Sustainable fashion is one of the fastest-growing segments of the fashion industry. A host of start-ups are using responsible supply chains and repurposed materials to use fashion as a force for positive global change. The Eco-Lifestyle Network supports sustainable fashion companies. On September 16, 2014, they brought entrepreneurs from The Base Project, From the World, and Nomi Network to LIM College for a panel event.
The Base Project, founded by Chris Akin and his twin brother Doug, is one line you may have seen in Nordstrom or Urban Outfitters. Fashion is the means by which these entrepreneurs with marketing and media experience communicate their message to the public and have a positive impact on the world. Their hand-carved bracelets succeeded all other options in test marketing and are sustainably made from repurposed old plastic water piping, and the company has now expanded its product offering to include bags.
Differentiation and branding have been the ticket to the socially-minded company’s success. The goods are handmade by African tribes in entrepreneurial artisan cooperatives, who are all paid a fair wage that has enabled them to start sending their children to school. Thanks to the help of local NGOs, the brothers persevered despite obstacles such as lack of development and infrastructure, language barriers, shipping hassles, and difficulties sourcing due to lack of suppliers. Upcycling can present unique issues with quality control, import regulations and consumer protection.
The company’s big break came in the form of support and funding from a wholesale buyer. Although Chris admits the company is less profitable than non-sustainable competitors, “social good is built into the DNA of the company” and it is still possible to succeed while paying a fair wage. Unfortunately, sustainability is infrequently a sales driver in the contemporary market, where retail buyers focus on product and price, but a rising number of retailers, such as Canadian department store Holt Renfrew, are interested in carrying the product for CSR purposes. In the future, Chris hopes to see a rise in upcycling and repurposing in fashion enabled by technological advancements.
Susan Easton is the founder of luxury label From the Road, which develops capsule collections of fashion accessories and home decor with artisans in various nations. Inspired by wanderlust and an interest in artisan goods, Easton turned her travels into business trips. Her cultural immersion and appreciation led her to connect with locals and network with artisans. Her model is collaborative; of working with local artisans, she says “neither one of us could’ve done it alone.”
With a passion for culture and anthropology, Easton focuses on cultural preservation and the invigoration of traditional production techniques. The brand is environmentally conscious, and the materials are sustainably sourced. Current product offerings are sourced from Kenya, Peru, Ecuador and Nepal. Susan is now working on developing a line in Bolivia. In Nepal, From the Road worked with local experts to teach the younger generation traditional natural dyeing techniques that were used for the hand-woven cashmere wraps and scarves, despite limited resources such as rationed water and electricity. She not only respects and replicates tradition, but is inspired to innovate, such as in the development of a Kenyan fish leather bag.
Susan hopes to help these artisans modernize while maintaining their traditions. Her big break was a connection to sell her goods at Donna Karan’s Urban Zen. From the Road uses its ecommerce site as a storytelling and promotional tool, but the luxurious materials' tactile appeal is a big selling point. She wants to see other fashion companies focusing on CSR and their impacts on consumers and workers; she emphasized that consumer education is key, but products should be able to stand on their own.
Nomi Network, started by president Diana Mao, Alissa Moore and Supei Liu, is a non-profit organization that is fighting against human trafficking in Cambodia--and more recently, India--by empowering survivors and at-risk women through education in literacy and computer and trade skills.
Their children, some of which had previously been child prostitutes, are also educated. Some are sent away to boarding school to reach better opportunities. Women were scared to come to training at the beginning, but have become empowered; after the recent tragic rape and murder of a trainee, the women had the confidence to pressure local law enforcement to file a report.
As a non-profit organization, Nomi Network partners with the US Department of State, Shelters in Cambodia and anti-human trafficking organization Apne Aap International. Nomi Network funds these initiatives through selling upcycled products made from found materials, such as rice bags. Diana emphasized the importance of this in relation to the organization's focus and goals. According to the US Department of Labor, 70% of raw materials are made with forced and/or child labor. The creation of these goods provides economic opportunities for the women, who are paid 300% above the average daily wage in these nations and receive benefits.
“Buy Her Bag Not Her Body” is the campaign in Cambodia, while the variation “Buy Her Shirt Not Her Body” supports Indian women. One of Nomi Network’s partners is Parsons: the New School for Design, where New York-based designers co-design these products. A transparent supply chain is key for consumer and community empowerment, and e-commerce is important to Nomi Network’s sales, with one-third of total sales made online, thanks to investment in search engine optimization and advertising on Facebook.
Products can be found on Walmart.com and in boutiques. The organization hopes to tackle the challenge of delivering goods to more large retailers, who Diana says are “making conscious choices not to care about these issues.” While Nomi Network is engaging with retailers on a CSR level, she hopes for direct communication with buyers and was optimistic about the increase in demand for sustainable goods that respect human rights and the environment. She noted that many mainstream brands are finding success in responding to consumer, media and policy pressure. Patagonia and Eileen Fisher have sustainability in their DNA, but all companies can develop CSR initiatives, such as Gap's One Stitch Foundation.
For fashion students, it is important to see that there are opportunities in this industry that could allow us to have a significant positive impact on the world. Whether that means starting a sustainable fashion company or becoming involved in corporate social responsibility, we can make a difference.