Claire Bergkamp is the COO of Textile Exchange who are a global non-profit who drive positive impact on climate change across the fashion and textile industry. She has had an amazing career path to what is a relatively new role for her at Textile Exchange, via film and TV in LA and her various sustainability roles during her time with Stella McCartney. Her work has gained her a unique insight and deep understanding of the fashion industry. She has been on the cutting edge of new fabric developments and now in a way her journey has brought her back to the foundations of everything, the earth.
D: You grew up in Montana a beautiful big sky state which means you were immersed in nature from a very early age.
C: I was. My parents are not from Montana, they both moved there. My mom is from Arkansas and my dad is from Kansas, they met in Oregon and moved up to Montana. They moved there because they loved nature and were thinking about settling down it is really special for folks like them. I spent a huge amount of time in nature as a child as both my parents are avid hikers and backpackers and love being in the woods. There were lots of hiking tops up mountains, carrying little packs, and sleeping under the stars. Montana is special for that, it is pretty unpopulated and there is still a lot of untamed nature. You learn how to hide food from bears as a kid growing up in Montana that’s normal.
D: Did you have early influences as far as fashion was concerned?
C: No, not really, outside of the fact that I was always drawn to it, I don't think there was anything specific. Vogue I guess would have been my early influence. There wasn't really fashion in Montana, we didn't even have a Gap or anything in town. I think we had JC Pennies which is far from fashion. It’s one of those things–you get drawn to what you're drawn to, and I was always drawn to it. I used to play soccer and whenever we travelled around, I would always go to the malls in whatever city we were in and shop for more exciting things than you could get in Montana, where there was nothing.
D: Did you have big thrift stores?
C: We did, and I always thrifted growing up. A lot of what I wore was thrift store stuff, but you would only get the remnants of the population of Montana, so still not very
fashion-forward, but you did find some wonderful old things. I still have some vintage blazers from the 40s which are beautiful. You could find some incredible vintage pieces in the antique stores, but in all fairness, they were more expensive than I could afford as a teenager. When I was at college I really enjoyed coming back to Montana and being able to dip into that. I don't see it that much anymore, I think it was limited stock and has been moved out of the stores by now.
D: Hopefully those who saw it’s worth and snapped it up and kept it and it hasn't ended up in landfill. Did you study in Boston?
C: Yes, I studied costume design, not fashion. I was always interested in fashion as a young person. My mother is an artist, so I was always surrounded by the arts world. I did a couple of summer courses at the Chicago Art Institute when I was in high school. One of them was a fashion design course and I realized while doing it, that I didn't want to be a fashion designer. The design that I liked was more historical, more based on problem-solving than trying to come up with a new trend. That lead to my interest in costume design and the psychology behind clothing. I was fascinated by the history of clothing too, it really tells you a lot.
D: Did you work in film and theatre in Boston?
C: It was a required part of my degree. I love the theatre but the costume design I was more interested in was film-based, more subtle, I guess. Theatre is beautiful, but you have to be very bold with what you're wearing, it has to translate to the back row. I was more interested in subtle design which is more applicable to film.
D: That took you to LA which saw you working on programs like Heroes and Glee.
C: Different life, very different life. I worked on Heroes for a long time.
D: I loved Heroes. What was it like working on that?
C: My whole journey through film was interesting. It was so exciting at the beginning and so exhausting by the end. I worked in LA for about three and a half years, and I worked on Heroes for almost all of that. It was a dream to work on films and TV shows and be on set, it was extremely exciting to see how it all happened and to understand what it takes to create a show like that, with all the special effects.
How that translates into clothing means buying many multiples of anything so that when someone’s arm gets blown off, they can change 10 more times and have some for reshoots. That’s what my job became, trying to find 30 of the exact same black Theory T-shirts in the malls of Los Angeles.
I started on set, which was interesting, but the hours on set are pretty brutal, so I switched over to being more of a shopper, which still means very long hours but a little less. On set you would be working 14-hour days (12 hours minimum). I've never understood how people do it forever. In my 20s it was easy, but it would be very hard to keep that kind of lifestyle up long term.
D: When I was a photography assistant, we used to work like that on trips, photographing from morning to night with maybe a break in the afternoon but we didn't have unions like the film industry. As the assistant, I would try and sort everything so that at the end of the trip we could have a day off but that never happened, re-shoots ended up in that space.
C: We did have unions in LA and negotiated rates. I made very good money for someone in their 20s but worked very long hours. I was very grateful for the union and in one respect it was the best health insurance of my life. I will never have insurance like that again, it was spectacular.
D: If only all unions had that much power. Your next step was your move to the UK.
C: That was for my master’s. I don't remember exactly the moment I realized that sustainable fashion was a thing. It most likely started with my love of vintage and thinking about second-hand but not really understanding why. I think that reuse and upcycling is always the entry point into the larger topic of sustainability, because you see excess. For me, in film, I saw so much excess. They're buying so much, and you're seeing everyone else buying so much, you spend all day in the mall buying. Consuming at a rate that no normal human could because it is your job.
When my interest started in sustainability, I looked around at courses and found the course at the London College of Fashion. It was very unique at the time, I think there are more now, but there was nothing like it in the US, or anywhere else that I saw. I eventually did a more business program, but I still did all my work through the Centre for Sustainable Fashion with Dilys (Williams). The best thing I ever did was moving here and getting to meet Dilys. She really did change the course of my life in a big way. She's inspired a lot of people being in that role.
D: Did you go and work with Stella straight after that course?
C: During my master’s I worked at Arcadia, which was interesting and I realized quickly that it wasn't the part of the fashion industry that I wanted to be in. I started at Stella pretty much immediately after I finished my master’s. I started as a temp to work on the end-of-year environmental impact report, the reporting that most companies do and we reported to the Kering Group as we were still a member then. At the same time, Kering decided that it wanted to have a sustainability department and was really encouraging brands to hire people. So for me, it was the right place, the right time, the right skills. It was still a pretty niche thing that I had done, it’s way more competitive now. Hiring others and bringing in team members got so much easier, but it was so niche when I started that nobody wanted to talk about it at all.
D: Your mandate was to make the company more efficient and green.
C: Broadly yes, that was the idea. At the beginning a lot of it was getting to know the supply chain a lot better, looking at where the risks were, not only environmental but human rights too. For the first couple of years I did both, by myself, only me, so way too much. Looking back, when I did my indefinite Leave to Remain to stay in the UK, you have to tell them everywhere you've ever been, which is insane if you have a job where you travel. In the first two years, I was gone so much more than I was here. I think I spent two months in Asia at one point, I don't remember that. My time had been spent between India and China and a huge amount of time in Italy. Over the years I hired people to help so I didn't have to do it all by myself, which was a lot better.
D: That must have been a huge education, to see how everything works and how people were treated.
C: It was and I'm so grateful that I had to do it all myself because I saw it all first-hand. Drom embroidery in India, to big factories in China, to high quality luxury mills in Italy, to farms, I've seen a lot of what any global fashion supply chain has to offer. I was also at an age where it was fun. I think now, in my late 30s it would be a lot harder, but I was 27 and it was exciting to see it all. It was a real education into what it actually looks like to make fashion.
D: You worked on the EPNL (Environmental Profit and Loss) system with Kering. Do you think that that and all the travel you did has set you in the direction you have taken now?
C: I think the EPNL had quite a big role in that because I was very involved in helping to develop it with Kering. Many of the brands were, but with Stella, obviously it was very important to us. What it showed, because of the types of materials we used in luxury, is that the raw material part of the supply chain has the largest impact. Where a lot of the focus went for me, for the team, and for the brand, was on raw material production and sourcing.
The travel that accompanied that was visiting farms and spending a lot of time on wool farms and really getting to understand that part of the supply chain, where those impacts were, and what they looked like in reality. It was the part that spoke most to me also, I think that comes back to my connection with nature. When you're on a farm you are in nature, and you can see how that farm is acting in nature. I grew up around that too, I grew up around ranches, they were mostly cattle in Montana, but there were quite a few sheep ranches too. It made a lot of sense to me, the impact was very tangible in a way that I can personally understand and engage with. When you're in a dyehouse you can see water pollution and you can also see water treatment, but the technical differences between water filtrations is not my strength. I'm not the person that can tell you if that chemical mix is good or bad. For me, raw materials has always been the part that I understood. That is what drove me to Textile Exchange, because that's what we work on.
D: When did Stella stop using cashmere?
C: When we started doing the EPNL report, cashmere had such an outsized impact for the amount we used. As we were being very serious about trying to reduce impact, the easiest solution was to stop using virgin cashmere and switch to recycled, so we didn't source virgin cashmere after 2016/2017. Cashmere has an impact on the degeneration of grasslands. We did a lot of work in Argentina and we walked away from it because of some animal welfare concerns. But a group of Argentinian farmers was doing incredible restoration work on grasslands through holistic grazing.
Huge swathes of the grasslands in Argentina have been turned into desert because of overgrazing cattle. It's a very different ecosystem, very similar to Montana in climate, very brittle, very dry, not lush at all – I think parts of Mongolia are still quite lush. Overgrazing with goats happens a lot quicker than it does with sheep.
D: Through your work you've managed to work with a lot of innovative fabrics. Which one fascinated you most?
C: The partnership we had with Bolt Threads at Stella was the first major one and the promise of spider silk still holds very dear to my heart. I know there has been a lot more focus on mycelium, but spider silk with Bolt was my entry point to the whole topic and for me is still one of the most exciting. However, the unsung hero of material innovation is textile-to-textile recycling. I also worked with an organization called Evrnu, which is pretty incredible too.
I think like anything in life, and this is something I think we really undervalue when we talk about this idea of sustainability, is human connection. All that change we made in the supply chain was from getting to know the people in the supply chain. It’s not like there is this hard science, it's about transformation and changing people's minds, getting to know them, and understanding the reality. With the innovators, it's the same thing. The people that I had the most connection with personally also tended to result in the best results for us as a company because we could work together. The technologies are often very similar but having that working relationship really unlocked getting it to the next level. You're going to run into so many problems – every day is a problem when you're trying to bring in a new material or innovation to supply chains that have been working one way for hundreds of years. So much of that was because of the people running those companies.
D: I guess you found yourself working with sci-fi a little bit again with these technologies.
C: I love it, it's interesting. But I think because of the state the world is in we need to be careful not to let innovation distract us. We have a lot of work that needs to happen and within that, it should still be invested in. But some of the investment does need to be on the big problems we have right now. I think it's easy to get excited, I did and still do, with some of the innovations out there, but none of them are at scale and we have very little time to address some very big problems. So focusing on the solutions that can scale up quickly and that already exist, for things like soil health, has got to be where a lot of the focus is now.
D: Tell us about Textile Exchange, what they do and what you are doing with them? Can you also explain the tier system?
C: Textile Exchange exists in what we call Tier Four. If we think of a supply chain in tiers, Tier Zero is where a company operates itself, its stores, and its offices. Tier One is garment manufacturing, Tier Two is fabric mills, Tier Three is the transformation of raw materials into fibers through processes like the scouring of wool and the creation of pellets, and Tier Four is where the actual creation of the material occurs – where the sheep live, where the cotton farming happens, where oil extraction is, mining for metals, whatever the material is. Where the actual, on-the-ground impact is happening is in Tier Four.
D: Does Textile Exchange also do certification?
C: We do. We are a non-profit, not a membership association, but we do have over 700 members made up of most of the brands you have ever heard of, but also farmers and suppliers. That's one part of our world that brings members along on the journey, trying to encourage transformation inside companies. We are also a standards holder and certification organization. We don't certify farms, but we developed the standards that are then applied, or asked of farmers or the supply chain to adhere to.
We hold standards covering both animal welfare and sustainability for wool, alpaca, mohair, and down. Then we have an organic cotton certification, which does not certify the farm –that's a separate thing that is important to acknowledge. Our most used standard is our Global Recycling Standard, which is pretty much the main certification out there ensuring that something is recycled, and we do see that as a very important part of transforming the industry.
Certifications result in impact change on the ground, which is important, but they also provide a chain of custody to the finished product. It is a way to verify a claim that is being made. There are all kinds of claims made in this world, but certifications are real, in a way that a lot of stuff isn’t, and we believe they are an important part of helping the industry transform. We also run a big benchmarking effort which is the largest peer-to-peer benchmarking effort in the industry, where companies voluntarily report to us the use of their materials.
The report for 2020 had 191 brands that reported on how they're doing. They are then benchmarked and can see their progress on the adoption of preferred materials. It helps us keep an eye on the industry and point in the direction of travel. We have a few other tools that help companies understand the bigger picture of impact because a lot of times what we've seen is that companies get very focused on looking only at Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) to understand impact. This is a very scientific way of looking at it, but it has very strict boundaries – it doesn't take into consideration things like microfibres, animal welfare, or in the case of polyester, oil. We have created a tool that gives you a much more holistic view of trying to understand the impact of different materials, which we call the Preferred Fiber and Materials Matrix.
D: How are you encouraging farmers to look after the soil?
C: We have a new program called Impact Incentives which is one of the tools that will be able to help incentivize farmers. It is a way of getting money directly to a farmer – it is not a certification, but it is about helping transformation happen without building it into the supply chain. It’s that initial piece of transformation we’re looking for. We don't typically work directly with farms, but what we do is help to create movement and point the direction of travel.
We are working on a protocol and some thinking for what drives healthy soils. The word regenerative gets thrown around a lot these days and we believe in it in theory, but we’ve just embarked on a very large exercise mapping regenerative programs around the world, the Regenerative Agriculture Landscape Analysis, to create the understanding that the industry needs of what really does drive soil health. There are a lot of things popcorning off around the world and no one is really taking the time to say, let's look at all of this together and figure out what is working in different regions, what we need to be doing to measure the soil health, where the methodology is in scientific protocols that exist. We wanted to translate that into a practical resource that the industry can use.
D: Do you feel that now that you're working for a non-profit that you've put your running shoes on so to speak? With more freedom to push for change faster?
C: I'm across more than one company now as Textile Exchange's mission is industry transformation. When you are working in a brand your mission is brand transformation. Textile Exchange is very different, it’s a much bigger mindset which is really exciting. Stella was a little different but it is still about what your individual impact is, and at Textile Exchange, we are all about enabling everybody at once. Anybody who wants it can have it.
D: What do you think the impact the pandemic will have had on everything? On one hand, there was an overdrive in production, on the other, more people seemed to be more aware of the bigger picture.
C: I think it's too early to say. I see the same thing you see, which is that after a down there is an up. Historically when we've had a down, a lot of overconsumption happens afterward. I think that we should assume that that will probably happen. One thing maybe though is that not everyone feels that way.
Personally, I slowed down for the first time in a long time during the pandemic. It’s why I'm working with a non-profit, as I slowed down and thought about what I wanted for the next phase of my career. It gave me time to think about the impact I want to leave behind. I don't know that I would have done that as fast, without the pandemic making me question what I need in the world.
I also think that the pandemic taught us something else important. There's a lot of talk of the slowing down of production, which does need to happen, but people were really irresponsible with their supply chain. They just walked away from orders, all of that was horrible. There are those of us in the non-profit space who are hoping to help lead
thought. We at Textile Exchange are not really in that part of the supply chain, but I do think that there needs to be some real stakeholder engagement thinking about what responsible manufacturing actually means. Again, we're talking about humans here.
D: 100% it's humans and we need degrowth. How do you do that responsibly?
C: That’s not something that one company can decide on its own, or it's going to go wrong.
D: That brings us to the power of legislation.
C: We need that so badly, but I do worry about policymakers not really being educated on the topics. People understand oil. I don’t think people understand fashion supply chains and policy, that's been my personal experience of policymakers and it really freaks them out.
D: On the same level you've got governments supporting the oil industry.
C: People need to keep on pushing governments – they are not doing their job anywhere in the world. I do think policy plays a role in all of this, but with oil and gas it’s a very different conversation. With fashion there needs to be a little bit of incentivization as well. The problem that I've seen with the way that policy has tried to engage with fashion supply chains is that they treat them like every other supply chain and they're not. They are way messier and there are more twists and turns, you can't compare it to say, a car supply chain. They are not the same thing.
My concern and what I've seen happening in some of the EU legislation talks is that they want it to be simple. They want a simple solution, they want footprint, with the way they're approaching it, it’s potential to drive real change feels very slim. We need a shift in thinking about how we incentivise good action instead of trying to make it all fit into the same box for every type of product and looked at - what if there was a tax break on organic cotton, what if there was a tax break on second-hand, or what if you didn't pay any tax when you bought something used? That would start to shift the market in a way that would be more effective, less complicated, and could be actioned right away.
D: You have seen that work in practice when you were working in the film industry.
C: Absolutely, all the films left LA while I was there, all the films left completely. I then worked in Boston and Louisiana on a couple different things.
D: And that was purely because of tax incentives.
C: Absolutely, tax breaks.
D: So if they can make the film industry move like that with tax breaks then absolutely 100% they would be able to move the fashion industry with tax breaks.
C: It happened overnight in film. Every film was made in LA then no films were made in LA. It happened in like 3 weeks! It was like that (Claire clicked her fingers). Films relocated, they changed production, they wrote scripts to be based in Louisiana, the entire industry, everything, is still made in Atlanta now. All because there were great tax breaks. It might take a little longer with fashion, but the change is immediate. I'm personally promoting this at this point because I think everything else has gotten way too complicated.
D: Do you have hope?
C: I do. I think policymakers will step up. I'm going to hold on to that, I think we can hit the 45%, I think it's possible. But policymakers need to step up because they can really transform things. It doesn't take that long to change things when people are motivated to change them.