A toe, and then a foot, in the door of the apparel industry
Over the summer, I spent 10 weeks interning with the Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center (ISAIC), which is a startup cut-and-sew manufacturer, training and apparel innovation center. I began working with ISAIC in February on a project to create an online resource center geared toward providing easy access to sustainability-related resources to small apparel companies. During the summer, I hoped to gain further insight into the apparel industry, and particularly at the variety of sustainability challenges that a small manufacturer faces.
Prior to starting at the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute, my professional and academic background focused heavily on human migration. I conducted field research on migrants in Morocco, completed a Master’s in Migration & Diaspora Studies, and worked for a nonprofit in Boston that helps permanent residents apply for citizenship. I knew that many of the large companies I would be applying for internships with would be looking for more industry experience and relevant analytic skills than I could offer at the time. I started to think instead of smaller organizations that would not hold my lack of private corporation experience against me. While ISAIC did not formally advertise an internship, I decided it would not hurt to approach them, since I had already built a relationship with the head of their sustainability efforts and their CEO. My side-door approach worked.
My internship started out as a build-your-own experience. I was offered something of a laundry list of projects and tasks that I could choose––or not choose––to take part in. While I ended up helping with a variety of different projects, my main focus was completing a Scope 2 and Scope 3 greenhouse gas (GHG) assessment. To be completely honest, I had never heard of GHG accounting until I was at SEAS, so I was very new to this. For ISAIC and the tiny sustainability team of two (including me), that didn’t matter. What mattered was that I could learn as I was doing and work toward getting a baseline assessment so that in future years, ISAIC could
- ensure it collects the data it needs in the simplest way possible, and
- be able to benchmark improvements and set goals.
Through reading GHG Protocol’s guides and spending admittedly far too many hours looking for appropriate emission factors, I was able to complete these two assessments. While doing so undoubtedly added to my blossoming analytical skill set, perhaps my favorite part of my internship was the exposure to the strategic thinking and partnerships that underpinned ISAIC’s work. I gained insight on the apparel industry from a domestic manufacturer’s perspective––something I never imagined I’d get the chance to see from the inside. There is a thirst in ISAIC and many brands for a more equitable and more circular economy, which we are starting to see more of.
I came into this first year at Erb knowing that, in terms of business and sustainability, I would likely be one of the less skilled and less experienced people in my class, because my background is somewhat off the beaten path for an incoming MBA or SEAS student. Although I knew I was less qualified than most of my peers in the areas most salient to my industry, my failures and successes in the recruiting process have left me with a few lessons learned.
- Don’t be afraid to ask a potential employer for an internship, even if they don’t advertise one.
- You don’t have to be an expert to add value to the organization. I had absolutely no idea how to do a Scope 2 or 3 assessment, but I learned on the job. Where my hard skills failed me, my enthusiasm and collaborative efforts lifted me up.
- Aim to get an internship that you think will put you in a better position later on to get your dream job or enter your dream industry.
Sometimes, you just need to get your toe in the door to later get your foot in, which will eventually get the rest of you in (I’m counting on this last one to be true).