As a young girl, Rothy’s exec Saskia van Gendt was always eager to be out in nature as much as she could — a passion that grew when she got to high school and began learning about the climate issues facing the planet, and ultimately led to her studying environmental science at Northwestern University and building a career in sustainability.
“I took my first role at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where I worked on green building, ocean plastics, and zero waste,” van Gendt tells Bustle. “After seven years at the EPA, I wanted to become more specialized and apply my scientific expertise to products, which is such a beautiful articulation of sustainability in our daily lives.”
That led to her next role at method, which designs sustainable home cleaning products, and set her up for her current position as head of sustainability at Rothy’s. The shoe and accessories brand is a direct-to-consumer favorite, courting loyal fans like Meghan Markle, Mandy Moore, and Katie Holmes.
“I knew the fashion industry was notoriously wasteful, and the time had come for apparel to get its act together,” van Gendt says. “As I grappled with the harmful materials, rampant overproduction, and staggering waste, I realized Rothy’s had built an incredibly strong foundation to tackle these problems at scale.”
In particular, she was drawn to what she calls the brand’s “solutions-oriented approach,” beginning with its manufacturing process.
“By owning our factory and controlling an incredibly tight supply chain, we have remarkable visibility into every step of our product lifecycle,” van Gendt says. “We use bio-based and recycled materials, 3D knit to reduce material waste, and produce only as much inventory as we need.”
Here, van Gendt reflects on preparing for a job that didn’t exist when she was in school, the best business advice she’s received, and what it takes to be a successful fashion executive.
What was the toughest challenge you faced in the early years of your career, and how did you overcome it?
While my career trajectory might look linear, in the early days I couldn’t see a straightforward path that merged my passions with a business need. Although the role of “head of sustainability” didn’t exist when I was studying to become a scientist, I tried to carve that path out for myself [by] pursuing specialties in the field I was passionate about.
When you look back on your journey, what surprises you the most?
Growing up, sustainability was not considered cool. As a high school science nerd with an affinity for climbing trees, I’m still shocked that something I had a passion for is now gracing magazine covers. It’s not just stereotypical environmentalists who are interested in sustainability anymore.
Has anyone in particular taught you a valuable business or life lesson during your career?
I am thankful to have had so many incredible mentors through the years. Early on, a woman took a risk in hiring me with zero experience. Not only did she hire me, she also mentored me closely and was pivotal in helping spring my career forward. This is something I’m really mindful of in my current role, and I make a concerted effort to pay it forward.
What’s the most valuable business advice you’ve ever received?
Absorb all that you can from each work experience. Then use the process of elimination to isolate where your true passions lie. I’ve worked at a range of companies throughout my career, from smaller nonprofits to government agencies like the EPA. I had great experiences at each of the organizations. But they also helped channel me toward what I’m passionate about today — applying scientific solutions to products.
On the flip side, what’s the worst business advice you’ve ever received?
When I was in college and thinking about career paths, someone suggested I look at jobs in the oil and gas industry because they were one of the few industries looking for environmental specialists. Thankfully, sustainability consciousness has come a long way since then.
How do you recharge? What does your typical self-care routine look like?
I’m at my happiest when I’m spending time outdoors. I love trail running on the weekends and have recently gotten into skate-skiing. It’s wildly challenging but so much fun.
What does an aspiring fashion executive need to know in order to be successful?
With the growing awareness of fashion’s environmental impact, it’s important for executives to know the science behind their business practices. One of the things I value most about Rothy’s co-founders is they’re right there with me in learning about the challenges we face in product, manufacturing, fulfillment — and developing solutions in response. Even for someone who doesn’t specialize in sustainability, understand the impact of your product and how you can minimize your footprint.
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