Building a Sustainable Fashion and Lifestyle Brand

Published on June 6, 2021

The fashion industry is the second largest consumer of the world’s water supply and emits 10 percent of all carbon emissions. According to the WWF, the industry emits 1.7 billion tons of CO2 annually contributing to global warming, pollution and extremely high volumes of water used for growing raw materials, not to mention toxic chemicals and 2.1 billion tons of waste produced.   

I recently sat down with Elyse Kaye, founder of Bloom Bras and an experienced product development executive who has spent decades working with factories across the globe on behalf of companies like Procter and Gamble, Black & Decker, and Nine West. One thing that was key for Kaye in launching Bloom Bras, an activewear line for curvy women, was ensuring that the factory where her line was being manufactured have a sustainable focus. Finding a more environmentally-friendly solution that matched her values became a top priority. 

Elyse Kaye Grit Daily

It was imperative to find a match to my brand values in quality, sustainability, and excellence. Additionally important, a partner, with great communications and a vast knowledge of the world of technical sports bras.

Elyse Kaye, Founder Bloom Bras

Obstacles Along the Way

Building a sustainable fashion brand at an affordable price is no easy feat and the fashion industry is well aware of the conundrum. Recently, The Sustainable Apparel Coalition has set a target of 45 percent emissions reductions by 2030 for its members. Unfortunately, that has not slowed the pressure from consumers and retailers alike on pricing. China is still the leader in manufacturing for fashion, and in getting ready to launch, Kaye knew she had to start there. She went through a grueling process of interviewing over 50 mostly Chinese factories, to produce a highly-technical, size-inclusive sports bra line, but she ran into a ton of obstacles. 

Most were not able to meet her specifications, wanted to charge more for larger sizes or did not meet Kaye’s ethical standards. A good majority of factories would not work with startups no matter how great the idea, many wanted to charge extra for using more materials on larger sizes or refused to produce them at all. Finally, Kaye was connected to a factory through a high-profile colleague, she then spent a year prototyping, experimenting with materials and testing the bras on hundreds of women. 

Kaye was finally set to launch Bloom Bras, having ordered the bras in November and expecting the product to ship by March. Three nights before her shipment date, she got the call from the owner of the factory explaining that there was a problem. They would not be producing the order. In fact, they had not even ordered the approved materials and never had any intention of moving forward. Kaye’s order had been shoved aside for larger orders that had come in. She had two options – breakdown and give up on her dream or start fresh and find an alternative solution.

She went back to the drawing board to restart her search for an ethical manufacturing partner. Building a sustainable brand for Kaye meant more than just meeting responsible environmental standards, it also meant ethical working conditions and wages. What’s incredible to realize is that 93 percent of the brands surveyed by Fashion Checker aren’t paying their garment workers a living wage.  

A New Location Brings the Answer

Kaye’s restart brought her to an unexpected location, Sri Lanka, where she learned that a thriving garment industry was gaining traction in the areas she most needed, experience in the development of technical sportswear. Sri Lanka met Kaye’s quality standards with a workforce that was skilled at complex seams, technical sportswear structure, with strong communication skills, and access to sustainably sourced materials.

Kaye came across a group of industry experts who were establishing a new facility on a mountain in Sri Lanka that embodied what she had been searching for. The workforce was sourced from the neighboring villages so that employees could walk to work and still be with their families in the evenings. There was plentiful spring mountain water from the river that ran behind the property and abundant sources of fruits, vegetables and rice grown on the property.  Kaye decided that the only way to follow through with her dream of building a responsible and sustainable brand, would be to build her own factory. She joined forces to lead the build out of the factory and shaped the vision to include energy power from wind and solar panels, and the sourcing of materials locally in order to support and build up the community.  Kaye and her team spent the better part of a year walking through every detail meticulously.

“Selecting the proper materials has been the most difficult part of the design process. Each detail from the seams riding along the bone structure in the back, to my insistence that any material that touches the body be soft, comfortable and free of certain nasty chemicals was non-negotiable.,” Kaye continued, “I was particularly insistent on having a zipper in the front.”  It takes 38 different parts to make up a Bloom Bra, from threads to zippers and hooks, to the proprietary materials used. Each of these different components come from different factories. One of the key challenges with sustainable manufacturing is shipping. The shipping industry is responsible for more than 18 percent of some air pollutants so Kaye wanted to reduce the many links in her supply chain by sourcing as much locally as possible. Kaye spent much of her time directly speaking with and evaluating each vendor of every component and material of the product to ensure not only their quality, but also location. She consolidated sources and ensured that each vendor was as close to her facility as possible in order to reduce the practice of double shipping which is so harmful to the environment.

Overproduction and overconsumption are crippling the planet. Over the past twenty years, clothing production and consumption have doubled with an astonishing 100 billion clothing items produced annually.  Brands like Bloom Bras are focusing on changing that from bottom up.

Sandra Ponce de Leon is a Columnist at Grit Daily. She is a veteran start-up executive who has launched and supported companies through several successful exits. She has a broad marketing background that crosses consumer and business markets. As a tech passionista, she has a focus on blue-tech and also covers topics such as blockchain,  SaaS, health-tech, mobile, iOT and AI. She is a startup adviser and outsourced CMO that leads corporate marketing activities to fuel growth. Sandra's long history in Silicon Valley has enabled her to forge friendships and business relationships with the industry's top tech leaders and influencers which inform much of her extensive body of work including the Popping the Bubbl podcast, and contributing to #LatinaGeeks where she actively writes about emerging tech trends.

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