Are you thinking about starting a fashion business? That was me, four years ago in 2018.
This is the WHY and HOW I started my small sun protection clothing and accessories fashion label.
And WHY I chose to produce locally in small batch with sustainability at the forefront of my business decisions.
Hear what I learned along the way and how I transformed my small business into a sustainable brand and chose to produce local in small batch.
I share several tips for start up fashion businesses to source responsible, sustainable textiles and fabric materials within the clothing and apparel industry.
Here's the video - I hope this helps you.
(Continue to scroll down to see helpful links for getting started on your sourcing journey to create a sustainable fashion label.)
My name is Sharone and my fashion brand is HELIADES - I design and make sun protection apparel and accessories with an elevated street wear look and a bit of attitude mixed in. My ideal customer is skin, health and style conscious, eco-aware, and wants to sun protect their skin every day.
Everything I make is with materials that are certified UPF 50+ and OEKO-TEX, and I look for partners who demonstrate active commitment to decreasing their carbon footprint. Additionally, I try to up-cycle unused fabric and make Spirit Flowers and zippered storage bags from unused or leftover fabric with the goal to keep as much materials as possible out of landfill.
I’ve officially been in business as HELIADES for about 4 years now - however I’d been refining the idea for my small business for many years prior.
How my fashion business idea came about.
I have tattoos on my arms, and you may know that UV light breaks down ink faster. So I always wear sunscreen over my tatts, however I learned that sunscreen breaks down and needs to be reapplied throughout the day. Sunscreen transfers easily to your clothing, stains and gets all over other surfaces.
So I started looking for cool UV sleeves to wear on a daily basis. This sent me down a UV sun exposure/skin damage research rabbit hole, and then I arrived at the realization that I should probably start sun protecting my skin daily - not just my arms, but particularly my neck, chest, shoulders and face daily.
Shopping for UV sleeves I couldn’t find much sun protection apparel that looks suitable to wear with street clothing. So there I identified the need, and I decided to make my own and see if there is demand for this/if there are other people like me who are skin, health, and style conscious.
So that is the jump off point where desire and need forged my brand and identity.
Why I started a business.
In terms of why I started a business, on a personal level it was always my dream to have my own business, and to just have the guts to give it a try and possibly fail which is better than to have never even tried. And to be honest, it's hard to find a balanced job opportunity that’s fulfilling and pays enough to cover childcare, with a flexible work environment friendly about raising kids. So there was a practical element to this decision besides having the product category idea and the dream to just try.
In terms of funding to get started, I've always believed in having a side hustle, and prior to this endeavor I had my own hand made jewelry line that I sold at trunk shows. This helped me gain confidence to take this plunge and begin, and this also provided me seed money to start.
And, I don’t regret trying. In fact I love it! It's all the things, it’s fulfilling, challenging, frustrating, rewarding. You’re always learning and pivoting, and it’s so creative and exciting. It’s also stressful at times and everyone suffers bouts of imposter syndrome; that’s just part of being a fashion entrepreneur.
Local production, sustainability, and small batch.
Prior to March 2020 before the pandemic began, I had already decided to produce locally. My reasoning was that I wanted to be hands on with the process and make sure the quality of the work was good and consistent. And, it’s a great way to observe and learn.
But remember what happened at the start of the pandemic — the supply chain was interrupted. The freight ships were out of position in the wrong ports, and the moving of goods - raw materials as well as finished goods - literally was paused. And every factory was shut down everywhere - both domestic and overseas.
btw, two years later we are still feeling the supply chain effects today, both as consumers and as a small business. I think all this helped fast track the movement that was already happening for consumers to buy local, and the trend is now mainstream in consumers’ minds. I think there’s more awareness and I think it’s wise for new businesses to explore local production.
"COVID-19 is having a significant effect on the fashion industry, disrupting value chains, closing many of the world’s retail outlets and creating a new level of public awareness over health, safety and the fragility of the planet. It has forced brands and upstream players to take difficult decisions every day, from managing cash flows, to rethinking distribution models and acting to protect the health of employees and consumers alike." -- McKinsey Fashion On Climate ReportBenefits of local production.
You have more control of inventory as well as quality. It’s good for our local economy, as it keeps jobs and families employed here in the Bay Area. And, know that many of the factories - their workers are highly skilled and aging out so the more we can support them, the more they can invest in resources and continue to provide us with options.
I mentioned that the fashion industry is new to me and especially in the beginning I did a ton of research on textiles manufacturing and clothing production - and I got educated on how much pollution our industry contributes to the global climate crisis.
And I realized that even as a small, boutique brand, I can do my small part because
Sustainabiilty is no longer an option, it is an obligation.
According to the McKinsey Fashion On Climate report, the fashion industry was responsible for 2.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018.
When you’re sourcing try to be mindful of who you’re buying from and what their practices and standards are. Do the research and ask a lot of questions!
Many textile mills have set high standards for eliminating harmful substances at every step of the supply chain to ensure their products are safe in the environment as well as for the workers who produce and for the consumer wearing.
Many are switching to using renewable energy to produce (solar panels, recycling their water), and getting certified that no harmful chemicals, hard metals and contaminants enter the waterways during their manufacturing process.
Some are setting goals for reducing their carbon footprint and report annually. Look for the ones that don’t just say it, they do it and they prove it.
Here are three things to look for:
1) Look for manufacturers and factories that are Bluesign SYSTEM Partners.
"In 1997, in Switzerland, an effort was made to develop a textile product with the lowest possible environmental burden, resource-improving production as well as augmented safety for workers and consumers. In order to make this concept accessible to as many textile companies as possible, an independent company was formed from the project: BLUESIGN. The founding goal was to motivate suppliers, manufacturers and top brands to reduce the overall footprint of textiles, with a particular focus on the chemicals used."
Here is a list of Bluesign SYSTEM Partner brands and manufacturers.
And here is an overview of criteria required of Bluesign SYSTEM Partners
2) Look for textiles and materials that are certified Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX.What is it exactly?
OEKO-TEX standards are a third party verification process which test for harmful substances, chemicals, and heavy metals including those unregulated in the fashion industry.
"The test is conducted by our independent OEKO-TEX® partner institutes on the basis of our extensive OEKO-TEX® criteria catalog. In the test they take into account numerous regulated and non-regulated substances, which may be harmful to human health. In many cases the limit values for the STANDARD 100 go beyond national and international requirements. The criteria catalog is updated at least once a year and expanded with new scientific knowledge or statutory requirements."
There are several OEKO-TEX standards, not just the Standard 100, each with tons of free downloads that list all the harmful chemicals, substances and heavy metals tested for with stated limited levels.
If you're sourcing, you can search the OEKO-TEX database to identify factories, components and textile manufacturers who are certified by OEKO-TEX.
OEKO-TEX buying guide: https://www.oeko-tex.com/en/buying-guide
So for example, I know that the thread we use and our buttons are both OEKO-TEX certified. Our buttons are not made of plastic, they’re made from tagua nut and are sustainably sourced.
3) Look for GRS (Global Recycling Standard), another third party verification system for textiles made of recycled materials.
"The GRS is an international, voluntary, full product standard that sets requirements for third-party certification of recycled content, chain of custody, social and environmental practices and chemical restrictions.
The objectives of the GRS are to define requirements to ensure accurate content claims and good working conditions, and that harmful environmental and chemical impacts are minimized.
The shared goal of the standards is to increase the use of recycled materials. The GRS includes additional criteria for social and environmental processing requirements and chemical restrictions."
When sourcing materials, ask what certifications the manufacturer holds. Keep in mind the GRS standard is only applicable for recycled fabrics and components.
This list of GRS certified suppliers includes a search function.
Specific to HELIADES, in addition to Bluesign, OEKO-TEX and GRS, I also researched how our fabric textiles are made because it turns out there are different ways to make fabric sun protective.
1) Chemical finishes may be added to the finished garment or the finished fabric, or
2) Sun protection is woven into the thread and fabric is woven tightly to create a physical barrier.
Sounds familiar, like the chemical vs. physical sunscreens we wear.
So even though it costs more, it’s better for the environment and for my customer’s wallet in the long run for me to produce with fabric that has permanent, inherent sun protective qualities (certified UPF 50+) that won’t wash out in their laundry and don’t release chemicals into their skin -- or into our waterways. And our fabric is also OEKO-TEX certified, and either Bluesign SYSTEM, REACH or ISO 14001 certified to meet global sustainability standards.
And yes, absolutely, going this route does cost more. And that’s one reason why producing in small batch has its benefits.
There are so many benefits to producing in small batches. It's better for the environment, and small batch enables you to control your costs as well as preserve the ability to pivot. It enables you to be tight with your inventory and remember, when you’re small and lean you can pivot to market needs.
For example, think back to March 2020 when everything was shut down with the stay at home order.
Well, pivoting to fabric mask production enabled factories to re-open as an essential service/business — and for two years fabric masks became a hot product category and a reason for consumers to come to your website and take a look and buy.
If you had an overseas production model you couldn’t pivot nearly as fast, and your goods might be stuck on a freight ship in, say, the port of Los Angeles.
So suddenly for me, a small business producing locally, like everyone else I was able to quickly get into the fabric mask business and my message was,
If you have to wear a mask to protect yourself and others, why not wear one that protects your skin as well?
And with that messaging I was able to increase my brand awareness and audience.
And then, just like that.
In Fall 2021 the CDC recommended surgical masks or N95s be worn rather than fabric masks. And poof! Fabric mask production and demand vastly diminished then all but disappeared.
If you produce small batch and locally you have more control of your inventory and resources and thus reduce the risk of waste sent to landfill - which doesn’t break down without doing irreparable harm to the environment (gas emissions, air quality, micro plastics in the ocean, air, etc). I have one fabric face mask left in my inventory.
So it’s a conscious decision to do this. And it will cost more, and therefore you will have to charge more for your goods.
However, consumer awareness continues to change and evolve, and they’re watching and asking questions. Millennials want to know where their goods are coming from, what's in it and if it's safe.
If you go the sustainable route it means you have a vastly different game plan than SHEIN and other fast fashion brands like Zara that promote the throwaway culture and inexpensive, cheaply made clothing. And, I think as a society we’re moving away from this.
“Two thirds of consumers say it has become even more important to limit climate change following COVID-19." -- McKinsey Fashion On Climate Report
I’ve not regretted my decision to launch my brand, and to go in this direction. My conscience (my eco-conscience!) is clear.
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Original content shared with Fashion Design and Merchandising students of Cañada College in Redwood City, CA by @getHeliGirl. February 2022.