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true cost

“People aren’t going to care until it hurts them personally.”

That was the last comment in the closing discussion of The True Cost movie screening I co-hosted in Boston this summer.

The documentary has been sweeping film festivals and fashion media across the world with a no-holds-bar narrative of fashion’s effect on people and planet.

As I sat in the audience that night, surrounded by 100+ students, designers, entrepreneurs, mechanical engineers and concerned consumers, I could see and hear the emotions around me.

There’s something about watching a female garment worker being beaten with a club on the streets of Phnom Penh that can really grip you.

As strong as the emotions were, though, some of the most insightful comments in the post-discussion focused on how we will respond now that we’ve seen the footage and the movie is no longer playing in front of our eyes.

“We’re so detached,” one audience member said. “It’s just so hard to care about people on the other side of the world who you don’t know. Especially when there are so many other problems in the world.”

This sentiment resonates with many consumers: When there is so much to fight for in this world, how do you choose your battles?

When you’re the mom in Missouri with four mouths to feed and the cheapest store is a Wal-Mart, how do you say ‘no’ to the five dollar t-shirts that your kids will grow out of in a few months?

When you’re the university student drowning in debt, how do you make ethical fashion a part of your lifestyle?

In an ideal world, the industry execs profiting off of cheap labor would choose to change things on their own. Then consumers wouldn’t have to make a choice — it would either be ethically-made or not made at all.

But that’s not the reality we live in. The reality is that the fashion industry is a 3 trillion dollar a year business and only two percent of apparel companies source from suppliers that pay their workers a fair and living wage.

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The reality is that industry giants can claim negligence because they don’t technically “own” their factories and thus don’t have to take responsibility for fair compensation.

The reality is that until consumers start making demands and asking for change, the fashion industry has no reason to clean up its act.

We’ve heard all of this before. It’s a classic chicken and the egg. A vicious cycle of rock bottom prices and consumer expectation that it should be this way. We expect the five dollar t-shirt — I’d even go so far to say, we feel entitled to it.

And that’s where the root of the problem lies. On the surface, the issues are obvious to us: pay the workers a better wage, change the supply chain, improve working conditions.

“…But I still want clothing to be cheap.”

We deflect the responsibility with the same negligence that fast fashion shareholders deflect it.

There’s nothing I can do as one person. The problem is too great to solve. The issues are too complicated. There is someone more qualified to tackle this. There are only so many hours in a day…

Why should the medical student in Boston care about the garment worker in Bangladesh?

Maybe the answer lies in actually remembering, as True Cost director Andrew Morgan says, that there are people behind the clothes we wear.

Maybe if we saw that with a different stroke of luck in the gene pool, it could be us in front of that sewing machine — we wouldn’t be so apathetic.

I don’t have the answer. Or a solution. The best I can do is lead by example and encourage others to do the same.

The best you can do is to start asking questions, educating yourself, sparking non-judgmental conversations with your friends while doing whatever you can to shine light on yet another fundamental flaw in our society —

That when it comes to the bottom line, the underdog never wins.

If you haven’t seen The True Cost documentary yet it’s streaming on Netflix for free right now.

Photo credit: The True Cost

 


Market45

What do you do when you’re sent a live interview request for international television?

You say, no, of course. Who would ever subject themselves to that kind of stress?

I was walking home from a morning of co-working when I got an email from a producer at CCTV America.

She had found an article I wrote for the Huffington Post and wanted me to talk about fast fashion for their primetime news show, Global Business America.

The segment would air live at precisely 8:22pm that night. Was I available?

As someone who is perfectly happy to stay in my little home office, taking interviews by phone and email, my first instinct was to ignore it.

She wants me on live TV in less than 7 hours? That’s nuts. That’s not enough time to prepare…. I’d have to be crazy to do that….

And yet, as my stream of conscious is screaming, “Shannon, don’t do it! Too scary, too scary!” I find my fingers typing:

I’d love to come on the show tonight. Let me know about next steps.

(I like thinking about this sequence as a scene from Pixar’s “Inside Out” – if you’ve seen the movie, you know exactly what I’m talking about.)

Fast forward, and all of the sudden I’m on the phone with the producer, doing a pre-interview and she is arranging for a car service to pick me up and take me to the satellite studio in downtown Boston later that night.

Of course, the rest of the day fell to shit as I prepared for the segment and tried to talk myself off the ledge from what I had agreed to.

“Sustainable Fashion Advocate Has Massive Meltdown on Live Television, Bringing Shame to a Fledgling Industry” was the headline I was preparing myself for.

By 7:40pm, there was a black car sitting outside my house to take me to the studio. And for reasons unbeknownst to me, I got in it.

Sitting in the green room, I was taking deep breaths, using the pointer to index finger technique used in yoga and meditation, and telling myself that no one would be watching so it didn’t matter if I sucked.

“Just because it streams to 85 million viewers in over 100 countries doesn’t mean that anyone actually watches it…”

Before I know it, I’m in the studio, in front of a fake Boston skyline, hooked up to a microphone and earpiece and staring into a black screen. The audio tech says “good luck,” closes the door and leaves me the in the room by myself.

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Shortly after, a producer in DC comes into my ear and says, “Shannon, you’re on in 90 seconds.”

All the curse words.

“Shannon, you’re on in one minute.”

And that’s when I hear the pre-recorded segment go live. I hear a reporter talking about Bauble Bar and fast fashion and how great the business model is for consumers and companies.

In my ear:  “The fast fashion model is successful because it gets the consumer what they want, at an appropriate price, in the time frame that they want.”

Cut to my brain waves: Uhhhh, do they, like, know I’m against fast fashion?

“Shannon, you’re on in 30 seconds.”

More curse words.

In my ear: “For just under 40 dollars, you can buy a chic bra and underwear set.”

As I hear the anchor segue into introducing me, I give myself one last chance to panic and blackout.

A few seconds later, I’m on live television talking about the topic that I’m most passionate about.

Showtime.

You can watch the first segment here and the interview here:

And just like that it was done. And I didn’t flop, or freeze up, or accidentally say “shit” instead of “shift.” I flipped the script on how the business of fast fashion is typically portrayed and even had some fun doing it.

Moral of story? Sometimes things are scary and they do flop (case in point: my speaking engagement at ECO Fashion Week three years ago…)

But sometimes, they’re awesome. Sometimes, they’re more important than your fears.

Here’s to losing your shit and winning it back,

 

 


I’m in the business of working with startups and new designers. A lot of the people I work with don’t have a fashion design background. They’re entrepreneurs with a cool idea, but other than that, they don’t have much knowledge on how to get started.

One of the reasons I started Factory45 was because I know there aren’t many industry veterans who want to “deal with” new designers. I’ve had three people in the past week say, “Oh yeah, so-and-so doesn’t even attempt to work with college grads / newbies / design students / etc.”

The fact is, new designers have a bad reputation. If you’re starting to squirm a little, just hear me out.

I’m not saying that you are necessarily to blame for the bad rep, but there are other people who have “spoiled it” for others.

For the most part, suppliers would rather not work with you, sew shops would rather not work with you, factories would rather not work with you. And this is why fashion startups have such a hard time getting started.

Manufacturers in the States have been doing this long enough to know that 9 times out of 10 it just isn’t worth their time to take on the additional baggage of someone new to the industry. They have a responsibility to the construction and production of a product, but they don’t have a responsibility to educate you.

Let me give you an example of an all-too-common email that the vast majority of project managers have probably received:

“Hello – I have a patent for an innovative new apparel product. I’m looking for a production partner to work with – do you do apparel? Are you willing to sign an NDA? What next steps do I need to take? Thanks, [name]”

If you don’t see anything wrong with this example please keep reading.

I want to break this down because there are few different pieces that we should look at:

“PATENT”: If you are trying to patent an apparel product, you are wasting your money. The only person who will tell you otherwise is a lawyer (for obvious reasons). There are .01% of apparel products in the world that are unusual enough to legally protect. Even then, someone else could come in, rip off the design, change one button and your product is no longer protected.

I know the warm and fuzzy feeling you may get from “legitimizing” your company, but trust me, you’re wasting valuable time and money that could be spent on finding out if your customers even want your product.

“INNOVATIVE NEW APPAREL PRODUCT”: This says nothing. There is no sew shop, factory, manufacturer or supplier that is going to take you seriously (or even know how to respond to you) if you don’t give a description of the product you’re trying to make. Ideally, you will be able to tell them the type of garment, the type of fabric you’re using, how many units you’re looking to produce and what your timeline is.

“SIGN AN NDA”: Asking a manufacturer to sign an NDA is akin to writing “amateur hour” on your business card. If your product is good enough to be ripped off or stolen, it won’t be your production partner who does it. Many of the manufacturers in the U.S. have been in this industry for decades. If they were in the business of screwing over designers, then they wouldn’t have lasted this long. I don’t know anyone who would sign an NDA, so please, don’t shoot yourself in the foot by asking.

“WHAT STEPS DO I NEED TO TAKE”: Oh lordy. This has to be the biggest pet peeve of all. And it’s probably the most common question asked. I’m just going to go ahead and put out a PSA for every manufacturer out there: Again, it is not your production partner’s job to educate you. If you don’t know what the next steps are, then you need to go back to the drawing board, do some research, read some blogs, books or hire someone to help you. (I have 30 people coming through Factory45 this spring, because they were smart enough to do that.)

If this all sounds a little harsh, I know you would never do this — I just want to make sure you know why ; )

The thing is, I really want you to succeed. We need entrepreneurs creating products that solve a problem for people. We need new designers working with manufacturers in the U.S. and keeping the momentum up.

But there’s a right way and a wrong way to make that happen. I want to make sure you’re doing it the right way.

Here are the things you need in place to approach a potential production partner:

  • A sample
  • A pattern
  • A spec sheet
  • (A good head on your shoulders)
  • (Good communication skills)

Some will require more than that, but at the most basic level, that’s what you need before you should even send out an inquiry email.

If a production partner agrees to take your project on, then you’ll also need:

  • Fabric (don’t wait to source it, but wait to purchase it)
  • Materials
  • Capital

Production will not start until you have all of those items and can pay 50% upfront.

 

I remember reading Kathleen Fasanella’s book several years ago, and she went so far to say: Because designers have a bad rep, don’t call yourself a designer — call yourself a manufacturer.

So now you know — it’s not just me saying it.

 

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The winter of 2011 was a tough one. I had been trying to set up a supply chain for my clothing company for five months and by February, my co-founder and I had hit a mental and logistical standstill.

Looking back, five months seems like nothing. But for two driven, go-getter types, every ignored email and unanswered phone call was a mini blow to our motivation.

We simply couldn’t figure out what we were doing wrong. How was it possible that not one fabric supplier, factory or sew shop would give us the time of day?

We were at our wits end when we got a reply from a designer who said he could make our first samples. We didn’t have fabric or materials yet, but at least samples would feel like progress.

When we got on our first phone call with him he was adamant that we should fly to North Carolina to meet him. We could go over everything, work face to face and make a plan of attack for moving forward.

Resting our hopes on the chance that this person could also introduce us to a fabric supplier or a manufacturer, we booked flights for the following weekend.

All things considered, our weekend in North Carolina was weird.

We checked into a hostel in downtown Asheville and immediately went to a nearby bar where the designer had told us to meet him.

What ensued was a three hour “happy hour” in which he continued to slug beer after beer while not once mentioning our business, our design ideas or why we were there.

Promising that he would get to “it” eventually, we arranged to meet the following day at his home.

If this sounds sketchy, remember that a lot of designers / samplemakers / patternmakers work out of their homes. Also, remember that we had flown 1,000 miles, spent our savings on flights, and felt like we had no other option.

Desperation puts you in interesting situations.

We spent several hours the next day in his basement going over our sketches, spec sheets and designs and we decided that we would start with just one sample to test the waters.

He said he would create a prototype for our “maxi dress” design and ship it to us in two weeks. We left North Carolina feeling hopeful and cautiously optimistic.

Turns out, we didn’t receive our sample in two weeks.

It showed up in four weeks and when I pulled it out of the box, it looked nothing like our original design.

Instead of being full length, it was knee-length.

Instead of a sweetheart neckline, it had a scoop neck.

Instead of spaghetti straps that tied around the neck, it had thick straps that went straight back.

To top it off, he had included a “sash” to be tied around the waist in a bow!

My co-founder and I got on Skype (we didn’t live in the same city) and I showed her a dress that couldn’t have looked more different than the one we designed.

We had just spent hundreds of dollars on flights, hotels, a rental car and other travel expenses and we still owed money to pay for a sample we couldn’t use.

It was a critical moment and I had reached a breaking point.

I was mad at myself for not listening to my gut, I was mad at the designer for making us fly across the country, and I was mad that we listened to him.

All signs pointed to: You’re crazy for thinking you could do this.

Quit now.

And that would have been a much easier option — except that’s not how dreams work.

I was either going to do this, despite how freaking hard it would continue to be, or I was going to walk away.

Thank goodness, I decided to keep going.

To be fair, it didn’t get any easier in the following eight months. But we did make some big decisions and changes to simplify our business idea from a line of 10 pieces to just one piece that could be worn multiples ways.

We launched our Kickstarter, becoming the highest-funded fashion project, and found the mentorship from someone who had done it before. That partnership single-handedly helped us push forward and go into production with 4x the capital we had planned on.

When I was wandering through this industry uncertain about what to do next, I found someone to help me.

I hope I can be that someone for you.

Everything you need to launch the business of your dreams is within your reach.

 

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There are things every single one of us can do to help alleviate the damage done by the traditional fashion industry. Here are the big four:

1. ) Buy local

At the most basic level, when you buy from a local designer or from a local boutique more money stays in the community. According to SustainableConnections.org, “Several studies have shown that when you buy from an independent, locally owned business, rather than nationally owned businesses, significantly more of your money is used to make purchases from other local businesses — continuing to strengthen the economic base of the community.”

Not only are you investing in your own city, but you’re also reducing your individual environmental footprint, creating jobs, and putting your tax dollars to good use.

Putting that into dollars and cents, Businessweek reported “for every $100 spent at a locally owned store, $45 remains in the local economy, compared with about $13 per $100 spent at a big box store.”

2.) Buy “indie”

Support independent designers who are conscious of the production process all the way through. Many of these designers are mindful of where they source their fabric and are involved in the manufacturing from front to back. Some are even doing the sewing themselves in small independent sew shops or incubators.

The stories behind companies like Piece x Piece, Seamly and Manufacture NY are a refreshing glimpse into transparent clothing production.

thrift-shop-photo mombot3.) Buy used

Huge progress can be made by consumers purchasing second-hand. It is imperative that we start making use of the resources already available to us instead of buying new clothing.twitter-bird

Any remaining stigma against thrift shopping has gone out the window with the popularity of consignment chains like Buffalo Exchange, Plato’s Closet, and the many local thrift shops popping up all over the world.

Second-hand clothing has even entered the tech scene with websites and apps such as Bib + Tuck, Twice, Poshmark and Nifty Thrifty, boasting beautiful user interfaces that encourage the purchase and reuse of someone else’s unwanted clothing.

Not only are the price tags competitive with the fast fashion giants, but many of the garments appear to be practically new. It’s a win-win for your wallet and for the planet.

4.) Buy less

Buying less is ultimately the solution that can change the world. (And no, it will not lead to an economic Armageddon.)

Considering the fact that society’s throwaway consumption habits are at an all-time high, there are ways to use our dollars more economically and efficiently than buying six H&M dresses for $9.99.

Instead, you can use that same $59.94 (6 x $9.99) to buy an ethically-produced dress from a local designer and wear it for years to come.

I’m not advocating to stop spending. I’m advocating to use your purchasing power in ways that go beyond wearing something once and throwing it away.twitter-bird

And if that’s all a piece of cake, here are a few secondary factors to keep in mind:

seamly-coLook at labels

It can’t be said enough. Do you know where your clothes came from? Who made the t-shirt on your back? Are you comfortable with the possibility that your jeans were made by a modern-day slave on the other side of the world?

Look at the labels on your clothes and ask questions. You can start here.

Wash cold & hang dry

In the United States, the average household does 300-400 loads of laundry per year. A whopping 1,000 loads of laundry are started every second of the day — that’s 13,000 gallons of water per household. Three-quarters of the carbon footprint from a load of laundry comes from drying.

And let’s not forget the amount of chemicals and phosphates that are used in laundry detergent and then leaked back into our water supply, depleting aquatic ecosystems.

To reduce your individual carbon footprint: always wash cold, hang to dry and use phosphate-free laundry detergent.

Have alternative solutions to add to this mix? Tweet me your thoughts at @factory45co.

Photos courtesy of Fashion Revolution Day and Chic Vegan.


Market45

fast fashion, truth, industry, hiding

The fast fashion industry gets a lot of flack these days. The excess, the overtly sexual advertising, the humanitarian issues, the waste, the lawsuits, the list goes on.

The industry giants have dedicated millions of dollars to massive PR campaigns, going so far as to launch “conscious collections” and donate proceeds to worthy causes. Yet despite these efforts, the truth remains — fashion is one of the dirtiest industries in the world. Here’s what they don’t want you to know:

1.) The fashion industry is designed to make you feel “out of trend” after one week.

Once upon a time, there were two fashion seasons: Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter. Fast forward to 2014 and the fashion industry is churning out 52 “micro-seasons” per year. With new trends coming out every week, the goal of fast fashion is for consumers to buy as many garments as possible, as quickly as possible.

According to Elizabeth Cline in her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, fast-fashion merchandise is typically priced much lower than the competition, operating on a business model of low quality / high volume.

Cline points to the Spanish retailer Zara for pioneering the fast-fashion concept with new deliveries to its stores coming in twice per week. At the time of writing, she says H&M and Forever21 both get daily shipments of new styles, while Topshop introduces 400 styles a week on its website.

With designers creating new looks on a weekly basis, the fashion calendar for these companies is set up to deliberately make the customer feel off-trend after the first wear.

2.) “Discounts” aren’t really discounts.

The thriftiest fashionistas love the idea of going into an outlet store like TJ Maxx or Marshall’s and coming out with designer labels at a fraction of the price. Unfortunately, the “excess” or unsellable items we think we’re buying often have never seen a designer label before.

“Despite common belief, outlet clothing never enters a ‘regular’ store and is most likely produced in an entirely different factory than the ‘regular’ clothing,” writes Jay Hallstein in “The Myth of the Maxxinista.”

The reality is that outlets broker deals with designers so they can put designer labels on the cheaply made clothing manufactured in their own low-quality factories.

An article featured on Jezebel confirms: “The jig is up: Big brands like J. Crew, Gap and Saks’ Off 5th aren’t selling you discounted or out of season merchandise at their outlet locations. You’re just buying lower quality cardigans and patterned pants.”

3.) There is lead and hazardous chemicals on your clothing.

According to the Center for Environmental Health, Charlotte Russe, Wet Seal, Forever21 and other popular fast-fashion chains are still selling lead-contaminated purses, belts, and shoes above the legal amount, years after signing a settlement agreeing to limit the use of heavy metals in their products.

An article in The New York Times says the Center for Environmental Health is focusing on reducing the lead content in products marketed to young women because lead accumulation in bones can be released during pregnancy, potentially harming both mother and fetus.

Lead exposure has also been linked to higher rates of infertility in women and increased risks of heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure. Many scientists agree there is no “safe” level of lead exposure for anyone.

The lead contamination is all in addition to the pesticides, insecticides, formaldehyde, flame-retardants and other known carcinogens that reside on the clothes we wear.

4.) Clothing is designed to fall apart.

Fast fashion giants, such as H&M, Zara and Forever21, are concerned with the bottom line and the bottom line alone. Their business models are dependent on the consumers’ desire for new clothing to wear — which is instinctive if the clothing falls apart in one wash.

“A store like H&M produces hundreds of millions of garments per year,” author Elizabeth Cline says on NPR. “They put a small markup on the clothes and earn their profit out of selling an ocean of clothing.”

So why should we care? Because the average American throws away over 68 pounds of textiles per year. We’re not talking about clothing being donated to charity shops or sold to consignment stores, that 68 pounds of clothing is going directly into landfills. Because most of our clothing today is made with synthetic, petroleum-based fibers, it will take decades for these garments to decompose.

“You see some products and it’s just garbage. It’s just crap,” says Simon Collins, dean of fashion at Parsons The New School for Design, on NPR. “And you sort of fold it up and you think, yeah, you’re going to wear it Saturday night to your party — and then it’s literally going to fall apart.”

5.) Beading and sequins are an indication of child labor.

Industry estimates suggest that 20 to 60 percent of garment production is sewn at home by informal workers, according author Lucy Siegle in her book, To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?

While there are machines that can apply sequins and beading that look like handiwork, they are very expensive and must be purchased by the garment factory. According to Siegle, it’s highly unlikely that an overseas factory would invest in the equipment, particularly if the clothing being made is for a value-driven fast-fashion label.

Carrying out her own investigation, Siegle learned that millions of desperate home-workers are hidden in some of the poorest regions of the world, “hunched over, stitching and embroidering the contents of the global wardrobe … in slums where a whole family can live in a single room.”

Often with the help of their children, the home workers sew as fast as they can and for as long as daylight allows to embellish and bedazzle the clothes that end up in our closets. Siegle goes on to say, “They live hand to mouth, presided over by middlemen, tyrannical go-betweens who hand over some of the lowest wages in the garment industry.”

So how can you become a more conscious consumer? It starts by educating yourself, buying local, buying less, buying used, and buying from independent designers. You can start by joining a growing movement of fashion changemakers here.

Originally published as a guest post on the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator blog.

[Photo credit: www.theretailnews.fr]