People Over Profits: Meet the US Entrepreneurs Taking on Fast Fashion Producers

An image uploaded to Instagram by ethical fashion startup StyleSaint

It wasn’t that long ago that Allison Beal found herself visiting a fashion manufacturer in China and looking out over a pink river.

“I was standing in front of a river that was running hot pink because hot pink was trending in fashion,” she says.

The fashion industry is second only to the oil industry when it comes to environmental pollution. It’s also the number-one industry in the world for exploiting its workforce, and the second in terms of water consumption. Beal knew that after spending nearly a decade building brands in the fashion industry, she was also the problem.

“I would have an idea and fabric would appear,” she says. “I’d see a sample and we’d love it and we’d order it and it would appear. We would mail back and forth samples all over the world…. Neither the company nor the consumers were ever connected to the ghosts behind what makes fashion. And we definitely weren’t connected to the real people or the true costs of everything behind it.”

Beal also found that she was compounding the issue a consumer, drawn to the allure of trendy, cheap clothing that she bought for events before throwing them away a short time later.

“I didn’t like how I became a single-use shopper,” she says. “I didn’t realize what it was doing to the environment.”

With the aim of becoming part of the solution, Beal quit her job in the fashion business and co-founded the Los Angeles-based StyleSaint in 2013 with venture capitalist Brian Garrett of CrossCut Ventures. The startup is a women’s direct-to-consumer apparel brand dedicated to conscious commerce. It’s also one of a number of startups both in the U.S. and internationally working to make style sustainable in a world increasingly dominated by fast-fashion brands like the Sweden-based H&M, and Zara, which is owned by Spanish company Inditex.

H&M maintains 368 stores in the U.S. and plans to open 65 more this year, according to The New York Times. Primark, another fast-fashion brand that began in Dublin, Ireland, is pushing forward with plans to expand stateside with plans to open locations that will sell items for even less than H&M. Long-established but affordable brands like Gap are not managing to keep pace. The San Francisco-based company announced in early June that it would close a quarter of its 675 stores in the U.S. over the next few years as consumers gravitate toward cheaper prices and trendier albeit disposable pieces.

“I don’t want to compete with them on certain things that they do,” Beal says of brands like H&M, Forever21 and Zara. “I don’t like their business. I can’t wait for a future where there is no such thing as fast fashion. We’re about adding value; we’re about showing people how to extend the wear and re-wear and show versatility.”

 

Fast-fashion apparel, often made mostly of polyester and rayon, can be tossed from consumers’ wardrobes within a year, but can take more than 200 years to break down in landfill. In fact, U.S. consumers throw out an average of between 70 and 80 pounds of clothing per person each year.  

Beal landed with the same U.S.-based manufacturer that makes Maison Martin Margiela and Rag & Bone, which allows StyleSaint to produce runs of just a few dozen pieces per style, cutting out the waste that might be produced with typical minimum orders of thousands of pieces. Producing garments in the U.S. is unusual in the industry: some 97 percent of clothing purchased is manufactured overseas. 

Beal compares the urgent need to change the fashion industry to recent progress in the food business with the farm-to-table movement.

“We needed our farm-to-table movement in fashion,” she says. “I call it creator-to-closet. … What was once really niche for food—15 years ago, everyone thought organic was for rich people in L.A.—is now really normal.”

But consumers are still very discerning.

“It has to be easy, it has to be cute, it has to be affordable,” Beal says. “And then if it hits all those buckets, consumers will prefer to buy something that’s made ethically, sustainably, made better than the rest as long as it doesn’t hurt them in any way.”

Part fashion retailer, part Pinterest community, StyleSaint allows its community to create their own “tear sheets,” or style boards, influencing the upcoming offerings on the site that Beal will sell at accessible prices. 

Instead of raising funds with traditional backers in the fashion industry, Beal found support with venture capitalists who were intrigued by her direct-to-consumer approach.

“I asked, ‘What if we build a community and content first and then built a brand?’” she says. “When I was in the industry, we’d never talk to customers—only buyers. And when we finally got feedback from customers, it would be too late. We’d moved on….There was something broken about that.”

“We raised funds with traditional venture capitalists and they care most about the technology,” she says. “We’re being innovative in a trillion-dollar industry that hasn’t changed in forever. For VCs, it’s about, ‘Does this ideology relate to this Millennial girl?’ And they do see that.”

Technology also allows Beal to make her clothes affordable while paying workers $15 an hour in an industry that averages 18 cents per hour globally.

“Technology enables us to bypass middlemen and markup, go directly to consumers. We can take that margin that we’re saving from a retail market and invest it in higher-quality materials, better sourcing, better craftsmanship…we do 100 percent made-in-America. And we’re able to still keep the price of the garment, on average, $20 above Zara.”

 

Yet not every creator is able to successfully distribute their own products. To that end, there are also new startups catering to eco-conscious designers in search of a larger audience.

“It feels like we’re at a point where designers are really starting to talk about how they can make a difference,” says Véronique Lee, merchandising director and partner at sustainable shopping platform Modavanti. “Almost 90 percent of the care and the carbon footprint of a product is really determined at the design kit stage.”

David Dietz founded the New York-based Modavanti in 2012 as a one-stop destination for fashion-conscious consumers looking for sustainable designers. Earlier this year, Dietz called out the fashion industry on Huffington Post for not pressing for more sustainable design during New York’s Fashion Week.  

“There has been little mention of sustainability on fashion’s biggest stage,” complains Dietz in his blog post. “Meanwhile in places like London, Copenhagen, Melbourne and other international cities, sustainability is front and center.”

Lee says that younger shoppers are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of buying ethical and sustainable clothing.

“I think it’s in our culture now—certainly in the Millennials—to be more hip is to be more aware of what’s going on around us,” she says. “Modavanti is making it easier to find out about it.”

As with any sustainable fashion startup, one of the biggest challenges is changing how people shop.

“In any business, it’s a margin business. It’s about margin and it’s about production. How much can you move?” says Lee. “The [fast-fashion industry] has been able to do that by lowering their labor costs and by using cheaper materials and by having this constant sense of immediacy of fashion and sales. So we’ve programmed people to shop that way now. It’s not made to last long—it’s made to be disposable.”

A good reminder that there's more to clothes than the cost. #wearwhatmatters #knowwhomadeit

A post shared by Modavanti (@modavanti) on

 

Both StyleSaint and Modavanti help consumers track the ecoconsiousness of their purchases, a kind of brownie-points system customers can weave into the narrative about their clothing.

“We track three things on each piece of clothing for the consumer,” Beal says. “We track the watermark, how many gallons of water went into each piece. We track the fabric footprint…. We also have a ‘Karma Counter’ [showing] how much labor went into each piece and the pay that went into it.”

Modavanti offers up badges on products to help consumers find products that address their eco-concerns. The company also rewards customers with credits if they recycle their clothes with the help of their site.  

Like Beal, Lee draws a comparison with food: clothing is essential. But that doesn’t mean we should consume it mindlessly.

“Clothing is a basic necessity, just like food, and it draws from exactly the same thing: It draws from our natural resources,” Lee says. “We have the power as people to make these changes. And maybe that change doesn’t come from corporations.”