation is important, because pale green roles are emerging much more rapidly.

In four to five years, we expect that pale green jobs will overtake dark green jobs as organizations mature on their sustainability journeys.

As sustainability journeys mature, it's less about target-setting and more about implementing and operationalizing sustainability. Then it becomes more important to hire individuals that sit within business units and can catalyze sustainability.

When it comes to job searching, dark green jobs are often easier to search for. For example, it’s easier to go on LinkedIn and find a Human Rights Manager if you are interested in human rights or a Sustainability Manager if you are interested in sustainability. These roles have clear keywords in their titles. And if you're using that term, it’s quite easy to find those jobs.

But oftentimes, pale green jobs are just termed as Finance Manager or Procurement Manager. You have to look into the context of the organization that’s hiring to get a sense of where they are in their sustainability journey.

What is Acre’s recruitment process like?
Our recruitment processes differ across different levels. Manager-level roles tend to be processes that are quicker and slightly more agile, whereas director and above roles are more formal search processes that can take months.

All roles require a huge time investment from the client side, the candidate side, and our side.

The search processes that we work on tend to be a lot more specific. Mandates and clients are coming to us with quite specific requirements that we're directly going to market and searching for candidates for.

In the Acre process, whether you are going for a manager role or a chief sustainability officer role, you’ll get coaching around the role and be advised about whether the organization that’s hiring is a good fit for you.

To do this, Acre collects information about what you're looking for, what you're motivated by, and what environment you're likely to thrive within. We try not to overly sell roles, because ultimately we want the process to work in favor of both sides.

We remain in close contact with our clients and candidates throughout the process to check in on their first three, six, and twelve months within the role. Candidates also get coaching ahead of the interview process, debriefs, and feedback. So our process is thorough, involved, and consultative.

What are a few commonly held misconceptions about recruitment processes?
The first common misconception is that beyond submitting a candidate's CV to a client, candidates are left alone. From my experience at Acre, and from other agents I've been exposed to, recruitment agents are often a lot more heavily involved in the process.

Another point of clarification is that, as an agency, we are primarily responsible for serving the client’s needs. So as much as we try to support individuals who are looking to advance their sustainability journey or seeking a career move more broadly, we can't do it with everyone, and we can't necessarily do it on timelines that an individual is seeking.

The last one that I’d say is that some people tend to think that our work starts when we're given a brief and our role is simply to fill a job and find a candidate. There's a huge amount of work that goes into the role in the briefing stage before the job is even shared in the market.

We can consult with clients up to a year before that role comes to market to ensure that the role resonates, it's fit for purpose, and it aligns with what the market is delivering. Again, this differs from agency to agency. You get some that are a little bit more transactional and that tend to deliver on mandates as they come in. But in the case of Acre, we are more of a consultancy over and above a recruiter who fills jobs.

What are the most in-demand skills, linked to fashion and sustainability right now?
The sustainability market is super nascent. While I’ve been at Acre, I’ve noticed certain trends in the job market. As a candidate, it can be quite difficult to keep track of what’s in demand and what clients are looking for.

When we talk about skills, I’d delineate between technical skills and soft skills. By soft skills, I mean behaviors and competencies that enable you to engage across a business and execute the important, impactful work of a sustainability job.

Since the pandemic, there's been a huge shift towards climate and reporting skill sets in particular. This isn’t necessarily exclusive to fashion, but it’s certainly prevalent in fashion. These are roles that won't go away, particularly with the background of legislation that's coming in from a reporting perspective in 2024.

We're expecting to see an uptake in more nuance across social and governance topics. In the last three years, 5% of what I’ve worked on has been social sustainability related — such as human rights and ethical sourcing. But we are expecting this to become a lot more nuanced. And we’re expecting a big upward trend in human rights and social sustainability roles where things have been quite quiet in the last couple of years.

For example, when the Modern Slavery Act came out in 2015, 80% of what we worked on at that time was social sustainability related. That's why I say that things shift and move quite quickly. And it's quite cyclical.

Regulation and legislation-driven nature biodiversity is an emerging skill set. I've done quite a bit of recruitment in the last two years with fashion brands around those topics. It’s a talent pool that isn't huge.

These roles range from raw material and sustainable sourcing, to supply chain mapping, due diligence, traceability, and writing human rights strategy. It can also involve working in a country to build capacity when there are human rights challenges that are being dealt with. So that's one skill set that I don't see ever going away.

Circularity is another skill set that ebbs and flows. It's one that I expect we’ll see more recruitment of this year. Last year we didn't see a huge amount of circularity-related roles. And it tends to be a role that we would call “added value”. That's not to say that the role isn't important, but I call it “added value” from the context or the perspective of the client.
When the economic landscape is particularly challenging, these tend to be the skill sets that fall off first. When businesses are a little bit more resilient, then they tend to hire those skill sets.

Circularity and circular business models are a skill set that's going to increasingly come up over the coming years in terms of the biggest skill gaps.

When it comes to soft skills, the ability to influence and inspire is critical to a sustainability role. The role of a sustainability professional — regardless of whether you're dark green or pale green — is about winning hearts and minds, being able to speak to both the narrative around impact and why it's important to do it, and being able to speak to the commercial agenda and to plug that into the business context.

This is not necessarily a soft skill, but clients are often seeking people who bring exposure across different regions and cultural contexts — particularly within big conglomerate organizations. So those who have lived experiences from across the world and are well-traveled tend to have an edge.

The final soft skill that I think is important for a sustainability professional is to be able to speak to both IQ and EQ. We talk a lot about emotional intelligence and this speaks to the ability to read a room.

What kinds of jobs relating to sustainable fashion have you seen in the nonprofit sector?
Nonprofits within this space come in all sorts of flavors, so to speak. They can be multi-stakeholder initiatives, industry associations, or advocacy organizations.

Most jobs within nonprofits are pale green. So if you're a communications manager in a corporate setting, you can transfer your experience into the nonprofit space if you are willing to take a salary cut. On the flip side, if you volunteer at a nonprofit that aligns with your values and proves your skills, this can be a good way to pivot into a corporate setting.

When I started at Acre, corporates often held negative perceptions of candidates coming from a nonprofit background. That perception has shifted massively, particularly in the last couple of years.

Many nonprofits have also shifted their focus away from being overly advocacy-focused and whistle-blowing to being more partnership-led, supportive, and pragmatic in helping organizations and moving the needle. More recently, corporates are looking more at the nonprofit sector, and looking to candidates who have worked in nonprofits to move into more technical corporate roles.

There are so many opportunities in the nonprofit space. When the economic climate is challenging and corporates can't hire or bring in talent in-house, they lean more on nonprofits for that expertise. Also, working in a nonprofit is a great bridge between worlds if you aspire to work in corporate one day.

How can you pivot your career into sustainable fashion from another field? How do employers gain insights into your soft skills when hiring? Do employers care more more about practical experience or academic degrees? Are there sustainability jobs in fashion that aren’t desk jobs?

To hear from Liam on these topics and much more, watch the full recording in the Conscious Fashion Collective Membership!

Original Source: Conscious Fashion Collective | Interview by: Stella Hertantyo