Sustainability in business needs to start from the ground up, by reinventing every aspect of the supply chain through environmentally friendly practices !

Kavita Dass, our next pathbreaker, Head of Sustainability & Fabric at Poeticgem Inc. (London), drives the Sustainability Strategy, Process and implementation for Sustainable Materials, and the roadmap for the business.

Kavita talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always being environmentally conscious, and taking up a career in fabric sustainability due to her interest in material design.

For students, sustainability and circularity are no longer a choice for businesses. It is the only way to thrive as a business and as a community !

Kavita, what were your initial years like?

I grew up in a Tea Garden in Himachal Pradesh, India. My parents worked in the world of travel tourism as well as led environmental (reforestation and air and water pollution) projects in collaboration with international firms. My initial schooling happened in a local school after which I went to a boarding school in Sidhpur, H.P, where I completed my ICSE. 

I was interested in the sciences as I wanted to maybe become a doctor one day. Though I was disappointed that I did not secure a place in the medical university, I studied an intensive Textile Design vocational course at the South Delhi Polytechnic. I wanted to ensure that I would be a financially independent woman one day. Having grown up surrounded by nature, learning from the excellent work ethic my parents followed, their shared love for the environment and the resulting progress they helped bring to the local tribes, really shaped who I am today. 

I used to love to paint nature and also make toys and utensils using the clay near my home, together with my little brother. We spent hours doing this, as there were few other children to play with, as we lived in areas which were not very well connected in those days. I think this has helped me be comfortable in my own skin and happy in my own company when needed- a great skill to have in life!

My own education and science background, along with my creative abilities have really been the cornerstone of my career, which gave me a well-rounded approach to my work.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I went on to complete my graduation, alongside my Textile design course. 

I chose the South Delhi Polytechnic because Delhi was a second home and my grandparents and extended family lived there- I guess it was a question of comfort levels for both me and my parents.

I studied Medieval History and Geography for my undergraduate degree. I wanted to know more about what shaped our world and its people. Maybe to help understand who we were, and who I am.

I have always been proud of my heritage, my roots and the country I was born and grew up in. 

Later on when I moved to England, I studied a course in Sustainability Leadership in Business at the CISL , University of Cambridge. This really has helped me take forward my career in Sustainability Implementation in Materials as well as ESG, in the Apparel and Textile Industry.

I have also studied other courses that have contributed towards my Continuous Professional Development, mostly online. One never stops learning and evolving. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

My interest in Material design drove my choice for this career. Sustainability in materials was a natural choice for me because of my background. Like my parents, I wanted to give back to nature and to society.

In one of my first jobs, I was very inspired by My C.K Somany, the then Chairman of HNG, of the Somany Enterprise. He believed in me and gave me responsibilities in the business that not only made me stretch my abilities but also learn from them. He threw me at the deep end and his faith in me made me swim hard and fast. He shaped my ability to really fight for what I believed I could do.

Mentors within the industry can really help. My mentor, Mr Vijay Misra, was my line manager at a manufacturing and export firm that I worked with for 6 years . His contribution was the global exposure he provided me with in my field. 

I am lucky I still have a few mentors; in fact, I actively seek them out and ask them to mentor me. I ensure I interact and make time for these invaluable interactions and learning opportunities.

The global travel to the fashion capitals of the world, and the interactions with colleagues from global brands really developed my career and my confidence. I led creative teams in business and delivered great results.

My ambition to be a financially independent woman was a key driver. My parents enabled me with the education that was needed to let me spread my wings and fly. This was not easy in the conservative world that I grew up in.

It all started when my university friend alerted me to a job position that was open in New Delhi. My mother stood up for me and I found myself in Delhi for this interview and got this job. I never looked back.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I have always wanted to move forward and onward (a motto I borrowed from my school). My parents were a huge example to me- their hard work, the way they faced the many challenges together and how they always came out on top even when faced with failures. This has always guided my thought process. ‘Get closest to your goal’ and ‘always carry your own burden if you can’ is what my father taught me, and this has guided my approach in life and career

My first job was at Ravissant (A Luxury label for Apparel and Soft furnishings) as a Textile Designer, in India. I was always up for a challenge, and I found myself designing soft furnishings for this amazing brand. I was working with 30 tailors at the sampling unit and loved it. I designed products for the likes of Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan and their family. This was a journey of discovery. I then designed a very successful range for their export market.

I applied for this ambitious role at HNG (Hindusthan National Glass & Industries Limited). My parents shaped me into someone who could do whatever she sets her mind to. I applied for a job role that was probably beyond my reach, at HNG. I did not get that job, but I got an excellent job with them as an Assistant Manager, within a year of having started my career. 

I got the opportunity for a job as the Head of Creative Resource Centre at TCNS and was successful in securing this role. I was with them for 6 years and this is where I got the opportunity to work with mills, design and create fabrics as well as interact with global brands and their design teams as well as with buying teams in New York, Paris, London and other places. These 6 years really shaped my understanding of the supply chain and the world of materials for the global apparel industry as well as the world of global brands.

I then moved to the UK with my family –I took on a consulting role for the launch of the brand ‘W’ in India. I worked for TCNS and helped in the research and material input for the launch of this now well-established brand.

Thereafter I returned to India for 4 years and being a full-time mum, I looked to use my other interests to give myself an occupation. I started freelancing as a feature writer/ journalist for the Times of India, whilst based in Mumbai. 

On returning to London in 2006 I was given the opportunity to work with a British Heritage brand Jaeger and then went on to work for other great brands like M&S, Timberland, ASOS and also got the opportunity to work with Suppliers like Dewhirst, Courtaulds and now, Poeticgem, based in the UK

Working at Jaeger was all about using beautiful and expensive fabrics tho design classic styles. Things were becoming difficult with the 2008 recession and luxury fabrics began to evolve into compromised versions as brands started sourcing from countries like China rather than Europe. But this is how I started to make those connections with the supply chain, mills all over the world. I travelled to the Far East and met these partners and still have a strong network in these areas that I use for my fabric sourcing, especially sustainable fibres and materials, even today.

Marks & Spencers has been a leader in sustainable materials usage as well as their social snd environmental agenda with their famous Plan A. This is where I worked in innovation and design of sustainable materials, processes and gained experience in development of sustainable versions of finishes on materials, like water repellency.

Timberland and VF are a huge force in moving brands towards sustainable fibres and materials and also in leading collaborations like the Textile Exchange to help the industry adopt more sustainable practices. I led the Materials sustainability innovation as well as development. In my role here, I developed my understanding and experience in the field further. 

At ASOS, I set up the fabric department, and formulated and implemented their Sustainability Strategy for Materials Sourcing and Innovation and ways of working for the business to deliver this challenging goal.

I faced redundancy twice in my career, so far. I used these opportunities to start my own consulting work under my brand SMAC (Sustainable Materials, Agility & Circularity) and helped many SMEs and even large brands like N Brown Group on their journey towards sustainability. This helped me find my feet again in a new role or job each time and added to my confidence, by enabling continuity in my earnings to some extent.

How did you get your first break? 

My best friend from my Textile Design course worked with Ravissant in New Delhi. She alerted me to an opportunity in the business, and I interviewed for this job and was successful.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Coming from a small town, I was one of the first girls who pursued a career in the city. This was no ordinary thing in those days. The support of my parents and my grandmother in Delhi was a huge driver for this. My aunt who was a working woman has been a huge inspiration for me too. 

Challenge 2: To gather the courage to take the next steps in my career. Applying to the job at HNG and believing I could do this role, took courage. I felt I had to try- as without trying I would fail anyway. 

The job at HNG was the first step into a management role where strategy and marketing were also a part and parcel of the job. Though I had managed people right from the start of my career, this was where I learnt to take the team along to deliver set goals that included financial targets and metrics too. It was ambitious to take this on, however the only way to grow is to stretch your limits and have faith in yourself. In this case my father’s faith in me was the force that helped me believe in my abilities- if he thought I could do it, maybe I could?!

Challenge 3 : When I was married, had my baby and gave up work, getting back into a real job after nearly 6-7 years of not being in one was hard. Then we moved to another country and with this career gap, it was hard to convince anyone that I even knew how to do my job anymore. So, when I got the opportunity, through a friend, to rebuild my career from scratch, as an administrator, I took it. I got my foot in the door and worked really hard. I made sure I took up any opportunity within the business, on projects and, also talked to whoever would listen, what I could do and how well I had done it in the past. Finally, I got through to one of the heads of a department and very soon I found myself in the role of a fabric technologist/ buyer looking after the fabric and trim development and sourcing for almost all their departments in the business. I started with part time hours (something that I was never able to find in India sadly) and after a few years extended my hours. It was only when I was at M&S (Mark & Spencer) that my child was old enough for me to work full time. But it was all worth it as my daughter is someone I am so proud of today.

Where do you work now? 

I currently work for a Sourcing Platform in the UK, Poeticgem. This is a part of the multinational PDS Group that is based in India. I am the Head of Sustainability and Fabrics here.

I would like to continue my consultancy, but do not find the time. However, I do consult for organizations sometimes, on an hourly basis off and on. It’s a different way to approach things and it gives me the ability to take a bird’s eye view I have gained over the years, coupled with my experience and understanding on sustainability for this industry, that enables me to help these companies who seek my time.

What problems do you solve? 

I drive the Sustainability Strategy, Process and implementation for Sustainable Materials and the roadmap for the business.

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?  

Understanding of materials and how they are made as well as their impact on the environment and the social impact of each and every raw material is important. I have now been in the industry for over 30 years and this journey has started from the grass roots of the industry. Practical experience in the industry is really important and has helped in guiding my career into the arena of sustainable materials, to reduce the carbon footprint of these materials and processes, and therefore the end product, through an understanding of how the supply chain works.

What’s a typical day like?

Very busy but productive. I lead my team that is spread across the globe, in the UK, Bangladesh, India and China. I also have embedded Sustainability Champions within the business that help me drive the agenda.

Training for the stakeholders, handling day to day materials, addressing technical as well as sustainability queries and challenges, form the chunk of the day. Coming up with sustainability metrics, through data gathering & reporting is a big part of the role, along with team management & collaboration. 

What do you love about your job?

Ensuring that the business supports impactful social projects in the catchment of our supply chain is one of my favourite parts of my job. Training teams, and coaching individuals, working across the supply chain take up some of my time too.

I love the fact that I can finally make a difference. Textiles are the second most polluting industry in the world. Today, through my work, I help with changing the industry for the better and driving and hopefully enabling others to do the same.

How does your work benefit society? 

Sustainability in materials and social impact, starts from the ground up- whether we use farm-based fibers or fuel based, we have the ability to make right choices and drive others to make the right choices that are better for the planet and for us. I believe this career is enabling me to make some impact in this direction and it gives me the satisfaction and the pride I want to feel in my work.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I worked recently with a large brand as a consultant. They are already an inclusive brand when it came to their target audience. I consulted for them on an intensive project for 3 weeks at one stage, and helped them create a full selection of sustainable materials and networks as well as with their strategy to commercialise these materials to create more sustainable products. Thanks to the success of this exercise, they recently has launched their exclusively sustainable brand that uses only the most sustainable materials available to them today.

Sustainability is a growing and essential field, and it touches every other field – this is something every business needs to work towards in a systemic way so that they future proof themselves to survive in the next decade. This is one field that will grow and help create jobs that we have not even thought of today. This field will be worth over a trillion dollars in the next few years. This field gives us an opportunity to make things better and help save humanity and the planet- and that is a great feeling too!

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Our world, our Earth, is the only one we have. We each have a responsibility to look after it if humanity is to survive on this planet. We have to help the world move away from destroying this planet, and each one of us can do this, every day, through our actions, through our work.

Future Plans?

I would like to continue my career path in Sustainability and Circularity. Circularity of materials and products is the only direction of travel that will save our planet and help mitigate the impacts of climate change. This is the area I want to work in