Finding sustainability lessons half a world apart

Finding sustainability lessons half a world apart

ISE Magazine September 2020 Volume: 52 Number: 09

By Keith Albertson


At first glance, there wouldn’t seem to be much of a connection in the 6,700 miles between a cattle farm on a South Pacific island and a startup business working with fashion clothing in Southern California.

But for IISE student member and recent University of Southern California graduate Soraya Levy, both ventures contributed to her industrial and systems engineering education and her pursuit of sustainable practices.

Levy said she decided to pursue an ISE education after her experience leading a robotics team in high school gave her a taste for engineering.

“I really enjoyed math and the sciences and the push for women in STEM,” she said. “The main reason I started in ISE is that it was so broad. It allowed me to vary my interest in STEM more in quantitative analysis and social analysis, and it offered a lot of expressive thinking and writing, and lot of flexibility.”

Levy earned her bachelor’s degree in industrial and systems engineering in May from USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering. She was a USC Renaissance Scholar and Presidential Scholar and the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering Student of the Year. After graduation, she began her career as a brand manager on the supply chain team at General Mills’ Natural and Organics Operating Unit in Berkeley, California, not far from her hometown of Monterey.

“Soraya is the quintessential renaissance scholar and an embodiment of our engineering-plus philosophy,” Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, industrial systems engineering and international relations at Viterbi, told ISE. “She is a pioneer and among the growing number of equally talented and truly interdisciplinary-oriented ISE students at USC who I see are aspiring and becoming a true ‘global engineer,’ to apply their truly interdisciplinary skill set to complex sociotechnical systems and global and public policy issues, above and beyond just number crunching.

“Soraya and her like-minded pioneer cohort at USC, to paraphrase the old popular Star Trek phrase, are embarking for ‘where no ISE has gone before.’”

Levy became interested in the fashion industry, not as much from the creative standpoint as its inner workings, particularly its unsustainable practices.

“Toward the end of high school, I was starting to get some kind of understanding of the wastefulness of the fashion industry and how increasingly problematic it was becoming,” she said. “I was very interested in the fashion industry, and not really clothing design but kind of the mechanisms be-hind the fashion industry.”

Those concerns include the manufacture of inexpensive items from synthetic fibers made from fossil fuels that do not decompose in landfills, where 85% of garments end up, along with the low pay and harsh working conditions found in many developing countries. According to the United Nations, the fashion industry contributes to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

To alleviate this, in 2017 Levy and three of her USC classmates created a nonprofit startup called Bloom Boutique that offers donated clothing items both for re-sale and to a charitable nonprofit in Los Angeles. The boutique (bloom was founded as an at-tempt to bypass the industry’s wasteful practices based on three ideals: offering a sustainable clothing option for students, educating them about the fashion industry and providing service to the community.

“For the first pillar, operationally we would collect clothing donations from students, clothes they would otherwise throw away or donate,” Levy said. “But there’s a lack of transparency to where clothes go when you donate. A lot of times they were shipped offshore and ended up in a landfill.

”The Bloom team would sort through donated clothes and designate items that fit its “funky and colorful brand” for resale on campus during events or at pop-up sales. Clothing that was deemed more professional in appearance was donated to the Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles, one of Bloom’s four com-munity partnerships. In all, 100% of its profits were donated to charity, more than $3,000 to date.

“I was in charge of operations, involved with setting up the whole infrastructure,” Levy said. “That grew into some-thing that bridged the operations management with a creative pillar. I ended up being the person who bridged operations and inventory management with the photographers and the marketing team. We had a blog for the editorial team as well, just to make sure we were all in alignment.”

The boutique is part of USC’s Environmental Student Assembly, a group dedicated to campus organizations that practice environmentally conscious work. The operation grew from four members at the start to more than 50 by the time Levy graduated. Yet its growth was temporarily halted when the coronavirus pandemic took students off campus last spring and left the staff unable to accept or pass along clothing donations.

“The boutique allowed me and some of my peers to really create some change at a local level,” Levy said. “I had been learning about sustainability and production in the global supply chain system in my ISE classes. That was a very daunting idea, trying to implement change on that global level, because so many processes are so messed up, for lack of a better word.”

Levy’s dedication to sustainable practices was fueled by an earlier project she took part in: Working at an organic farm in New Zealand through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms in early 2019.

“I wanted to learn what other countries were doing as far as their conservation efforts,” she said. “I think something industrial and systems engineering introduced me to and stressed a lot is how important the human component and the social component of any system is. I think being able to navigate the unique, complex nature of the relationship between these farmers, that was really something I learned a lot about.”

While in the Pacific Island nation, she helped manage 1,000 head of cattle, grew saffron flowers for spice and cultivated honey from beehives, all while pursuing organic and sustainable practices. She also learned from her interaction with the New Zealanders’ culture and farming practices.

“It was interesting living with the farm manager,” Levy said. “At night, we would watch the news and then have a very candid and open discussion of New Zealand politics, which was very interest-ing. I learned a lot about the relationships between New Zealand’s government and the farmers and general public, and how the dynamic of that relationship really is.”

The work helped Levy develop a systemwide appreciation for the symbiotic link between the farmers and society at large and the key role each plays in sustainable practices.

“It really was a special relationship be-tween the people working on the farm and the livestock,” Levy said. “They practiced sustainable farming throughout the entire operation. The various processes and methods in place to protect or ensure sustainable farming were also interesting. They seemed to really import every single farming practice throughout the entire operation, not just to be able to write the world ‘organic’ on their products but in order to feel good about what products they were offering to their community.”

The lessons she learned both on the farm and at Bloom Boutique helped give her an appreciation of how a hands-on approach for sustainable practices can have a systemwide effect across different products and enterprises. She found the common link between the two ventures was making consumers more aware of the source of their products, be it food or clothing, by improving transparency and cooperation between producers, governments and consumers along the supply chain.

“I think Bloom Boutique, as well as this cattle farming operation, really brought it down to a personal, tangible, local level, and that was something that we had discussed a lot in ISE classes or curriculum,” she said. “They’re all having to do with these global systems that were super impactful to millions and millions of people in the world. I think it was important being able to bring it down to a personal level and talk to the people whom you are personally affecting – whether it’s in the fashion industry or whether it’s organic farming – to cultivate the knowledge of successful practices and also unsuccessful parts of the systems they’re unable to change.”

Levy also believes the challenges the world has endured in 2020 demonstrate how maintaining the health of both the planet and its inhabitants go hand in hand.

“The whole pandemic has given people some time to step back and think about the state of the world,” she said. “I also think it’s given us an opportunity at least to see how quickly such a massive global shift can occur. That had led to some optimism for sustainability in general.

“That’s great to see – it brings that large global system, that large global, extremely wasteful supply chain system that a lot of people are focusing on now. I think it brings it back to more of a personal level, and it seems a lot less daunting to be able to really affect change in that system.”

References: IISE Magazine October 2020 (