Journalist-turned-green-entrepreneur Anne-Marie Tomchak (37) is a Zoom vision in her Instagrammable home office in Walthamstow, London. Make-up and hair perfectly appointed, she wears a sleeveless top with sequin collar, bought in a BBC wardrobe department clear out “years ago” when she worked at the broadcaster.
“They were having this flash sale of items that were on TV shows like Strictly Come Dancing and they were raising money for Comic Relief. So it’s almost like ShareJoy before ShareJoy existed.”
ShareJoy is the not-for-profit platform Tomchak launched in January which uses the Depop resale site to sell pre-loved clothes to raise money for mental-health charity Pieta. But today we are talking about ShareJoy’s “more grown-up sibling”, DesignTracker, the highly ambitious, for-profit company, of which she is founder and CEO.
With its tagline, “setting the standard for sustainable business”, DesignTracker will monitor, report on and index companies with bona fide green credentials. Tomchak will consult with companies wishing to improve their ESGs, the latest buzzy acronym on Wall Street for ‘Environmental Social Governance’ standards. In other words, their sustainable investing.
She will carry out green audits to ensure companies move with the times and aren’t left behind in the planet-saving push for net zero emissions by 2050. For starters, they might not get the climate-minded Gen Z staff otherwise.
“Whenever you start talking about the environment or ESG, you start to lose people — and I guess that’s my challenge,” says Tomchak. But what on this endangered earth could be more fascinating than a farmer’s daughter from Longford creating the Dow Jones of sustainability with her DesignTracker 100 idea?
If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, her new approach to managing her wardrobe might — and later we will get to her journey from Vogue exec to minimalist shopper.
But first, who is Anne-Marie Tomchak?
She studied journalism in DCU and began her career in RTÉ in 2005, spending five years presenting news and reporting on 2FM and Radio One. She was Anne-Marie McNerney then — her uncle is country singer Declan Nerney and her first cousin is pop star Una Healy. Tomchak also has an identical twin sister, Sinead, and “it’s great having a clone living in Dublin, so when I go home I don’t have to pack much.” She met her husband David Tomchak when he was her producer at the BBC, where she worked from 2010 to 2016, notably setting up its social media unit, BBC Trending. She left to take up the role of UK editor of media platform Mashable, before being hired by Edward Enninful as digital director of British Vogue for a year, until her contract ended in January 2020.
Lockdown was a period of reflection and reading for Tomchak — Post Growth by Tim Jackson and Selfie by Will Storr, among others. “I was reading about people like Larry Fink,” she says, of the billionaire CEO of US investment management company BlackRock. “They are setting up a whole area around ESG. This idea that sustainability could also be profitable was a real moment for me, because I never thought about it in those terms before.”
If Tomchak “had to pick a moment” that “crystallised” where her career was going next, it was this mid-pandemic realisation that saving the planet and making money are not necessarily mutually exclusive. “The key thing that DesignTracker is working on is saying that sustainability and prosperity can live side by side. In fact they coexist really nicely together,” she says, adding later: “ESG has been described as the most exciting and most important thing to happen in the investment space in the last 20 years. I’m not from a business background, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that that presents a major opportunity.”
Companies making short-term profits now at the expense of the environment may need to take a longer-term view to survive. “They risk becoming obsolete and irrelevant in the future if they don’t engage with this topic now. Talented people want to work in companies that have a purpose.”
The current focus on ESG reminds Tomchak of when the buzz phrase 10 years ago was “digital transformation”. More recently, companies have had to adopt best practices in another revolutionary acronym, EDI (Equality, Diversion and Inclusion). There is overlap between all three in intersectional environmentalism, another new “ism” that advocates for the protection of both people and the planet.
“The climate crisis is the biggest problem of our lifetime, make no bones about it,” says Tomchak. “It is, without doubt, the single most important issue and story of our lifetime.”
She has decided to devote her career now to exploring and highlighting solutions to it. But she also has to earn a living, so how will DesignTracker make money?
“There are three different main revenue streams.” The first is by providing “service journalism” and Tomchak jokes that she does not intend to be “the next Rupert Murdoch”. Instead, the free DesignTracker newsletter is a means of growing a nicely segmented audience. “There is scope to eventually build in a subscription model for some of our premium content, which might be, for example, a white paper on the chief sustainability officers around the world… There is potential to charge for that kind of content, or to devise branded content partnerships.”
The second arm is the consultancy, helping companies to become more environmentally friendly, now and into the future. “Like anyone who’s offering a service and expertise, you would charge a fee for that. This is a for-profit company, albeit with socially conscious objectives and goals. The idea is to create different packages for companies and to give them a costing, whether that’s working with a company for a week, right up to working with a company for a year on a longer-term project and assigning an account manager to that company, the same way that an agency would.” Tomchak sees this as “the middle ground, bread and butter” of her business.
The third and dream-big project is the DesignTracker index of top 100 green companies. She hopes this will grow to become one of the business world’s most coveted accolades and an annual event, minus the earth-unfriendly tablescapes.
“I’m currently working with an environmental financial analyst who has worked in the FinTech, fashion and environmental space, around building out a set of indicators,” she says, of how companies will be chosen for the list. “Initially my idea was to look at existing benchmarks and indicators for what good looks like. But I think more ambitiously, the longer-term goal is for me to build out a new set of indicators that are specific to DesignTracker, and that the index itself could grow into something much bigger where your credit rating can be affected by your green or ESG credentials. That’s extremely ambitious, I realise, but you have to start somewhere.”
Creating a job that requires you to think about solutions to the biodiversity crisis all day long — while also trying to make a wage from scratch — is not for the fainthearted. “I want to be really candid with you; there have been times where I have said to myself, ‘Why am I putting myself through this?’ I think every entrepreneur thinks about going back into an employed role, and I’ve been headhunted for many roles over the last 18 months. It’s not like I’m doing this for the good of my health. I really believe in it.”
Tomchak reminds herself that if things don’t work out, she will at least learn loads by launching her own business. “If that’s the worst outcome, then this is a fantastic thing to do. Obviously, I need to pay my bills, that’s very important as well. But I really believe that it presents an enormous opportunity for me to do something of real value with my life.”
Tomchak’s life already takes the planet into deep consideration. “I’ve made a few lifestyle changes that I feel are not too difficult to do. For example, I don’t eat meat any more. Don’t tell my dad — he’s a livestock farmer!” She is “not preaching” and would eat chicken if served it at a dinner party. “I honestly don’t think it’s possible to live in a way where you’re beating yourself with a stick all of the time.”
She is a stickler, though, for not wasting food. “My husband teases me about putting the most tiny bit of salad or something into Tupperware,” she says with a laugh, adding: “As someone who’s grown up on a farm, you know the effort that goes into growing vegetables, sowing potatoes. I used to help my dad harvest potatoes during the summer.”
In a way, her habits are coming full circle. “My life back then, growing up on a farm in rural Ireland, was much more circular and sustainably minded and I think a lot of people are returning to basics.”
Her wardrobe evolution is also ongoing. Tomchak “used to love” a fast-fashion bargain. “Getting something for a fiver was a badge of honour. But now I would just associate that with a whole different range of emotions. And I think that this penny is dropping for a lot of people.”
Fashion is one of the world’s greatest polluters, with an estimated three in five items ending up landfills within 12 months. Not to talk about child labour in the supply chain. “Once you see these things reported it is so difficult to unsee them.”
Even before she got the job at Vogue, Tomchak had concerns about the impact of the fashion industry. “One of the key things that I was talking about during my Vogue interview was how important sustainability and purpose is. That was something that I was already very cognisant of having worked in Mashable, which is an extremely progressive new media title, very socially and environmentally aware.”
For our shoot today, she is exclusively dressed in Hardly Ever Worn It (HEWI) a luxury fashion resale site where you can save up to 80pc on cost. “It’s quite amazing to see what you can get. Some items have actually never been worn before.”
What is she putting in her own wardrobe these days? “There are less new things coming in. In fact, I would say zero new things coming in. And then there are things going out,” she says, of the clothes she sells on Depop. Tomchak has even been researching ways of steaming and deodorising clothes to reduce water waste.
“Another way I’ve been trying to sustain my wardrobe is I’ve been going down to the local tailor here in Walthamstow.” Instead of throwing out some dresses, she had them altered. “I’ve got the neckline changed, cut the sleeves off or got a halterneck made out of it, or just changed the length so it’s not hanging so long and is more wearable. I’ve spent, say 50 quid on getting three dresses altered, but I could have gone out and bought a new dress for 50 quid.”
She is “not out to vilify fast fashion because I don’t think there’s a person on the planet who doesn’t own an item of fast fashion.” But she is “definitely a lot more conscious and considered” about what she buys.
“What I’ve also started doing recently is renting my wardrobe, interestingly, and this is something I never imagined I would ever do.” She does this via the peer-to-peer fashion rental app, By Rotation, which allows you to borrow something for between 3pc to 5pc of its retail price. “I’ve been listing things that I don’t really want to part with yet but I’d love to share them with other people. It’s nice, because you can see how someone else styles this dress that you’ve loved for a long time.”
Renting high fashion, perhaps a little like Tomchak’s new green start-up, is “a great way of road-testing things that you feel like you might, in the future, want to invest in.”