International Women's Day Spotlight: Clare Brass

International Women's Day Spotlight: Clare Brass

Today is we're celebrating achievements of female entrepreneurs in sustainability, which is why we’re spotlighting Clare - a pioneer in sustainability across design, teaching and business.

Clare has had an entrepreneurial and varied career, where she created the sustainability department SustainRCA at the Royal College of Art, sustainability consultancy Department 22 and most recently zero-waste grocery delivery startup, Moree.

Clare started her career as a designer, where she set up and ran her own design studio in Milan for 20 years. While she enjoyed growing success, she started questioning the sustainability of her profession “what I realised was that the more I was successful, the more landfill I was generating. Because your clients want to sell lots and lots of products, so if you talk about how they could be more sustainable, they're not really interested because it will interfere with their whole business structure, which is all about selling lots of items”

So she began to think, Okay, well, I'm a designer, you know, I don't know how to do anything else, what can I do about it? She found many like-minded designers around her who wanted to make a change in the field of design and shared similar visions, and in the late 1980’s together they created an international design group, now known as the O2 Global Network for Sustainable and Regenerative Design. This led to an interesting journey where she started by exploring what could be done with new materials such as post-consumer plastic waste (in 1995 O2 organised an exhibition on this theme at the Milano Triennale called RePlastic); but gradually her thoughts shifted towards problems around consumer behaviour that can’t be solved by changing materials. 

Needing to equip herself with some additional skills, she did a master's degree in Creative Entrepreneurship at the Polytechnic in Milan, as she realised that the only way she could possibly align her values with her work was by creating her own enterprise that was about addressing environmental or social issues.

After graduating, she knew that the idea was important, and recognised that designers, who play a key role in the entire linear economy, were being trained to create stuff rather than design new and more sustainable systems. She decided to try to do something about this, and moved to London to take up a role at the Design Council, where she quickly became Head of Sustainability. The idea of designing systems became central to her suggestions of how the design industry needed to be positioned in order to achieve any measure of positive change.

In 2007 she set up SEED Foundation – Social and Environmental Enterprise with Design, an organisation that conducted environmental research and sought out entrepreneurial opportunities that sprung from these societal and environmental issues. At the same time, Clare also began working with Design London, a partnership between Imperial College Business School and the Royal College of Art, bringing together students from different disciplines to work on sustainable business ideas. Demand for sustainability support from students was high, and Clare was asked to set up a department - SustainRCA to inspire and educate students from across college to incorporate sustainability thinking into their work.

Throughout her teaching career, Clare has established close bonds with her students. Not only does she still mentor many of them today, but she also went on to establish two businesses with her former students Dejan and Tom. Moving from design and teaching into business, they first launched Department 22, an innovation consultancy that helps food producers, retailers and restaurants offer more sustainable solutions. Through this, they’ve worked with a fascinating and wide range of projects including helping Sainsburys explore the future of food in the next 150 years, helping McDonalds to improve the lives of farmed poultry and helping rebel supermarket HISBE design liquid dispensers to reduce plastic waste.

After ten years of consulting, they then decided to create their own brand. After trying out various ideas and chatting to many people, a recurring theme associated with food shopping emerged - the amount of single-use plastic consumed. As a result  <moree> was born - a zero-waste grocery delivery service. To make their service as convenient as possible, they offer same day delivery and are developing their own flat-pack packaging that customers can return by post or with the next order for refill. To maximise their impact, they designed their innovative packaging to be robust enough to be used for at least 70 times, and low impact enough that it zeroes out the CO2 impact of single use plastic packaging after just seven uses. By making grocery shopping practical and sustainable, they look to change the consumer behaviour to make zero-waste shopping a norm.

Having worked in the sustainability space for over 30 years, Clare sees a lot of hope and change happening today. She observes that sustainable business was seen as a touchy-feely thing to do three decades ago, but now it’s become mainstream and is considered to be part of hard core business. She’s also seen a switch in mindset around careers, not just from younger generations, but also from many people in her generation, who now think “why would you not want to be spending your time working according to your own values?”

When asked what her advice is for those looking to start new sustainable businesses, Clare is reluctant to offer blanket statements, but points to what she’s learnt through her own experience “You can't advise anyone to leave their job - you have to be up for it yourself. But usually, in my own experience, if you take the plunge, then good things come out of that. If you follow your values, it might not be the easiest path, but I can guarantee you will find yourself enjoying your life much, much more.”