Sustainable fashion: where are we going? Interview with Claudia Szerakowski
This is a transcript of the podcast interview recorded for Sustainability Explored on 20 of February 2020.
This is Season 2 Episode 21.
You can listen to it here, or join on any of your favorite podcast platforms.
Anna: [00:00:00] Hi and welcome to Sustainability Explored — a podcast on sustainability and innovation in business and economy; a place where we turn complicated terms, all those buzz words like ESG, ESMS, and Green Economy, climate crisis and so on, into easy and understandable concepts.
My name is Anna and I’m your podcast host.
Today is Thursday, the 20th of February, and this means a new episode is released on this podcast. You’re listening to Episode # 21 Season #2 and you’re about to hear a lot about sustainable fashion.
I was curious to learn about the environmental and social impacts of fashion, and of course the steps the industry makes to become more sustainable.
Claudia’s mission is to create a waste-free world by helping corporations explore new business models towards a circular economy starting with fashion.
Stay with us if you want to know what Claudia does as a Circular Fashion Consultant, why big fashion brands may be interested in circularity and sustainability, and what awaits us and fashion in the nearest future.
Two little announcements before we start. The first — I want to thank all the listeners of Sustainability Explored for being here, for learning, for sharing this journey with me, sending me questions and comments. Your feedback is insanely appreciated!
My special thanks goes to Adrien Fouchet for his words of wisdom, moral support, and genuine interest in sustainability and this podcast itself.
And the second little news is that from now on, our episodes can also be found on YouTube in the form of videos, search for “Sustainability Explored” there.
And we are ready to start.
Anna: [00:02:16] Welcome to “Sustainability Explored”. This is the first episode interview that we are recording on the video. As you know, every week I’m inviting one professional in the field of sustainability across any industry to shed some light on the questions that bother me, that bug me.
This week it’s fashion. And my guest today is Claudia Szerakowski who has a very interesting position name — Circular Fashion Consultant, and you are now working with Eco Intelligent Growth.
Claudia: [00:02:49] Yes.
Anna: [00:02:50] In Barcelona, Spain. Claudia, first of all, please introduce yourself a little bit more. I checked your LinkedIn profile. You have a very interesting career path.
Please tell us where you have started and how did you get to where you are now?
Claudia: [00:03:09] I’m Polish, but I was born and raised in the States. And I was studying there and during high school and growing up, and I heard first about like the scarcity of materials, like oil when I was 13, I remember, in middle school.
And that got me like investigating what’s happening? And then I read about all of these issues on the planet, like the ozone and climate change and waste. And I was like, why is nobody telling us this and why is nobody doing anything? I was very young. I was about 13–14 when I started very active.
First as a teenage environmental activist. I started my high school’s environmental club to raise awareness and to start projects there: cycling and planting trees.
And then when it came time for college, for university, I said: “Okay. What can I do with the environmental? And I just plugged it in, what are my options?
And there were environmental scientists and environmental engineering, and I said, I think environmental engineering is the hardest, so I’ll do that one. And so I studied that for my bachelor’s. It was kind of a spontaneous decision for something that was so difficult.
I’m really happy that I did that because it really set a strong foundation for problem-solving, which I think sustainability is about solving problems.
And it helped me to kind of gather those skills. Then I was working for an aerospace company for a while in my home state, in Connecticut, and it was super interesting!
I was reading all these articles about what’s happening in Europe and all of these new concepts and innovations. And I was like, “I want to do that!”
And so, I decided to do my masters, TU Delft, in Holland, and I studied Industrial Ecology. So, this is thinking in systems and really trying to get our industrial system more like the biological system. In the natural world, there’s no such thing as waste. There are no toxic materials. These are all man-made things or concepts.
I really wanted to kind of get a bigger view of how to apply these concepts to business, and also sort of seeing some things.
I noticed that fashion was one of the most polluting, one of the biggest issues.
That’s always kind of been my avenue. I’m not sure why, but I saw it was built environment and fashion, and then I thought, well, build environment seems like people are doing a lot of things, that seems kind of under control and it seems like the fashion world is really needing some creativity or some changes.
And it’s so complex as well.
I actually started a startup. I had the idea.. in the States it’s very common now — Rent The Runway, of clothing rental. And I saw this was not happening in Europe. So, I was like, “Okay, I’m going to start one.”
And it was a little idealistic. We were just students, we were like a group of three students and we are doing this. The idea was so huge.
Anna: [00:06:29] It was QURE Clothing? Right?
Claudia: [00:06:30] Right. Exactly. The idea was an online clothing library. There is a physical clothing library in Amsterdam called LENA. But we wanted to do it online, so it is a little bit more scalable and, perhaps with everyday clothing or subscription business.
We had so many ideas, but putting into practice we found quite difficult.
But I’m really happy I learned a lot about entrepreneurship. And then also in my studies, I focused a lot on strategy and change management, applying that to sustainability and organizations who are trying to become more sustainable.
And we’re actually using it today in the company where I am now. So, when QURE didn’t work out, and I finished my masters, I ended up in Barcelona and I met my workmates at “Eco Intelligent Growth” one week after I arrived and started working with them.
And it’s been really a cool journey. We work a lot with Cradle-to-cradle line of thinking. A lot with the certification. And this has allowed me to really go into the nitty-gritty, the details of what’s happening in fashion, what does this mean, and really get a clear idea of the challenges that are happening in fashion today.
Anna: [00:08:03] One of my previous guests, Lincoln Bleveans from the episode called “Every job is a Sustainability job”, he mentioned how to be a sustainability officer — it’s not just what is stated on your CV or on your LinkedIn profile.
You go into the most polluting industry and you slowly integrate sustainability concepts in that industry. And that’s exactly what you’re talking about. And you know, I recently read somewhere that fashion is polluting more than the avia industry and maritime industry combined. And I was like: “Fashion? Who could have thought?”
Claudia: [00:08:47] I think, there’s a lot of information out there, and a lot of the most quoted statistics is that it’s the second most polluting. I saw that originally, that’s why I got into it. But then later I read — it’s around the fifth. But yes, it is extremely polluting.
And it’s a bit shocking at the scale of the system, but also the way the system works to even wrap your head around the system and to kind of coordinate when there are so many different actors and there are so many even different schools of thought around sustainability ‘how we should do it’ that it can get confusing and it’s not easy.
And that’s why it excites me so much.
Anna: [00:09:30] Your position is now called Circular Fashion Consultant. What does it mean? And what does it entail exactly?
Claudia: [00:09:39] We help brands and manufacturers in the fashion world to look at their product and their company. And see what they can do to be more circular, what they can do to be more sustainable.
We have outlined a vision of what the ideal factory would be like. So, you know, every factory would know all of the chemistry that they’re using, so all the chemicals; and have it optimized.
So that it’s safe and healthy for people and the workers and for the products that they’re designing for circularity, that they’re helping to make this system happen.
Because it really is a system change to get everybody on board.
We’re also talking about renewable energy, or at least carbon, like, let’s, instead of saying, let’s reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, let’s absorb more carbon than we’re emitting, and using a factory in order to do that.
That’s something that we’ve outlined as well.
And why can’t, you know, factories clean more water? So the water that’s coming out of the factory is cleaner than any water that’s coming in. I mean, in my opinion, there’s never good or evil, the fashion industry isn’t good or evil, just like anything: the internet or any tool like a hammer. It can be used for good or evil.
Let’s start using it for good.
We really are trying to switch the conversation and the paradigm, how we talk about fashion, and changing the conversation to see it as a way to do more good rather than just less bad.
Anna: [00:11:22] Doing more good. Does it mean that technology becomes more expensive? That’s a valid argument for most of the industries. Like, okay, we’re gonna change our processes and our operations, but then can it be that it will cost us more?
Claudia: [00:11:51] It depends. Cause initially, yes, if you talk about it on a financial level, but then we aren’t taking in a lot of costs that are nonfinancial.
For example, you have the idea of externalities. When we have a product, we have a $5 t-shirt, that’s how much it costs to make and for all the raw materials.
There’s a lot into it, but it doesn’t take into account the people, their health if their health decreased, the water was polluted, the greenhouse gas emissions that came from that.
There’s a lot of things that aren’t taken into consideration today when it comes to cost.
But it doesn’t necessarily have to be more costly.
And sometimes, I mean, you can talk about sustainability measures, it actually saves you money and in certain areas, so maybe not directly.
Or instead of speaking about dollars or euros or, you know, currency.
Talk about it in terms of energy, even energy in the sense, for example.. I like one thing, there’s so much when you talk about compliance, there’s so much administration, right?
To make sure that the government is aware and that we’re in compliance. There’s a person who just does that.
But if you take away all of the harmful chemicals, if you stop emitting carbon, you don’t need that person anymore.
Anna: [00:13:34] Makes sense!
Claudia: [00:13:36] You don’t have to do as much documentation because you’re not emitting anything. You’re actually absorbing harmful things and cleaning them for society.
So, it’s kind of a different direction. Instead of being regulated and having to do all that administrative work, it is totally eliminated with the idea of just doing things simply. It can be very simple to do more good. I think.
Anna: [00:14:02] Absorbing carbon. What do you mean by that? Are you talking about new technologies? I read an article not too further away than yesterday, by the way, on The Guardian about new materials that, textile kind of that absorbs carbon and purifies the air. Is it what you mean? Innovations in fashion?
Claudia: [00:14:25] That can be one avenue for sure, but it’s also not necessary. I mean, if you think about a cotton plant, it’s absorbing carbon. So, thinking about products as carbon banks. And buildings as carbon banks or, I mean, the biggest one is soil.
For example, my favorite one is the idea of regenerative farming.
Our soil can really absorb a lot of carbon. Carbon isn’t necessarily bad. I say carbon, but I mean all greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbon is not necessarily a bad thing. Like fashion, or the internet, or money.
We need carbon to survive. The problem is that it’s in the wrong place. If we can take it from the air and put it back into the soil, that’s the direction where we need to go.
And actually, we don’t think about what’s fashion’s role in this.
I think 40% of the fiber that we use now is cotton. And if it’s organic cotton, I’m pretty sure, that it’s the same as regenerative. So, they use practices that allow the soil to rest. There are no pesticides, so the microbes in the soil can stay alive, and the microbes are the ones that are converting that carbon into the accessible plant.
It’s very interesting, also, animals. You know, leather.
I think leather gets a bad wrap, but it’s actually a byproduct of the meat industry. The meat industry doesn’t necessarily have to be demonized or something terrible. It’s just that the industrial meat industry is the problem.
If we do it in a regenerative way, we can actually reduce our carbon emissions by making sure that the land is managed properly. The microbes can stay, and they can absorb that carbon.
I mean, one way is this technological application, but in my opinion, I don’t think it’s very necessary. I think it’s more about focusing on absorbing back into the soil through traditional methods, these are the things that we’ve known for a very long time.
And then also, looking at the manufacturing facilities and seeing like: okay, what’s their part in this? And going to renewable energies and producing more renewable energy than they actually need or as a service to the community.
There are so many ways, so there are so many different avenues that we use.
Anna: [00:16:51] How are brands buying the idea of circularity?
Claudia: [00:16:56] I think it’s a buzzword these days. People, brands are on it. I think it’s nice. We get kind of a view of the entire supply chain. We work with brands, manufacturers, and suppliers, and we see the circularity of the system.
I think at first there can be some resistance. So, it depends on what you mean by circularity. For a lot of brands, they see it as recycling, which is not necessarily circularity. There are many different steps. So, you want to reduce, reuse, recycle before, or repair before you recycle.
They’re now setting up the infrastructure for recycling. So they were, you know, third parties. For many stores, you can go back and return any of your garments.
Anna: [00:17:51] Like H&M?
I talked with a woman who set up this program and she explained it to me as it was, well, she used to work in the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. ICO takes the garments, they bring them to India where it’s sorted. And then it’s actually cool to hear because we have a lot of clients in Pakistan.
ICO is bringing these garments or at least denim to the clients and they’re making it into new products. So, it’s kind of nice to see that circle is happening.
The efficiency of it is another thing. We need to start increasing the efficiency.
The companies are now 8% to 15% circular. When you’re talking about recycling.
I mean, it’s also an opportunity, and I think some companies like “H&M” are taking advantage of it. For example, the rental model. I’m a big fan of the rental model. I know that they’re using that as an opportunity, so, I mean, people don’t need to own their clothes anymore, especially the fancy ones.
You’re only going to wear it once for that wedding you have to go to and then it’s going to hang in your closet. Like it makes no sense to buy that.
I think the big brands are finally getting on board and saying:” Hey, we can turn this into an opportunity!” And it’s so true. It’s totally an opportunity for a new way of fashion and retail.
Anna: [00:19:49] Speaking of “H&M”, I had mixed feelings about that, what was it called “return program”. I felt that actually stimulated more consumption. You throw like two or five… I used to live in France and when it only started, I was in France. In Ukraine we just had the “H&M” open maybe one year ago so it’s very recent. I still haven’t been to “H&M” in Ukraine.
So, I was in France. And I remember you give back like five things that you don’t wear anymore and you get a coupon 5 euro off a purchase of 30 Euro.
You already have that coupon. And you feel like it’s kind of money on paper. I have to use it. So, you go back to “H&M”, you buy a cloth that you will wear a couple of times, you will wash it up to five times and it goes back to that same bin in “H&M”.
It’s a little bit of a twisted approach. Yes, it’s circular, but you have to know the context, you see. What’s your, what’s your opinion on that?
Are you with fast fashion or against it?
Claudia: [00:21:00] It’s hard to say. I think there’s positive and negatives of both. Because, in psychology, if you want to change a behavior, you have to provide an incentive.
How I see it is that there’s kind of steps. Right?
We can’t go from zero to circular, like we can’t go from linear to circular in one night.
So, when I think that this particular example served was to get people to become aware that it’s possible to bring your stuff to the store and to start this infrastructure.
I mean, this circular system that I explained with ICO it’s not perfect either. But it’s a start! And that’s what we really need.
It’s a good way to motivate people, but over time I think that could be phased out. I think it’s true that it is incentivizing. I think if you think about it in another way, it’s true.
“H&M” it’s also, there’s some responsibility: “I am a consumer.” So, you can choose to purchase a product that you’re going to wear many- many times for many years.
I have products that are “H&M” I bought maybe second hand even ages ago, but I’ve worn them maybe 50 times per year. They’re my basics and I love them, and they’re good quality. They’re lasting a long time.
Anna: [00:22:22] I have one of such things. It’s ridiculous. It’s from “H&M”. It’s five years old. I’m still wearing it everywhere.
Claudia: [00:22:30] Yeah, exactly! It can be of good quality as well, you just have to choose correctly.
And also tell “H&M”, give them feedback that these products are the good ones. These are lasting me a long time and I want more of those. And to buy more of those products rather than the ones that are kind of cheaper.
I think the biggest issue is, again, I’m not taking responsibility away from the brand, but it is a little bit up to the consumer to say, to make that choice — to buy products that are going to last a long time, that are made with sustainable materials.
And then again asking, if there’s another way to consume, if they want to rent that, or if they want a place where they can go and repair it.
If it’s your favorite, you know, t-shirt, I want that shirt forever.
I want to be able to repair it.
But a lot of consumers just don’t know. It’s tricky. It’s a tricky question. I think there’s a kind of both sides. I’m presuming the opinion that fast fashion.. I think they should…
In my ideal world, that they would raise the prices a little bit, just so that consumers understand.
Because right now the message that consumers are getting is that: this is cheap, I don’t have to put a lot of effort to get it, so, it’s disposable.
And that’s not how it should be. So, my theory is that if we raised prices a little bit, people would start understanding: “Oh, this is something I have to work for. This is something I, you know, I have to invest in. And if I invest in it, I’m going to take better care of it. I’m going to make it last as long as possible and perhaps even empower myself to understand how can I take care of it and how can I sew it?
You know, there are many options!
Anna: [00:24:15] Rental business. I noticed that people before had a perception of owning the thing: “It’s mine. It’s my CD!” changed drastically. Now you don’t have to own your diskette or CDs to have your own music. You can stream it online.
Clothing is a little bit of a tricky subject as well as secondhand. It has to be mine. How will I possibly wear it after someone else? How will I give it back? I have to own it.
Do you think people start changing this perception? And, you know, going more into the direction of rental? Using it a little bit, keeping it in a good state and passing it on?
Claudia: [00:25:07] I think we’re in the process of that change. So that’s, I think, very much always thinking. But for example, that’s the argument that it’s very close to your skin, so it’s very intimate.
But when you go to a hotel, they’re not buying new sheets every time. Those sheets are just washed and returned.
And you’re sharing those sheets as well.
So, it’s the same with clothing rental. It’s being taken care of, it’s being washed.
And yes, a lot of the times it’s not really necessary, it’s not necessary to own that many clothes.
And I like the rental model, because I, like many women, like to mix things up. But I don’t have the options. I don’t have the money to buy only sustainable cloth.
I tried to invest in basics, but it’s difficult to make your entire wardrobe sustainable overnight, again.
I liked the idea of the rental because you have the possibility to change and be creative. And also the idea that you don’t need to make as many.
A lot of the times, fast fashion and fashion in general work on specific minimum quantities. So, they have to incentivized to make more and more and more.
And with the rental model, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can have small designers, local designers, ‘made in Europe’. They can make one or two pieces and rent it out.
Kind of a new business model, so that we can have more unique, you know, more uniqueness, unique pieces, more creativity, empowering local markets here in Europe, or anywhere around the world.
I mean, this is a little business model that can start being applied anywhere and empowering local markets again.
Anna: [00:26:56] The brands that seek for your services of a circular fashion consultant, why do they come to you? Do they want to cut costs? Do they see, I don’t know, pressure from stakeholders, shareholders on their brands, like go toward sustainability? What is the reason?
Claudia: [00:27:18] I mean, there are so many demands these days from all sides. So, it started off very bottom-up with the market. So, people started saying: “This is not sustainable and I don’t want this”. And the company started to see their bottom line dropping that the younger consumers definitely don’t want to buy, you know, a lot of cheap stuff.
The market, I think, is the original one.
And then I think consumers are also becoming more educated. So, they’re learning more about whether they’re more curious about what’s in their clothes, what are they putting on their bodies. I think there’s also this natural movement from…the food that we eat, we became much more conscious that more people are eating organic or eating healthier.
And then they said: “Okay, well, the next thing that’s closest to me as my cloth. It’s on my skin every day. So, there is a bit of concern around that.”
So, yeah, definitely a lot of market pressure. Now we’re seeing, you know, legislation. So, a lot of governments: Dutch are the leading ones, but you see Scandinavian countries and Europe, in general, are saying “By 2025 we have to have a take-back system so, no cloth can go into the incinerator. We have to start creating that system.”
So, definitely legislative pressures as well.
And now you see the financial pressures. Shareholders are becoming more aware of the circular metrics that are coming out. So, each company will start to have to measure how circular are they.
And that will depend on how much investment they enter the company on their stock price and everything. So, there’s this pressure from all sides. Now it’s like THE direction to go.
Anna: [00:29:00] What is in the circularity metrics?
Claudia: [00:29:03] In the ’90s and the 2000s, we had sustainability metrics were like: companies had to reduce how much water they were using, how much waste they were producing, then their carbon emissions.
Now we have a number for circularity. My understanding is based on how much they’re collecting back. And producing into new garments. They take as a percentage. So, for example, based on how much they sold versus how much they collected, they can come up with the percentage that this is how circular they are.
Basically in sustainability reporting, you usually get a baseline. So, you start with one year, so 2020, you can measure this for a year, and you have to, in this case, increase as the years go on.
And usually, companies will have a goal by 2025 to be 30% circular, for example.
Anna: [00:29:58] And on a more individual level, as a consumer, I’m very concerned about where my food is coming from. I’m trying to buy local, eat local.
As for the clothing, I really have no idea. Where do I, as an individual, as a consumer go in the first place to check: where are my clothes are coming from? And what shall I look at the type of the material? Or the number of clothes that I’m buying? What are my go-to resources?
Claudia: [00:30:31] Great question. I would say there’s a bit of a hierarchy.
The most sustainable clothing is the stuff that you already have.
So, this t-shirt that you have from “H&M”, like make it last as long as possible.
Learn to repair if you can. And then swapping, perhaps. Swapping or reselling. Maybe not t-shirt in this case, but if it’s a dress, for example, you know, talking to your friends, getting into your community, working with second-hand shops to make sure that somebody else locally can make use of that garment.
There’s a lot of clothing swaps these days, so it’s just a matter of looking.
And then perhaps exploring rental just for certain items. And then if you have to, invest in really good quality long-lasting garments, when it comes to those products, what I normally look at is what is the product made out of.
So, for example, this t-shirt is 98% Tencel, which I find it to be one of the most sustainable fibers that we have data on now. So, I think from the last information I saw it was hemp and linen because these are can be grown locally, and require very little water, very little pesticides. And there’s a lot of hemp and linen blends that are coming into the market these days. Definitely take an eye out for that!
Organic cotton. It’s not only circular, like, ‘able to be recycled’, but it’s also very safe and very healthy. And like I said, the regenerative aspect. And then these other fibers like Tencel.
There are some new fibers that are coming out that are quite cool.
I was on a panel in London two weeks ago and banana fiber is something, pineapple leather. There are so many things that are coming out. They’re not scalable yet, and I haven’t seen any LCAs or any studies that say that they are definitely more sustainable.
But I would say that my Top-3 choices are these hemp/linen, organic cotton, and Tencel or lyocell.
So, I am looking out for these products.
Anna: [00:32:41] Keeping the clothes for too long or long enough is a little bit boring, with the garments is a tricky question. Like my mind understands that I have to keep it and use it as much as I can, yet I don’t want to be boring.
Claudia: [00:32:57] I know. I think there are certain products. So, I try to think about the different kinds of products.
I mean, for example, a fancy dress. You kind of want to change it every single time? So, that’s kind of where the rental place that is for purchasing things like basic, you know, a t-shirt or underwear or jeans are pretty basic.
You can definitely buy those sustainably now and try to make them last as long as possible.
And then add different accessories that you find at swaps or secondhand stores and try to make it fun that way. That’s a little bit about how I try to do that. Trying to mix things up and having fun, but still kind of investing in quality pieces.
Anna: [00:33:37] What do you think is the future of sustainable fashion?
Claudia: [00:33:46] Yeah, a little bit what I’ve explained so far, it is really having the consumer take responsibility and think about their consumer behaviors and trying to think about it this way where, you know, they’re getting more curious about what they wear.
They’re finding different options, local options.
They’re asking their retailers, they’re asking the brands, they are asking manufacturer: what’s in my cloth? Who made my cloth? Getting curious. So really asking.
Whenever you ask a question, I think especially in the retail supply chain, like it stimulates a bunch of other questions. So, it’s a lot of behind the scenes work. But I see it for myself where, you know, like somebody will ask a manufacturing question and then they’ll come back and they’ll ask this and it’s like this whole chain where we’re becoming more conscious the more questions we ask. So, really just asking more questions.
I would love to see the industry kind of following these approaches that I mentioned earlier where we have radical transparency about the chemicals that we’re using. We don’t know the chemicals that are in our clothes, but a lot of them can be toxic. And why would we want to use those? Why would we want to circulate toxic materials?
We stopped creating so much waste, we’re designing materials and fabrics that are easy to recycle and contributing to a circular system. And perhaps, as I mentioned earlier, reducing the carbon that’s going into the air. Actually, using it as a tool to, as serving as a carbon sink or cleaning more water, or making sure that all animals are treated fairly, that all humans are treated fairly in the system.
That’s my vision. That’s what I would like to see from a sustainable fashion.
Anna: [00:35:48] As we are approaching the end of the interview. One last question. One piece of advice for the listeners of “Sustainability Explored”?
Claudia: [00:35:57] Ask questions! Ask questions, educate yourself. There are so many resources. Ask for it.
We work a lot with Cradle-to-Cradle certification. And there needs to be a lot more consumer awareness about this. It’s an amazing certification. We covered these five different categories, what I was explaining and trying to understand more: where do your clothes come from?
Making more of these conscious traces.
Anna: [00:36:18] Thank you very much, Claudia. Have a great day and the rest of the week and life! It was a big pleasure talking to you.
You opened a little bit the veil of a sustainable fashion to me and hopefully to the listeners too.
Claudia: [00:36:36] My pleasure.
Anna: [00:36:37] Yeah. Great, great having you as a guest.
Claudia: [00:36:40] Thank you very much. It was a pleasure. Thank you.
Anna: [00:36:54] Goodbye.
I hope you enjoyed this episode on sustainable fashion with Claudia Szerakowski.
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Take care. Stay sustainable!
Podcast host Anna Chashchyna
Episode guest Claudia Szerakowski
Transcript editor Anna Kharybina