Liza Schillo graduated from Duke’s business and environment MEM/MBA joint degree program in 2014. Now, she’s working as a Manager of Product Sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co. at their headquarters in San Francisco, allowing her to turn her lifelong passion for the environment into a career in sustainable business.
In this Q&A, Liza reflects on her role and shares advice for MBAs looking to follow her footsteps into a sustainability career.
How did you first get interested in this career path?
Sustainability has been a lifelong passion of mine. First it was classic environmentalism (“I’m gonna work for Greenpeace, Mom!”). Then it shifted to environmental law and policy. After experience with policy, I decided there was more opportunity for innovation and speed of change in the corporate sector. I went back to school to earn my MBA and understand how to speak the language of business so that I could have effective conversations with decision-makers in the corporate sector on how to do business in a better (cleaner) way.
What are some of the most interesting challenges you are wrestling with in your current job?
How to win over the traditional business mindset. How to answer questions like “Why should we spend money on sustainability?” and “What if we took your salary and put it into more efficient supply chain operations?” (That’s an extreme example, but is a real question that was posed to me in an investor relations conversation!)
Another challenge is getting our designers to understand that sustainability stories must be grounded in science. We don’t want to discourage our internal teams from innovating, but the risk of being accused of being a “greenwasher” is always there. It’s difficult to strike a balance between telling too many stories and not enough. Tell too many and you risk confusing the consumer and earning the greenwash label–whereas not telling enough stories results in lost opportunities to influence our industry to do better. We have to demonstrate to our supply chain partners that we are serious about sustainability and they should shape up if they want our business. We are also working on marketing projects that will confirm our hunch that today’s consumer, particularly the Millennial shopper, will choose our product as the more socially responsible product if price is kept at parity with its competitor jeans.
What policy issues do you have your eye on right now?
Climate change. Our policy/advocacy team keeps a close watch on climate issues, largely because this is a hot topic and California is so progressive when it comes to climate strategy. Also, our team is always watching labor issues and anything that would get an activist’s attention, such as animal welfare or hazardous chemicals.
Do you have any tips or words of advice for current students interested in entering the sustainability field?
Establish a network. The field is constantly changing and growing, so staying in touch with folks who are in the know will help you stay relevant and reflect this in your work experience. They’ll also help you find a job, as sustainability, while growing, is still very much a niche field. Take informational interviews even if there is no apparent job prospect! Those people have networks too, and a good first impression goes a long way.
In addition, something I didn’t appreciate before beginning a career in apparel, is that every industry deals with different sustainability challenges. Make sure you understand these unique challenges. It is not enough simply to be a sustainability expert; you have to understand how it is relevant to the industry, and the business. Do research on the company–is storytelling important? What are the company values? Is it a global or regionally operating business? Is it consumer-facing? Has the CEO ever used the word “sustainability” in public? All of these things will inform the business’ approach to sustainability.
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