A Sustainability Professional in the Making

June 29, 2018    Amelia Smerchynsky  6 min read

If you would have told me that just one year after finishing my post secondary education I would be in the same room as sustainability professionals from major brands, I would not have believed you.

From a young age I have loved the environment and I have to thank my parents for that. Growing up in the concrete jungle of Toronto, they always found ways for us to appreciate the outdoors.  Summers spent camping and hiking to winters skiing and playing in the snow, laid the foundations of making me the lover of the outdoors I am today.

As a result of me living this lifestyle, I always wondered if there was a way that I could merge my beliefs into a career. When you are a child, people always ask you, “What you want to be when you grow up?”, and you always hear the typical answers like a doctor or a vet, but myself on the other hand, I wanted to save the environment! Not your typical answer from a child, I was often made fun of and to this day am called a “tree hugger” or “recycler”. But hey, look where I am now.

It wasn’t until high school when a friend and I travelled to Tofino, BC was where I realized you can actually have a job in the environmental sector. Because we had to get a certain number of volunteer hours we worked at The Friends of Clayoquot Sound, a non-profit, speaking to people about fish farming and old growth logging. Working there for a short period of time and hearing the stories of the lengths that people went to in order to protect our environment inspired me. In that moment I realized that I could turn my dream into a reality.  Although I didn’t become a serious activist who chains themselves to trees and blocks logging roads, I did adopt the mentality of – do what you think is right, no matter what others believe.

In 2010 I graduated from Brock University with a degree in Tourism and Environment. How broad can that be, am I right? But it was in those four years I learned about the core, fundamental ideas and values of environmentalism and sustainability. Yes, I did learn about the tourism industry but my main focus was to learn all that I could about the environment in that form. Once I graduated, instead of focusing on a specific topic and continuing my education through a master’s program, I decided to go to college and get a more hands on approach to my learning. So in 2015 I packed my belongings and off I went. I moved across the country to a small town in southern BC where I knew nobody, to start my diploma in Environmental Planning.

It was the best decision I ever made. Little did I know, the place I was moving to had all the activities I enjoy at my front door, everyone has the same views as I do, and the schooling…was amazing. Every instructor was so passionate about what they were teaching whether it was the lifecycles of spores, air pollution chemistry or city planning. Their enthusiasm made learning difficult and complex topics very easy and quite entertaining. Once I finished my six years of post secondary, I thought it was finally time for me to find a job.

Enter FigBytes.

I remember first reading the posting and thinking to myself “am I reading this correctly?”. Did I just stumble upon a job that is both in my sector and for which I am qualified? I may have hit the jackpot! After multiple interviews and skype chats, I got the job and we hit the ground running. It was quite an experience to say the least. The first couple of months working and training was all done remotely because my employers were working abroad but we made it work. How “millennial” of me, working from home on the internet for a software company. When the time came to meet it in person, it was a little strange putting a face to that voice I had been speaking to for so long. We both got some human interaction and felt that our productivity and effectiveness skyrocketed just from being in the same room.

It was incredible bringing everything I learned in both college and university into the workplace. Being able to contribute and understand what everyone was discussing was rewarding and I knew that studying the SDG’s would be worth it someday.

Once working life and “adulting” started to kick in, I decided to visit one of my teachers from college and update him about my new job. Before I left he gave me one piece of advice. Volunteer. Go find an event or conference that interests you and volunteer. Emerge yourself into that environment because you never know who you might meet or what you could learn just from being there. That’s why I decided to volunteer at Sustainable Brands earlier this month in Vancouver.  

The theme was “Redesigning the Good Life”, which fostered a dialogue around how brands can reposition and respond to an every-changing economy.   Society is changing and if business doesn’t take note and evolve with it, those that will succeed will be the ones that are along for the ride.

It was awesome seeing household brands such as Lush, Clif Bar and Kashi at the conference because I am definitely a consumer of their products. Listening to them share their vision and values just made me love their products even more because I started realizing all the great things they are doing align with my personal, and now professional, values. Even though I was volunteering I did find time to attend a few sessions.  A couple of my favourites included sustainable packaging with TerraCycle and Starbucks. Fun Fact: The Frappuccino at Starbucks is the only drink that actually requires a straw. Very interesting. Think about that the next time you are sipping on your Venti iced coffee with a straw. The second session included REI’s (Recreation Equipment Inc.): Partnering with Wholesale Brands to Elevate Product Sustainability. I found it pretty cool that now on their website they have created a “sustainability” search parameter so you can search and view products that are made out of recycled materials, certified organic and responsibly sourced down just to name a few. I know as a person who lives in outdoor clothing 85% of the time, its nice to see what companies are using sustainable materials for their clothing and products. And last but not least and my favourite, The Impacts of Bee Health and What Brands Can Do. This session I found the most interesting because I don’t think that people take bee health seriously and they are one of the most important pollinators in the world! Of the 1,300 crops worldwide, 70% require pollinators. Even meat and dairy. The seeds to grow the hay to feed the animals depend on bees for pollination.

What an experience. I’m glad my first conference was Sustainable Brands because I felt that I belonged there.  Studying sustainability for so long and now working for a company that has strategic sustainability software, I could speak the language and understand what other sustainability professionals were talking about. Even though some attendees were not from this sector, they still attended because they wanted to see what other companies were doing in regards to sustainability and what they can do to reduce their impact on the environment. Listening to people speak from major brands about their values and how they are moving forward with their ideas really hit home. These are the same ideas and values I live by and the same ones that we talk about every day in our small office. No matter how large your company is, it doesn’t matter because we are all trying to achieve the same goals.

One of the biggest lessons I learned at Sustainable Brands is that everyone needs to work together. We all work in our confined areas with our siloed ideas and it isn’t until you get everyone involved that change will occur. So just go out and talk to people. Don’t keep your thoughts to yourself. Let your ideas out because you never know who might be out there trying to achieve the same goals as you are. I’ve learned so much in the short time that I have been in this sector and to think that this is just the beginning. If this is the start, I can’t wait to see what the future holds.  

Amelia Smerchynsky

aka Smerch

aka Sustainability Professional in the making.