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ESG Outlook: Sasha Calder of Genomatica on Scaling Bio-Based Products

ESG Outlook is Sourcing Journal’s discussion series with industry executives to get their take on their company’s latest environmental, social and governance initiatives and their own personal efforts toward sustainability. In this Q&A, Sasha Calder, head of sustainability at Genomatica discusses boosting transparency on bio-based fashion solutions.

Sasha Calder Genomatica
Sasha Calder, head of sustainability, Genomatics Courtesy

Name: Sasha Calder

Title: Head of Sustainability

Company: Genomatica

What do you consider to be your company’s best ESG-related achievement over the last 5 years?

Our ability to scale our technology solutions to make significant, positive environmental impact. In the last five years, we signed a deal for our second commercial plant based on our technology, expanding the capacity of just one of our products to 100,000 tons per year—which, by itself, can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a million tons per year tied to the production of spandex, sneakers and plastics.

Significant collaborations like this show both brands and their suppliers that bio-based products are ready for prime time and broad adoption, paving the way for more deals and bigger environmental impact. We’re further combining this progress with Genomatica’s efforts to create more transparent and traceable fashion by working with our supply chains, including farmers and local communities, to be more socially responsible.

What is your personal philosophy on shopping and caring for your clothes?

By moving away from fast-fashion pieces that are intended for short periods of use and quick disposal, we can get more use out of fewer pieces and minimize the environmental impact of our clothing. When I’m looking for a new piece, I opt to shop at local thrift and consignment stores and resale apps, or clothing swaps with friends and family.

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After one of my first garment factory visits in 2010, I committed to supporting brands that prioritize worker well-being and environmental best practices. I’m the kind of person who digs in as much as possible to understand a brand’s impact before purchasing their products, because I believe our wallets are a vote for the future we believe in.

I’m a big fan of Patagonia for their commitment to supply chain transparency, protecting public lands, investing in alternative sustainable materials like hemp and evolving the sustainability of their pieces—while most importantly encouraging keeping your clothes as long as possible and challenging fashion’s pervasive consumeristic narratives. I’m also a big fan of the work Levi’s has done over the years around worker well-being, and it’s been great to see some of the larger luxury houses become more sustainable, such as Gucci going climate neutral and rethinking their supply chain.

Anything new you are doing to boost sustainability beyond the fashion industry?

Having spent over six years working in the beauty industry, I try to be thoughtful around the chemicals I invite into my home, whether through my cleaning supplies (I’m a big fan of Dr. Bronner’s) to beauty products. I enjoy growing seasonal fruits and veggies—as a big foodie, cooking food you grow tastes the best. As I learn more about sustainability, I like to think of the mantra “progress over perfection.”

What is the biggest misconception consumers have about sustainability in fashion?

The biggest misconception people have is that their clothes are made responsibly by default, without human rights abuses and in a way that doesn’t hurt the planet. A recent Genomatica survey shows that over half of consumers (55 percent) are interested in purchasing sustainable fashion, but 48 percent don’t know how or where to find sustainable clothes and 42 percent are confused about what actually makes clothing sustainable.

There’s a great opportunity here for apparel brands to bring greater transparency to the market—especially for the over half of consumers who want brands to supply more information and choices. A great example of this is Genomatica’s recent partnership with Lululemon, where they are aiming to replace their fossil-fuel derived nylon with plant-based nylon.

What was your company’s biggest takeaway from the Covid crisis?

The pandemic was another wakeup call around what matters most—the health and safety of those we love, and it has shown us the resilience of communities and the fragility of supply chains. Internally at Genomatica, empathy became an essential need during those times of high stress and rapid change, which also highlighted the importance of kindness.

The climate crisis presents similar challenges (at an exponential) to Covid-19. There is an urgency to take action now and address existing broken systems (economic and political) to ensure that we’re taking responsibility for, and action around, the impacts of an over-dependence on fossil fuels and exploitative business practices. The resilience of our future businesses depends on our ability to think about the interconnectedness of our business impacts, community needs and the health of our planet.

What is your company’s latest sustainability-related initiative?

Genomatica is continuing to sprint on building a best-in-class business that focuses on impact. We’re currently conducting an updated Materiality Assessment with both internal and external stakeholders to ensure that we’re planning for a resilient, just and sustainable business model moving forward. What to expect from the process? An updated, laser-focused business strategy that puts climate justice at the center of everything we do.

What is the apparel industry’s biggest missed opportunity related to securing meaningful change?

The biggest missed opportunity is respecting the many people up and down supply chains that work hard to bring products to market. When we allow ourselves to be curious and understand where our materials come from, we open up to see how the products are made (better quality) and how the farmers, transporters, factory workers, retailers, and more are impacted by the creation of products. Respecting the workers on the supply side is the needed radical change this industry needs.

At Genomatica, we believe that you can make products in a way that a family would want to live next to a manufacturing plant and not be poisoned by it, that workers could be supported and celebrated in their work instead of systemically kept down, and that a pair of high-performance clothes could be made from plants instead of petroleum.

The first step is taking a critical look at what your sourcing journey looks like currently. Understanding where you’re at can help you identify gaps, and potential opportunities for improvement. There’s an increasing amount of innovation and improvements out there, so be sure to research what new innovations are available and relevant to you. The second step? Know you don’t have to go about it alone. There are brands, suppliers, and NGO/academic groups eager to partner to share best practices and what has/hasn’t worked for them. It takes an industry to shift together.

Another factor toward a sustainable future is the continued growth of ESG-focused investing. However, while ESG funds are meant to make it easier for investors to back more impact-driven companies there’s a massive opportunity and responsibility for all stakeholders to provide and require more clarity and rigor around the factors that go into ESG reporting. The industry can work together to increase the transparency around ESG investing to empower individual investors to support companies that support the issues they care about.