Let's talk about Sustainability•
Posted on March 22 2018
Sustainability. It's hard to know where to start on this topic. It seems to really be looming over the retail and fashion industries at the moment, and I think that's really exciting, but I still feel some confusion and hesitation from consumers. So I wanted to touch on the subject, how I've come to know it and practice it, and how it led me create Burke Mercantile.
Before starting Burke, and before working for local, small businesses as I have for the year leading up to Burke's launch, I worked for a Urban Outfitters for eight years. My experience with Urban is ultimately what led me to my passions for personal style and dreams of having my own shop one day, and gave me so many incredible tools to be successful in that endeavor (along with introducing me to some of my best friends)! While Urban is technically grouped in to the "fast fashion" category, I still think there are many things about the company that set it apart, and they've led the way in so many aspects of the business.
I really began to explore this topic myself when I first joined instagram. I signed up for and got my first instagram account about mid-way through my time at Urban. I had never done much social media outside of Facebook - no twitter, no Tumblr, no Pinterest. So instagram kind of became all those channels rolled into one for me and became a source of discovery and inspiration. Through some independent, and higher end clothing and accessory brands I had come to know through work, I began to discover more and more artists, brands, designers and shops. It was like a never-ending portal to all the creatives in the world! My wardrobe had been compiled of about 90% Urban, Free People, & Anthropologie goods (which DO also have some really amazing independent brands included), and maybe 10% Zara & vintage. But I was discovering a whole new community of brands and fashion, particularly smaller, independent brands that were creating really unique products and seasonless collections, and using natural fabrics with quality construction. I began to also discover companies like Need Supply and later Garmentory (which I'm ecstatic that Burke is now featured on!!) that housed so many of these brands together and really had this elegant, minimal, classic feel. I had fallen down a rabbit hole and brand & shop discovery was my new passion. I started making "small shop city lists" where I would list all the small boutiques and shops I followed on Instagram in different cities, which carried these independent designers. So upon visiting some of these cities, namely Austin and Portland, I set a day aside to drive around the city and be sure to visit them all. I started to familiarize myself with these brands and was gaining inspiration from all these beautifully curated shops. I was hooked. There was just one problem - I couldn't "afford" it.
I would ooh and ahh and tell everyone I knew about these brands and what amazing quality they were and suggest them to friends asking for shopping help, etc., but I wasn't really even buying them myself. I had a healthy employee discount at Urban that allowed me to get cheap fashion even cheaper, and I didn't have extra income (or at least I didn't think I did) to drop a hundred or a couple hundred dollars on ONE piece when I could get 5 pieces for the same price at work. And I did this for AWHILE. But one rainy Cyber Monday I waited for Need Supply's 25% off site wide sale to finally bite the bullet and buy the Rachel Comey Legion jeans I had been crying and swooning over for over a year. And when they arrived and I slipped them on, and they just so happened to fit like a glove and feel like magic, I realized, THESE WERE WORTH EVERY PENNY. And now that I mention it, I'm actually sitting here writing this in that same pair of jeans I bought in 2015 and I'm still wearing them at the very minimum once a week! So I spent $300 on this one pair of jeans that I've worn well over 300 times and will probably still wear over 300 MORE times before they even start to wear out - I'd say that's getting your money's worth.
After that, I found myself nearly every day reaching for these same jeans even though I had 20 other fast fashion options in the closet. I found myself wearing my fast fashion purchases maybe once or twice before I was over them and selling them or donating to second hand stores, or even just throwing them out. Some of them simply started to fall apart or stain or shrink or wash weird after a few wears & washes. They just weren't meant to last. It was essentially creating waste. As I found more pieces from these higher end brands that I wanted, I found that I was willing to sell 10-20 fast fashion pieces in my closet to make enough money to buy one quality item I knew would last. And that's kind of where everything changed for me.
I've now slowly worked to build a wardrobe that I will want to wear for years to come, and that will out-live quick trends. I've stuck to buying products in fabrications that are natural, that feel good, and/or that hold up over time like leather, cotton, and linen. Anything that says rayon or polyester I automatically exclude it as an option. Moving into a studio apartment also has helped me SO much to keep my wardrobe meaningful and minimal. I don't have much room to collect a lot, so whenever I would find something new of value that I wanted, it would force me to do a closet clean out where I would sell or donate some goods in order to justify buying something new. It's been a long process to get used to, but I've been so pleased with the results.
As my transition to slow fashion has continued to evolve, it's been really exciting to see brands evolve as well. Transparency has become a huge topic. More and more brands are starting to be very transparent in showing their customers where their products are being made, how their products are being made, and who is making their products. This has led to a movement of customers also starting to hold brands accountable for these practices, and beginning to demand sustainable materials, ethical production, fair labor practices, and transparent pricing. I personally love to hear from brands that are doing this, to read about how and why they are committed to these principles, and how they are slowly changing the industry by steering it in this direction. One of the brands REALLY leading the way with this in every single way is Elizabeth Suzann. I was first inspired to write on this topic based on a lengthy blog post she wrote regarding these issues and how her own brand functions in these aspects. I HIGHLY encourage you to read her full blog post here as she touches on sooo many interesting and important points! She also breaks down the price of one of her tops that they design and produce that is prices around $185 and where each dollar of that price goes to. It's a good perspective if you have the tendency, like me, to automatically think those kinds of prices are outrageous. Here's the photo from the post, as a sneak peek.
The entire post is amazing and informational, so I encourage you to explore it in its entirety! Read it here: https://elizabethsuzann.com/bl
Despite all of this transparency by brands and accountability by consumers, and despite the growing movement toward slow fashion, I do see majority of society still stuck in this fast fashion mindset. We have the assumption that when it comes to clothes, we want to get the highest quantity for our money, and that brands charging higher price points must just be out for profits or trying to rip us off, instead of really asking why or doing the research to find out why brands are charging the prices they do. And with the H&M's, Forever 21's and even Target's of the world continuing to produce clothing in bulk, for cheap, and often times stealing the designs of small artists and designers, it's just a cultural mindset that is going to take awhile to shift. But it really is just that, a mindset shift.
One great comparison I think we can make is with the food industry. We have had a huge cultural mindset shift in the food industry. Hell, I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio eating meat, potatoes, bread and fast food. So much heavy food that was unhealthy and also not great for the environment. If you told me even two years ago that I'd be vegetarian I'd have told you you were crazy, but here I am! I will note, California makes it super easy to be vegetarian or vegan as the options available are endless! But as more and more knowledge gets out about pesticides, chemicals, farming practices, etc. that not only hurt our health but the environment, there has been a massive demand for healthier, organic, and natural foods. So many restaurants are creating healthy alternatives, even fast food chains. Veganism is becoming widespread. Raw, natural food diets are changing peoples lives who are sick. And honestly, the main reason I decided to try being vegetarian was when I found out how bad the meat industry was for the environment (Yes, I also know the treatment of animals in the meat industry is a huge concern as well, but in full transparency, that reason alone had not yet been able to sway me)! Everyone I know is on board with this movement, and the higher demand there is for these goods, the more food companies are changing to head in this direction. It's been kind of incredible to witness. And there's still a long way to go, but the mindset shift has happened and has been so strong that people will pay more for better quality food without question. In fact, they WANT to.
So why is it, that when it comes to things like food, or beauty products, or cleaning products, we naturally are willing to pay more for something that is good for us, good for the environment, and is going to last, but when it comes to our wardrobes - we aren't? Our wardrobes are not only a way to express ourselves, but they are a necessity. We get dressed every. single. day. We wear at least one outfit every. single. day. We need different clothes for work, for making art, for dates, for business meetings, for special occasions, for lounging. Our clothes are often how we give off our first impressions, they tell a story about who we are. I mean, think about any vintage items you have in your wardrobe. Maybe hand me downs from parents or grandparents that have lasted for decades and that you treasure. Think about how often we say, "they just don't make them like they used to" or "I'll never have anything to pass down to my kids". Well guess what, they DO and you CAN! And I think all it takes, is a mindset shift. I love this article recently posted from our friends at Garmentory that describes these independent designers' work as the FUTURE vintage. I love that. I couldn't even count the number of times my mother has said when I bought something new, "oh my gosh, I totally had that or something just like that when I was your age, I should have kept it". Or the day my aunt gifted me her favorite pair of Levi's 501s from her college days in the early 80s that fit me perfect and were just PERFECTLY worn out. And I would think, what pieces in my closet are going to withstand the test of time and trends to be passed down to my nieces 20 years from now?! How fun not only to be buying quality wardrobe staples that will last me years and make me feel great, but how fun to be building a wardrobe of the future vintage that the next generation will be coveting! Really makes you think carefully about your purchases! Here's a link to the Garmentory article on that: https://www.garmentory.com/style-ish/how-to-invest-in-future-vintage#sm.000048x1gihxje02uws1jq2xy8imc
We should be putting more thought into our wardrobe purchases, we should be supporting brands that are protecting the earth, creating jobs, and skillfully creating product made to fit well and last for years to come. And so many of those brands exist, and so many more are trying to - but it is expensive for these brands to stay true to these practices when competing against big corporate retailers who don't. But if we as consumers make ethical choices to support ethical brands, they can continue to grow and be successful, and the industry will eventually change and adapt.
As I've joined this movement, it has led to me starting Burke with this mindset. I was finding myself having to drive to LA, or shop online, to find and try on and buy these brands and this type of product. And honestly, one of the best things about buying from these brands is being able to see and feel the quality of them by trying them on in person. I've seen the movement and the demand continue to grow and I realized that these brands and this type of product did not widely exist in my area in Long Beach, or even the Orange County area where the demand does exist. And that is why I'll be bringing my brick + mortar to my own neighborhood and community of Long Beach, to help facilitate this movement at the local level. I can't wait to sell some of my own favorite brands and pieces, and share the missions behind my brands with my community. Everything I bring into the shop will be something I believe in or be made by someone that I believe in. And I hope everyone will fall in love with these things as much as I have!
I look forward to continuing this discussion with my brands, my customers, and other shops and business owners to see how it grows and evolves. And I will always be looking for ways to become more accessible to help facilitate this cultural shift to mindful shopping. One idea I'm toying with is layaway. I remember putting bathing suits on layaway at Lucky brand stores when I was in high school and saving up money at my job to go make payments every week until I could take the suit home. I'm not sure how it is possible yet or how it would work, or if there's a better way. But I know cost and accessibility is the biggest piece holding people back from making this mindset shift, so I'm open to suggestions and thoughts! I'll leave you with another snippet from another inspiring shop that I follow, Shop Johan based in Portland. I think it's great advice on how to get started if you're interested in taking the plunge into slow fashion!
To conclude, here's a little info on just a few of the brands here at Burke, how they are leading the way in efforts of sustainability and ethical production, and why I'm proud to carry them and support them! You'll see how when you spend a little more on a product from brands like these, you aren't only buying a quality item for yourself, you're also helping the environment, and farmers, and labor workers, etc. It really means so much more.
Founded in 2007 by Gosia Piatek and based in New Zealand, Kowtow is a conscious label with a strong design philosophy and innate sense of comfort. Described as minimalist and effortless, the Kowtow aesthetic is inspired by Gosia’s interests in art, architecture, culture, craftsmanship, landscapes and her own travels.
Their collections are entirely made with sustainably and ethically sourced organic cotton materials from tags to trim to fabrics. All Kowtow garments are certified by non-profit internationally recognized organizations. All of their fabrics are designed in-house: color, weave, prints, stripes & checks. Their custom fabrics take 12 months to be designed and developed for production.
All their cotton is certified by Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International (FLO). Fairtrade empowers farmers to negotiate with buyers to secure better prices for their cotton. Every season, certified farmer groups receive a premium to be spent on community projects such as medical costs, irrigation schemes to conserve rainwater, books and clothes for school children, farmer education, training and upgrades.
Their cotton is organically farmed and free from genetically modified seeds to benefit the soil, cotton and farmers. Crops are rain-fed and hand-picked. Organic farming is achieved through companion planting, crop rotations and on-site green waste composting to eliminate the use of chemicals harmful to farmers and their families. Cotton is a sustainable, recyclable and biodegradable fiber.
They work with FLO certified manufacturers in India, from Kolkata to Mumbai. Over this time, they have built close relationships with them and visit twice a year. Even if crops get low or prices go up, the brand continues working solely with their few farms and manufacturers to ensure they continue to receive work and fair wages, as opposed to looking for cheaper options.
Learn more here : https://nz.kowtowclothing.com/pages/from-seed-to-garment
Signe is a completely sustainable and future-oriented brand, built from a wish of designing minimalist easywear with a completely honest and transparent design process. The entire design process from creative designing to production and finishing is gathered under one roof, in their own studio in Denmark, from where all collections are produced and shipped directly. This ensures full control of all parameters and quality of the entire process. All fabrics used are organically certified and produced at a small family-run factory in Turkey. This furthermore covers all aspects of their value-chain sustainably and all aspects from cutting strategies, care-labels to hangtags, and packaging, and printed materials are sourced with sustainability in mind.
Carleen is a Los Angeles based womenswear collection designed by Kelsy Parkhouse (ALSO a Long Beach native!), who draws influence from her Southern California upbringing, folk-art motifs, fine art inspiration, and commitment to domestic manufacturing. Kelsy founded Carleen in May of 2012 after receiving positive reviews for her thesis collection at Pratt Institute where she also received the inaugural Liz Claiborne Concept to Product Award. Her founding collection drew inspiration from the handmade American quilt, a textile that continues to inform the Carleen aesthetic both visually and metaphorically. Kelsy has recognized that one of the biggest environmental costs of the fashion industry is shipping, and she aims to keep her money closer to where she lives by producing domestically. She also wants to know who is making her clothes, make sure their conditions are great working conditions, and that fair labor standards and regulations are in place. Kelsy talks more about her brand and principles through her recent interview with Tom Clothes and Goods which you can read here: https://tomclothesandgoods.com/blogs/stories/meet-the-makers-kelsy-parkhouse-x-carleen-vol-2