Reformation’s Chief Sustainability Officer Is Helping Turn The Brand “Climate-Positive”
Kathleen Talbot, Reformation’s Chief Sustainability Officer and VP of Operations, shares her business (and sustainability) advice with Bustle.
In Bustle’s Quick Question, we ask women leaders all about advice. Here, Reformation's Chief Sustainability Officer & VP Operations shares the features she’s most proud of and her hack for beating imposter syndrome.
Many brands talk the talk when it comes to sustainability, but Reformation is one of the few that walk the walk. In an industry that contributes 10% of the entire world’s carbon emissions, Reformation has emerged as a leader in eco-friendly fashion.
To minimize their footprint, Reformation clothing is made from low-impact material. They’ve been 100% carbon-neutral since 2015 and are even working on becoming “climate positive” by 2025 (more on that, later).
“Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option,” their tagline reads. “We’re # 2.”
At the helm of that effort is Kathleen Talbot, the brand’s Chief Sustainability Officer and VP of Operations. Talbot has a master’s degree in sustainability and got her foot in the door in 2014 by taking on an administrative role at the brand. She has spent the years since years planning, maintaining, and expanding the company’s commitment to sustainability.
She is, according to a representative of the brand, the “impetus for Reformation’s industry-leading sustainability initiatives,” and her dreams of building a better future of fashion can be applied to all aspects of business and leadership.
Here, Talbot tells Bustle how she got her start, how she created her own path (and role) at Reformation, and how she plans to accomplish her dreams for a more sustainable industry.
Take us back to when you first started at Reformation. Where were you at in your career and why was joining the company the right move?
I joke that I fulfill every stereotype you may have of a Seattleite — I’ve been interested in sustainability my whole life, and knew early on that our future was dependent on changing how we view our relationship with people and the planet. I received my master’s degree in sustainability and have had the word “sustainability” in my title for my entire career. I started out in academia, and loved teaching and influencing the next generation of leaders. After a few years, I wanted to make sure that I found a way to bridge ideas with action. I was drawn to consumer products first because there was such an opportunity to actually make things differently. So when I was introduced to Reformation, I was really inspired by the brand’s vision. I knew immediately that I wanted to get involved in the sustainable fashion movement they were pioneering.
What excited you most about joining Reformation?
It was so wonderful to see a brand that genuinely cared about transforming an industry and was willing to set new rules for how we did business. The reality is that the future of fashion requires turning things upside down. It’s one of the most exploitative, polluting industries in the world, and I knew I wanted to be involved in the hard, formative work required to change that.
I loved that the team was also having fun with it. We’re a little bit cheeky. It’s so important to infuse some humor, especially given the seriousness and complexity of climate issues, to make this topic more approachable and digestible for anyone who’s interested in joining the movement.
In the early years of your career, what was the toughest challenge you faced and how did you overcome it?
Honestly, one of the toughest challenges was creating a job for myself that hadn’t existed until that point. Sustainability was a brand new field. When I reached out to Reformation, I had no background in fashion or business. I had to start as an office manager to get my foot in the door. But I was committed to learning, and beyond passionate [about helping] define what sustainability would look like at Reformation in the long-term. The path you want to take won’t always be carved out for you — it’s all about identifying where you want to make an impact and forming a strong case as to how you can help.
When you look back on your journey, what surprises you the most?
When I first started at Reformation, I really fell into operations. Like I mentioned, I took a more of an administrative job, planning to pivot back to sustainability work full time. Early on though, our founder realized that she didn’t want a typical do-gooder trying to influence the team on the side, but rather implement a really integrated approach to sustainability. So in just a matter of months, I took on managing most business operations, including owning the budgets and key strategic decisions. To this day, I still run the Reformation factory and facilities. Looking back, it was a wild choice to trust me with that, but I’m confident that it set the foundation for putting sustainability at the true core of the business.
Can you share any specific anecdotes that taught you a valuable business/life lesson during your career?
One of the most valuable work/life lessons I had was to lean into hard problems. I had mentors who would ask me to do what seemed like the impossible — things that hadn’t been done before or that were complex. When I would protest, they challenged me to fight the auto response of saying “no” and find somewhere to start, or a solution that I could drive. The result was some really novel and transformative work products, like our RefScale tool that measures the carbon, water, and waste of everything we make.
For a project like RefScale, the reason we were able to do that years before even the most progressive brands, is that we also chose to lead with transparency. We published all of our assumptions and methodology. We never tried to gloss over the hard stuff or what was still a work -in-progress. We started to publish quarterly reports that were very open about our wins and our misses. One of our most successful product campaigns was when we launched swim and led with the fact that our swimsuits were not sustainable enough (because of microfiber pollution issues). Again, it may sound basic, but this approach in work and in your personal life really builds trust, and allows you to evolve much more quickly.
The last thing I would share is that my work at Reformation has helped me reach a much wider audience as it relates to sustainable lifestyles or other behaviors that we’re trying to encourage. Instead of being a naive sustainability professional that leans in with all the reasons we should do something, I like to think about why most people don’t do it. When we first launched a clothing recycling program, we asked many people on our team why they would throw clothes away — and the reality is that it was more convenient. So, we created a program that was as easy as possible to adopt. If we want to get everyone involved, we have to diversify our messages, our incentives, and our approaches in general to truly drive for a revolution.
What’s the most valuable business advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I’ve received is to do the work upfront to figure out where you can drive the most impact with the easiest lift. The “no brainers,” so to speak. Sustainability-wise, this could mean identifying a more efficient material swap or a better use of resources that can drive change within your business. But if you zoom out it can be applied to any industry. Figure out where that lever is for you, then take action!
A smaller hack is to read back any email and remove nearly 100% of the “I think,” “just,” and “maybe” fillers. Language is powerful, and doing this can help you be more assertive and confident in your point of view and recommendations.
On the flip side, what’s the worst business advice you’ve ever received?
To not be “so nice.” I struggled with this one, especially as a female executive. There is a now outdated expectation of what a leader should look like, how they should behave, and treat others. I think it’s terrible advice to not be your authentic self. You have to interact with others in a way that is consistent with who you are outside of work as well. And for me, that is often nice or empathetic! I’ve also found it to be a secret weapon. It can disarm people, build lasting relationships, and make for a much more collaborative and productive team.
How do you recharge? What does your typical self-care routine look like?
I love being outside and moving to recharge, especially on the weekend. I hike, garden, and take my one-year-old to the park or the nature centers near us in Los Angeles. Sometimes my body tells me it’s better to just slow down. I’ve practiced yoga for twenty years and am a very good power napper! Carving out time to read and keep learning is also important for me to feel like I can keep investing time and energy in my own development, and stay connected to the stories that are much bigger than my day-to-day experiences.
What does an aspiring fashion executive need to know in order to be successful?
I honestly still don’t call myself a fashion executive since all of my fashion experience has been through my work at Reformation. But I’m a Reformation executive! One thing I always encourage is to not be afraid to ask for help and get plugged into the wider community to work towards shared goals. I am unquestionably who I am today because other leaders mentored and supported my growth. This has influenced me to make sure that I’m openly sharing resources with others. At Reformation, we encourage cross-industry collaboration and recently open-sourced our Climate Positive Roadmap to make it easier for other businesses to accomplish an otherwise complex and overwhelming goal. The best results are born when we all come together towards a better, shared future. And we always welcome brands who want to reach out to us and get involved in the work that we’re doing.
Also, hold yourself accountable to start making changes. The big and small changes will add up; if we want to have transformational change, we all need to participate.
How do you define leadership? What does a good, successful leader look like to you?
A leader sets a vision and makes things happen to get there. They have to build a team and motivate others to go after the same thing. So for me, a successful leader is inspiring and can set a clear mission. Then they are supportive, and relentless in pursuing something much bigger than themself.
Is there anything else you'd like to add that we haven't asked?
Sustainability is at the core of all that we do, and one initiative I’m currently focused on that we’re trying to spread the word about is our commitment to achieve climate positivity by 2025. Our products have been carbon and waste-neutral since 2015, but with this commitment, we’re going further to actively reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and invest in solutions that have a net positive impact. Climate positivity is still such a new concept and there’s no true definition for it yet, but the planet can’t wait. We’re defining it as meeting our greenhouse gas reduction targets and removing more emissions than we produce. As I mentioned, we’ve released this roadmap publicly so that anyone who wants to do the same can use our groundwork as a resource—and we hope to inspire others to join us in this critical move!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.