Photographs by Caitlin Abrams
Spoils of Wear owner Jill Erickson
When more than 1,100 garment workers making clothes for many popular fast fashion brands died in the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh (a building not designed to hold factory machinery) in 2013, Emma Olson knew what she had to do. She started researching fast fashion alternatives, and eventually left her corporate job with Target to open a sustainable fashion boutique.
“It was a wake-up moment for me—people were literally dying to make our clothes,” says Olson, whose store, Hazel & Rose, opened last year in the Broadway Building, also home to Spyhouse in Northeast. “When I’m buying for the store, I want to know where it’s made and how it’s made.”
Like “organic” in the food industry and “natural” in beauty, “sustainable” is becoming a buzzword in fashion. But perhaps even more than those other popular catch phrases, “sustainable” is somewhat vague. “Customers tend to think it’s more focused on the environment,” says Jill Erickson, owner of Spoils of Wear, another new sustainable boutique in St. Paul. She discovered sustainable fashion on Instagram. “To me the most important thing is the human aspect of it.” While that seems to be the general consensus, she points out that her denim is made with a process that reduces the use of water and energy from standard production. She also carries shirts by United By Blue, a company that removes a pound of trash from the ocean for every item purchased.
“It’s not necessarily good that there are multiple definitions for sustainable,” Olson says. “It forces me to continually keep my eyes open.”
Sustainable is a movement without an official organization—although some of the major apparel industry trade shows have started devoting a section specifically to sustainable brands. Still, there’s no regulation, no list of qualifications. But the intention of retailers embracing the term is clear: to hold clothing brands accountable for the process of manufacturing, and to support brands that pay a living wage, uphold safe practices, and choose eco-friendly materials and methods.
Ethos Collection is a new Minneapolis-based online retailer committed to ethically sourced and sustainable goods.
“I wanted to use my skills toward giving back,” says Ethos founder Sara Aubitz, a former Target merchant. “There’s a trend toward mindfulness in every aspect of life. As we become a more global society people are more aware of how their actions impact the earth, how consumerism impacts the earth. My mission is even broader: I want to make sure we’re mindful throughout the entire supply chain.”
As Aubitz points out, even in today’s automated world, people still make most of our clothes. Because apparel is labor intensive, the work tends to go where labor is cheapest, and where there aren’t labor laws for protection. Beyond supporting fair trade and United States manufacturing, Aubitz donates a portion of Ethos revenue to micro-lending. She’s partnered with the nonprofit Kiva to provide small loans to women and single parents in developing countries.
“An amazing thing to think about: my 13-year-old has a bank account, but people in some parts of the world don’t have access to save and borrow the smallest amounts of money,” Aubitz says. “I wanted to figure out a way for people in the supply chain to have a dignified way to lift themselves out of poverty. My goal is to have the impact grow at a faster rate than my business.”
Of course the guiding principles of sustainable fashion are not new. Key North Boutique has been committed since it opened in Northeast a decade ago. “When we first started asking the questions about the suppliers we met, they didn’t have a clue what we meant by sustainable,” says Gwen Engelbert, co-owner of Key North. “Now, everybody has their story posted on their website—how the product is made, where, what material.”
That shift is making it easier for sustainable retailers to differentiate themselves, and cultivate their own look while sticking to their mission. Hazel & Rose is the most fashion-forward of the local bunch, focused on emerging design labels with a minimalist, architectural bent. Spoils of Wear is a bit more casual, appealing to everyone from neighborhood moms to area college students.
“I think it’s really important to have things that are current—that almost resemble fast fashion, without being fast fashion,” Spoils of Wear’s Erickson says.
Fair trade lines produced outside the U.S. make it possible for Spoils of Wear to offer dresses that retail for less than $100. But there’s no question: shopping with a purpose carries a higher price tag.
“When a price seems too good to be true, it probably is,” Aubitz says. “Fifty dollars for a T-shirt may need to be the new norm. But it doesn’t have to be $200.”
As with most trends in fashion, sustainable comes from the top with high-end designers, and is slowly trickling down to the masses.
“There are some less-expensive alternatives out there,” says Olson of Hazel & Rose, who suggests buying secondhand. “With my shop, I’m intentionally trying to elevate. I think a lot of people are coming to value quality over quantity.”
Fashion Revolution Week, April 24–30
It’s the closest thing the sustainable fashion community has to an organization. Fashion Revolution Week challenges shoppers to “become more curious about how clothes are made and who made them.” The week includes events around the world and a call to action for consumers to contact brands and ask questions. There’s even a hashtag: #whomademyclothes. fashionrevolution.org