For Candice Stewart Collison, a background in technology helped her create a solution aimed at helping consumers easily find products that are sustainably produced or made in America.
Stewart Collison is founder and chief executive officer of Mod + Ethico, a bricks-and-mortar and e-commerce store dedicated to American-made, sustainable and “slow fashion” apparel based in Chicago. She is also a full-time client solutions manager at Facebook, and has also worked for Google as an analytical lead in large customer sales, as well as an interactive marketing manager at The North Face.
Here, Collison talks to WWD about founding Mod + Ethico, the company’s core principles and her outlook on sustainable fashion trends.
WWD: How has your exposure to the high-tech environments at Facebook and Google influenced your pursuit of fashion e-commerce?
Candice Stewart Collison: Exposure to technology helped me find the solution to my problem with the fashion industry: lack of access or ease to shop responsibly. On one shopping trip to a major department store, I found myself looking at the tag inside of every garment that drew my eye, checking to see where something was made. That was a lightbulb moment for me. I recognized that there was not a streamlined way to shop American-made, and I was determined to create an e-commerce destination that enabled a more conscious way to shop for modern, everyday pieces.
My background in e-commerce allowed me to support large brands in their e-commerce and digital marketing efforts; Mod + Ethico became the convergence of my tech background and my passion. My expertise in analytics and code allowed me to get started on my site right away, without hiring external support.
WWD: How did your experience at The North Face impact your sustainability and technology initiatives?
C.S.C.: The North Face was an incredible adventure through which I honed my digital expertise, learned about corporate sustainability and developed strong ties to the outdoors. The North Face is committed to corporate sustainability from the ground up; we did not accept disposable flatware or plates for catering meetings; we all used reusable cups, mugs, etc. during meals. We composted. The North Face was also in the process of building a new campus during my tenure and was seeking LEED certification.
The company also partnered with organizations to preserve regional parks, and sponsored films produced for the Banff Mountain Festival to spark an emotional connection between people and threatened natural resources.
At The North Face I learned that for-profit business and sustainability can coexist. Sustainability in fashion and in retail operations are principles for which I have developed a deep passion. From a technology perspective, The North Face also exposed me to innovation in eco-friendly product development. They, along with other leading outdoor brands, have pioneered sustainability in fashion and they’ve done so at scale.
At Mod + Ethico, we are increasingly seeking brands that not only meet our labor standards, quality and aesthetic — but are equally focused on those that incorporate sustainable and eco-friendly standards within their production process and fabrics.
WWD: How big of a role does technology play in Mod + Ethico’s product and textile choices?
C.S.C.: Technology facilitates all research and outreach between Mod + Ethico and new brands and textile considerations. New brands reach me via Instagram, and I find several new brands in the same way; I then use either Instagram Direct Message or e-mail to connect. One of my closest partnerships with Chicago-based Suki + Solaine started with a connection on Instagram. I often search NUorder (an online wholesale marketplace) filtering by product category, style and eco-friendly. This is an amazing tool for discovering new brands. I consult Google Trends to understand consumer demand in the space; what issues concern them in fashion based on search trends?
Finally, I research textiles and study the story behind brands when I am making sourcing decisions. The future development of Mod + Ethico hinges on the access to technologies that have only been around for a handful of years; technology has been, and will be paramount to our growth.
WWD: What is Mod + Ethico’s method for procuring new designers?
C.S.C.: We rely heavily on the transparency of brands, and the stories they share on their web sites and in their product information that give me confidence in their alignment with our brand standards. We have the privilege of visiting the manufacturing facilities for several of the Chicago-based designers we stock, and see the environments in which the designers and tailors work. We are also well-informed about the source of the textiles from these local designers, perhaps not the source of the raw materials, but we are peeling away at the topic.
When we first launched in late 2015, we focused on American-made as our primary principle, which posed a sourcing challenge initially. I attended trade shows, and conducted competitive research to identify designers who still cut and sew in the U.S. Once I began partnering with a few showrooms, my options began opening — oftentimes a showroom with represent a portfolio of like-minded brands, which simplified my early process. I seek fair-trade and organic or recycled standards for any international brands.
When I first launched, I was more interested that the cutting and sewing took place in the U.S., and was less sensitive to the origins of the fabrics. Now, that’s almost reversed. Today I am supremely concerned with the both the working conditions of the garment workers, but also equally concerned with the fabrics: water consumption in dyeing, natural fibers, organic, recycled materials, and low CO2 emission processes. I rely heavily on the designers and brands to share information with me, and this is an ongoing endeavor.
WWD: What is your outlook on the current market for made in the U.S. and sustainable brands and trends?
C.S.C.: There are a few trends that I’ve been drawn to recently, some of which do not shout “sustainable” at first glance, but help reduce over consumption. In the activewear and casual contemporary space, there are several brands emerging in the U.S. These brands are interesting both aesthetically, and how they approach production.
We are seeing more eco-friendly options that fit and feel great within high performance active wear. Brands are using either remnant raw materials and repurposing, or using post-consumer-recycled materials for materials like Nylon and Polyblends to help reduce waste and reliance on the petroleum industry. The activewear brands that I find most interesting are incorporating these materials into their production, and I hope these trends continue.
[There is a movement toward] reducing waste in production and procurement. A couple of new brands that we are bringing into our assortment: For Better Not Worse and Joah Brown allow for flexible buying, which I believe cuts out waste and the need to drive deep discounts in the system. As a retailer, you are able to buy lean; the consumer is offered product at full-price, and are buying only what they love, not cluttering their lives based on the lure of inexpensive clothing. This is slow, mindful fashion.
[We are also seeing a] shift toward sustainable naturally derived fibers. I have discovered fabrics such as Tencel, bamboo and hemp. All three of these materials are less water-reliant than cotton. Tencel uses less water, and is also comprised of nano-fibers which gives it antibacterial properties — leading to less washing and more water conservation. It’s incredibly soft, and you will see several chambray options made with Tencel. Bamboo grows quickly, uses less water than cotton, and makes for an incredibly soft fabric.
Finally, clothing with hemp fibers; hemp is a very soft yet resilient fiber, and creates beautiful clothing that can stand the test of time. However, it was illegal to farm industrial hemp in the U.S. until somewhat recently since it was classified as a controlled substance; as of 2016, 31 states are now permitting farming of industrial hemp. These technological and policy evolutions mean greater eco-friendly options in fashion, which is a positive trend for fashion and the planet.