Minimalist designer Eileen Fisher has called out her own $3 trillion per annum industry for being "the second largest polluter in the world, second only to big oil." It's a tough claim to prove, but there's no question that the processes involved in the business of clothing—from production to distribution to disposal—contribute to a massive carbon footprint.
Every year the industry manufactures 150 billion garments—enough to outfit every person on the planet with 20 new articles of clothing. Eventually those new clothes get old: nearly 3 billion pounds of used clothing end up in landfills, and garments made from polyester, nylon, or other synthetic materials can take from 20 to 200 years to decompose. While natural fibers, like silk or cotton, might seem the preferable option for the environment, organic fibers, especially cotton, are water intensive, and industrial production relies heavily on pesticides that can contaminate the water supply.
And then there is the human toll. Many retailers outsource to countries where labor is cheap and working conditions for garment workers are deplorable and unregulated.
Millennials, it seems, are on it. Three out of four, according to a 2015 Nielsen study, say they would pay more for something they regard as socially responsible—a 17 percent increase from the previous year. That's easy enough when it comes to stocking the fridge or investing in stocks, but more challenging with fashion.
Enter Wearwell, a subscription sustainable-clothing service. Founders Erin Houston, SIS/MA '15, and Emily Kenney, SIS/MA '14, connect fashion-conscious consumers with clothes and accessories that align with their style, budget, and social values.
The business got a jumpstart this spring via a crowdfunding campaign that raised $30,000 in seven hours and generated 400 preorders. Kenney says they want customers to "feel confident in their purchase and know they are part of something good without the burden of due diligence—because we are going to do that for them."
Inspiration for Wearwell came from Stitch Fix, an online styling service that, six years after its founding, now ranks among the top 10 online apparel retailers. (Nearly 5 percent of online shoppers use these services for everything from athletic or dress apparel to lingerie to maternity wear.) While the services vary, they all combine user data with a personal relationship with a stylist. "We are seeing these subscription services take off," says Kenney, "because it is like opening a present on Christmas."
Like Stitch Fix, Wearwell customers provide information about their style (bohemian or preppy?), body shape (apple or pear?), and budget. They also identify what social issues they support, whether workers' rights, human rights, animal rights, or environmental conservation.
Thus far, Wearwell has partnered with 20 brands that meet the standards for ethical labor and environmental practices developed by the International Labour Organization, Fair Trade USA, and Conservation International. One of those brands, for example, the Phoenix-based Shine Project, donates a percentage of its profits to first-generation college students.
Once a month or once a season, based on preference, customers receive a box of stylist-curated clothing and accessories, with information about their sources. "Made at an ethical and eco-friendly factory in Kenya from 100 percent cotton fabric made and printed in Ghana," reads the card accompanying a pencil skirt from Bow Bow Ink, which skims 10 percent off its profits to support women's and girls' empowerment programs in Africa. A $30 fee covers curation, shipping, and returns; if customers buy at least one item, the charge for the next box is waived.
"It's easy to default to try to shop 'made in the USA' because we know what the regulations are—but [that] isn't inherently better," Houston says. "If we boycott someplace like Bangladesh, we are just going to drive those countries deeper into poverty. You have to understand how complicated it is in order to determine how to motivate the fashion industry to change."
Fashion might seem an odd niche for two graduates of AU's School of International Service—but for both it's a perfect fit.
While Kenney has no formal experience in the industry, she has always enjoyed telling people how to dress. The connection between her international development work and the global garment industry, she says, was obvious.
"Working on a project in the field, in a place where clothing is produced, like India or Guatemala, you see it get shipped all over the place—and eventually donated and shipped back to these countries. When I came back to the United States to work on my master's, I took a step back and it [became] clear how it was all connected."
Kenney currently is working with the Results for Development Institute in Cambodia to fight the institutionalization of children. "These parents are struggling with high unemployment, migration, and poverty. A lot of them have to relocate for work, and you can see how a parent giving up their children to migrate for a job is connected to someone in the United States [who is] buying a T-shirt made in a Cambodian factory," she says.
Houston had planned to work in the field and study gender issues. International development, she believed, would give her the tools to help empower women. "But I started to realize that my strengths lie in motivating people to think about how their lives impact others and motivate behavioral change," she says.
And then something happened that really shifted her course. She was in a clothing store, her arms full of try-ons, a few days after the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory complex near Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed 1,134 workers. She noticed one clothing tag, and then another, and another: "Made in Bangladesh." Houston walked out of the store empty-handed, consciousness raised. She set a challenge for herself: for the next 365 days, she would shop sustainably, exclusively.
Houston was working then at Devex, a media platform that partners with Fortune 500 companies and nongovernmental organizations to advance corporate social responsibility and work in emerging markets, when she had her eureka moment: Among all of these partners, she noted, not one represented the fashion industry. This apparent vacancy in the marketplace was her opportunity to elevate and empower women, who comprise 80 percent of garment workers.
Houston transferred to SIS's Social Enterprise Program, enabling her to conduct market research and network to explore the viability of ethical shopping. Meanwhile she proceeded with her year of living sustainably.
"Spoiler," she confesses. "I couldn't shop consciously that year. I kept thinking about it—and when I was given the assignment to pitch a social enterprise idea in one of my classes, I decided to address this problem." She pitched the concept of a store featuring sustainable and ethically produced merchandise. Her pitch was a bust; a traditional brick-and-mortar model was too costly for a lean start-up.
Houston and Kenney were frustrated, but they kept talking, determined to find a feasible solution for advocates of ethical shopping. "I felt, if I could align my career and food choices with my values," Kenney recalls, "why not my clothes?"
Alexandra Flanders had been wondering the same thing. The 30-year-old science teacher from Wilmington, Delaware, had been trying to shop ethically ever since her search for a conflict-free diamond for her engagement ring. New to personalized shopping services, Flanders took a chance on Wearwell and donated $340 to its Indiegogo campaign.
She hasn't regretted her investment. "It felt very special," Flanders says of her first Wearwell delivery, which included a tote, clutch, scarf, and a pair of bracelets. She was especially impressed with the bag: "I carry so much, I really need it to be durable."
Even for motivated shoppers like Flanders, conscious consumption can be challenging. For example, should you prioritize laborers' working conditions over the environmental cost of shipping an item halfway around the world? Are synthetic fibers made from recycled materials better or worse than organic natural fibers?
Like many consumers, Flanders doesn't have time to research these issues before springing for a dress or necklace. And she is happy to pay up for the service. "Every time I use my tote, I get compliments," she says. "And when I tell people about [Wearwell], they are usually interested. I'm so glad to have this avenue."
That's what Houston and Kenney want to hear. They know that social change happens incrementally and that raising awareness is half the battle. If Wearwell can help connect consumers with socially responsible brands and prove to the fashion industry that the market exists, the two women will have succeeded. Already they're finding their market—one blouse, one bag at a time.