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Up Close: In Conversation with Material Exchange’s Kelly Burton

Up Close is Sourcing Journal’s regular check-in with industry executives to get their take on topics ranging from personal style to their company’s latest moves. In this Q&A, Kelly Burton, chief sustainability officer at material and component marketplace Material Exchange, explains what ethical consumption means to her and why sourcing is ready for a digital makeover.

Kelly Burton Material Exchange
Kelly Burton, chief sustainability officer at Material Exchange Courtesy

Name: Kelly Burton

Title: Chief sustainability officer

Company: Material Exchange

Which other industry has the best handle on the supply chain? What can apparel learn?

I imagine all industries are challenged by the complex and global natures of their supply chains. Maybe a measure of a particular industry’s success in the supply chain lies in their maturity in digitalization? To that end, Material Exchange is facilitating the digital transformation of both the apparel and footwear industries. This will lead to better transparency and traceability, while reducing waste—and risk.

How would you describe yourself as a consumer?

I am an ethical consumer; I seek products that have sightline to—and initiatives to lessen—their impacts. I try to spend my money with small, local designers or brands who have invested in empowering and providing equity to those in their value chain.

As a consumer, what does it take to win your loyalty?

When I teach ethical fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology, one of my assignments for students is to figure out their “north star”— environmental, human or animal rights—with the caveat that they are all important, but usually designers and consumers lean towards one favorite. In that context, mine is people. I love fair trade or brand-owned factories, and generally brands and practices that are looking out for the welfare of the people all along their value chain.

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What’s your typical work (or weekend) uniform?

I live for basics. Non-“fashion” pieces, in neutrals and natural fibers.

Which fashion era is your favorite?

I loved all the fashion eras before my time, but I left my heart at the height of ethical fashion in the mid aughts, when brands like Bono’s Edun, Peter Ingwersen’s Noir, Orsola de Castro’s From Somewhere and so many more were paving the way to a better industry.

Who’s your style icon?

So many from the ethical and sustainable fashion world. I love the style of designers likes Aurora James (Brother Vellies) and Orsola de Castro (Fashion Revolution) as well as the multi-talented thrifters and re-fashioners like Sarah Jay (Sarah Jay Style) and Kate McGuire (Converted Closet).

What’s the best decision your company has made in the last year?

At the beginning of Covid, we partnered with denim tradeshow Kingpins to help them transition to a digital presence during the pandemic. This partnership has helped both organizations to recognize how digitalization can be a valuable tool to live tradeshows, and how much the industry is ready for digital scans and the transition to digital twins for design and product development.

How would you describe your corporate culture?

As a venture-backed startup, Material Exchange moves quickly with an all-hands-on-deck approach. Add in the fact that we have teams in six countries (U.S., Sweden, Serbia, Armenia, India and China), and we get a wonderful, cross-cultural mix of incredibly talented and inspiring “doers.”

What can companies learn from Covid-19?

Stay nimble and be open; disruptions like a global pandemic are also a chance to see opportunity where you may not have recognized it before. Plus, keep your teams and your value chain safe. So many companies are struggling to find great people now, except the ones that recognized how important the health and well-being of our people—and their people—truly are.

What should be the apparel industry’s top priority now?

Refocus and resilience. Prior to Covid, the evolution of consumers away from malls, and towards more ethical and sustainable brands, led to tons of bankruptcies. Covid just seemed to accelerate that trend. But the brands that are refocusing—whether that’s on circularity, re-commerce or digitization, seem to be weathering this storm. New models, new ways of doing business, deeper efforts at mitigating waste, all seem to be leading towards greater resilience.

What keeps you up at night?

The climate crisis; there’s a lot of work to do. I do get some solace knowing that I am not alone, and that many of the NGOs and certification bodies are also working hard on tackling some of the issues in the supply chain. And with our Sustainability Smart Search tool and mapping to their efforts, the Material Exchange will be able to create market levers to support suppliers in the value chain who are also up at night and making changes for a better future.

What makes you most optimistic

In addition to the NGOs and certification bodies, the many startups in our industry working on transparency, traceability and solutions to reduce impact inspire me and keep me optimistic.

Tell us about your company’s latest service:

In addition to advancing the digitalization of Tier 2, Material Exchange offers a Smart Search tool that helps buyers and product developers find the materials they need quickly. The Sustainability Smart Search tool further helps brands filter materials to match their commitments: environmental stewardship, social compliance, recycled materials, regenerative, etc. Additionally, if brands still can’t find what they need, we have an Expert Request form that connects to leading agents, consultants and top suppliers to furnish the request. We are on a quest to make responsible sourcing easier, and we’re just beginning.