The experiences of sustainability-minded entrepreneurs have differed in the pandemic.
INDIE BRANDS PUT EYES ON ARTISANS: Tavia Azzinaro is the cofounder of Polite Worldwide, a new brand built on being “circular, connected and expressive,” and of course — “polite.”
Having launched earlier this year, COVID-19 presented its own set of challenges for the brand, including the postponement of “special projects.” Despite the setbacks, Polite recently did a limited-edition T-shirt collaboration for Plastic Free July with Atmos magazine and nonprofit Lonely Whale.
Polite uses natural and plant-based dyes — including indigo, turmeric, black tea and coffee — and practices water reduction techniques, upcycling a majority of fabrics and making most of their goods by hand in their Los Angeles studio.
For sustainability-focused e-tailer Fox Holt that launched July 21, transparency labels are key in conveying vendor standards — to which every brand on the site must meet criteria for at least two of the labels, including “eco-friendly,” “vegan,” “artisanal,” “made in the U.S.,” “Fair Trade,” “organic,” etc.
“Very few mindful designers can be ‘all of the things’ so to speak,” said Katy Rowley, cofounder of Fox Holt.
Established in 2015, young French footwear label PanAfrica is navigating the pandemic in a similar tempered approach as before despite battling longer lead times. Its predominantly “anti-fast fashion customer” has had no trouble accepting longer wait times given the uniqueness of the shoes, which are made in colorful wax print and batik designs.
In the words of Noa Nwande, the communications director of the brand: success is “trying to stay at the human scale.” Its recycled PET is sourced from France and Spain, while production happens in Morocco with “several partners” who directly benefit from investment toward job training.
In the U.S., a magnifying glass hovers over the unseen aspects of domestic apparel production — “made in the U.S.A.” no longer guarantees a checkbox for “sustainability” if the business doesn’t know who, where or how its goods are made.
“There is no such thing as ‘sustainability’ without safe working conditions and fair wages, whether that be within the United States or elsewhere in the world,” reiterated Rowley.
A NEW KIND OF SUSTAINABLE ENTREPRENEUR: “Van lifers” like Ben Redar and Jennelle Eliana, who boasts a pet snake and an impressive 2.4 million subscribers, and YouTube channels like Exploring Alternatives have opened up a new type of sustainable influencer, many of whom are hustling a side venture.
Redar shares the inner workings of his life in the YouTube series “DogCatManVan,” where some 26,000 subscribers follow his adventures — including the trials of managing a skate shoe brand ANMLY, which he launched in December.
Without hesitation, starting a footwear business from the ground up “has been a lot more challenging” with van life being more of “a by-product,” initially a way to save money, he said.
Since the pandemic, views have been up for the content, but the bigger issue for his brand was the imminent shutdown of retail — where the majority of brand sales derive.
“The entire skate shop scene has been struggling for a while now,” Redar said, adding: “I’d love to continue to grow our online sales as well as our sales through shops.”
Pandemic aside, the brand had to shelve certain sustainability initiatives due to ill-fitting vendors. “Luckily we’ve moved into a new factory where I hope we can incorporate some of our more ‘green’ friendly ideas, including making a skate shoe entirely out of scrap material,” Redar said.