From Pennsylvania to Melbourne: An outside the box internship in sustainable development

Katie Foreman (front) and Tanya Critchell at Etiko in Melbourne. Photo by: Etiko

Understanding how everyday consumer choices impact developing countries is not a common concern for 22 year old college students. But that’s exactly what’s on the mind of Katie Foreman, an environmental studies major from Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania.

Last month, she had the opportunity to intern at small sustainable fashion company Etiko on the other side of the world, in Melbourne, Australia. Her experience opened up a host of new opportunities and is shaping her career ambitions to work in the industry, which considers the impact on producing communities and the environment.

Nick Savaidis, director of Etiko, saw the value of the internship, too. By welcoming students such as Foreman into his organization, Etiko markets sustainable practices and choices to a new generation of professionals and change makers.

Through their shared experience, retold to Devex, Foreman and Savaidis described the powerful potential that internships in development can have, whether the student plans to work in in the aid sector or elsewhere.

Googling a flight to Melbourne

Foreman came to Etiko thanks to a course at Franklin and Marshall, which takes a hands-on approach to learning. She enrolled in environmental studies, which teaches students both about the science and the politics associated with environmental management and change.

For one month as part of the course, students were required to either find a research project or internship. “We’re left up to our own devices with the only requirement being a 40-page report detailing what we have found and how it can be applied,” Foreman explained. “We are given the tools to get the job done, but it is up to us as to what we take out of it.”

A self-described 22-year-old college girl “who had a closet full of things and was always looking for the latest trend,” Foreman was interested in sustainable fashion as a way to consider environmental externalities.

“I basically just Googled sustainable fashion and Etiko came up,” Foreman said.

A Fairtrade certified brand, Etiko has been operating since 2005 to provide ethical purchasing options for a range of products including clothes and sporting goods. Products supplied are eco-friendly, guarantee no exploitation of labor and Etiko reinvest in the developing communities they work with in India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan — more than 300 microbusinesses have been created so far in Pakistan alone. Despite being a small operator, Etiko has received the highest rating for ethical and sustainable products three years running in the Australian Fashion Report.

It was a perfect organization to learn from, Foreman thought — despite being located in the suburbs of Melbourne. After reaching out to Etiko, Foreman was soon headed to Australia.

Sustainable fashion — an area of opportunities

Working at Etiko gave Foreman an entirely new perspective on her field of study, environmental science. As an intern, her role was broad, allowing her to get her hands on with every aspect of the business. Apparel is said to be the world’s second largest polluter behind oil, and she now believes the eco-friendly solutions of sustainable fashion have “untapped potential for real change.”

The internship also evolved Foreman’s global outlook. “Part of what I have been learning is that sustainability is not just about the environment,” she said. “Social sustainability is just as important in helping people.” Etiko works with suppliers to foster ethical manufacturing processes, including payment of decent wages for factory workers and safe working conditions, and through the payment of additional fair trade premiums support economic growth within communities.

In addition to a first-hand view of sustainable practices, Foreman’s work at Etiko gave her insight into what is required to turn a small start-up with social aspirations into a success.

“The difference between working in a big business versus a small business provides a unique insight into the challenges a small business faces, especially sustainability focused business like us,” Savaidis said. “Here you can see the day-to-day challenges to keep the business operating and how we work with other people as part of the supply chain.”

Now back in Pennsylvania, Foreman’s experience is “changing my career goals,” she explained. “I am hoping to move more into sustainable fashion. The market is growing, but it has not taken off as fast as other movements. I think this is something I can help grow.”

From the host organization’s perspective

Host organization can also benefit from interns. For Savaidis, Foreman had a lot to bring to the table as a representative of the firm’s key demographic market.

“Katie fits into our target audience, and it is important we have young people working with us,” he explained. “She has helped with social media, graphic design, and we are aiming to be the first carbon neutral fashion brand, so she will help in measuring that.”

Still, Savaidis urged small organizations like his to do their homework before taking on interns, carefully considering the support they can provide.

“We have been reluctant to take interns on as we have not had resources in the past to support them,” Savaidis told Devex. “Unlike a large organisation, our pool of staff is a pretty small team and I’m the only full-time person on board. I see an internship as a way for people to develop skills, and the reality is that up until now we haven’t been in a position to do that properly.”

Due diligence is also called for in examining the candidate, to make the internship a success from both sides. Self-starters who are keen to learn are more likely to succeed, he told Devex.

“When Katie first approached us, I was a bit cautious and wanted to confirm she was mature enough to be able to take responsibility,” he said. “She is more than capable.”

By creating a younger workforce aimed at doing good, internships can impact developing countries for the better. Even from the other side of the world.

Internship opportunities with Etiko will be advertised in their monthly newsletter.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.