Crossing disciplines and breaking boundaries

Department of Urban Studies and Planning student, Tiffany Ferguson ’18, is pursuing a Sustainability Certificate and working with Patagonia to ensure fair worker compensation in the company’s supply chain.

Tiffany Ferguson ’18 is a first-year Masters in City Planning student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP). Before coming to MIT, Tiffany worked at a small startup, helping technologists, investors, organizers, activists, and entrepreneurs imagine how LLCs and tech applications might accelerate socially-sustainable practices in low-wage industries. This experience inspired Tiffany to pursue a Sustainability Certificate, in an effort to better understand how businesses rationalize their labor and environmental practice—especially as low-wage work proliferates and global resources continue to be depleted. As part of the Sustainable Business Lab (S-Lab) this semester, Tiffany and three fellow students have allied with Patagonia to reimagine how an apparel brand might work with contract manufacturers to ensure that workers earn living wages. Tiffany spoke about what it’s like to be a DUSP student enrolled in S-Lab.

Question:  Can you describe the S-Lab project you are currently working on? 

Answer:  I am working with the outdoor apparel company, Patagonia, who recently committed to developing a strategy for fair compensation in their supply chain. Our S-Lab team is spending the semester devising an appropriate method for collecting living wage benchmark data from Patagonia suppliers. To start, Patagonia needs to know how far (or close) their suppliers are to paying a regionally appropriate living wage. Collecting data from factories all around the world is no easy feat, especially when the data comes in various formats. We used market research and insights gleaned from stakeholder interviews to produce stakeholder user personas, a TurboTax style user interface, and recommendations for future quantitative analysis once the data are collected.

Question:  How do you see your S-Lab project adding to your DUSP experience? 

Answer:  The opportunity to work with a private company and students from different backgrounds has been extraordinary. It is easy to get stuck in your own departmental bubble, and the approach that I bring as a DUSP student is markedly different than that of my MIT Sloan peers. It has been incredibly satisfying to see how our different skills sets are activated by this course. 

Question:  Can you foresee your S-Lab project aiding your career search. If so, how? 

Answer:  Throughout this course, we’ve been able to meet people leading sustainability initiatives from a variety of companies and organizations. That exposure alone has inspired me to broaden my career search to include private companies, corporate social responsibility offices, and more. Working with Patagonia has enabled me to see how my DUSP sensibilities and skills do indeed transfer to other sectors. Urban planning, city design, and international development are often associated with the public sector, and this project has given me a new perspective on how to apply my skills in the private sector.

Question:  What skills are you learning from S-Lab in general and your project specifically? 

Answer:  In one of my favorite S-Lab modules, we explored how sustainability initiatives add value to companies. On its face, this sounds completely intuitive—almost a no-brainer. But what we learned throughout the semester was that it’s not nearly as simple as it seems; people are limited by the mental models they use to understand the world. For this project, Patagonia started with the objective of creating a tool that could extract data from suppliers as painlessly as possible. They were approaching the problem from a compliance perspective, viewing data collection as a transaction rather than an interaction (and thus a much less mutually beneficial interaction). It was my team’s job to research and conceptualize the different approaches that might create value for the factories in a real way, in service of lifting wages for workers. The skill I learned in doing so was an analytical one—the ability to go beyond the mental model that factories and brands are destined to have these transactional relationships instead of something more mutually transformative.