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Tips to launch a sustainable fashion company

I recently wrote about the challenges of sustainable apparel companies and got a lot of feedback from entrepreneurs and independent labels relating to some of those struggles. My efforts were not aimed to discourage fashion startups in anyway, but rather to offer some perspective based in my experience dealing with these companies and industry experts. Getting over that first hill of “can this hobby become a business” is the toughest part and I would summarize it in 3 key questions:

– Is there a market for my product?

– What is the competitive advantage that will allow me to take some market share?

– What is my best and worst case scenario return on investment?

 Once you decided your business idea is the right move, given that:

a) there is a market for your product, and

b) you provide something unique or you are able to provide something already exists more efficiently;

It’s operations time! Handling marketing, logistics and manufacturing can be challenging for a single person or even a small team, since you might have only some of the skills required to conduct the operation as a whole. Some people decide to do it all themselves, and in the process, they learn a lot about their industry and develop skills that will help them in the future, while lowering the risk by assuming most of the work themselves.

But there are definitely cases in which using some additional help at the begging can determine your future success. Factory 45 is an alternative for those labels that would like some expert help to launch their products, its founder, Shannon Whitehead  has been there and now helps other sustainable apparel companies to have a smoother launch. I asked her a few questions about her experience in the business.

Interview with Shannon Whitehead

Please tell us about your involvement with sustainable apparel and your own experience as an entrepreneur in the area.

In 2011, I co-founded a sustainable apparel company for female travelers and minimalists. We had one piece called the Versalette that could be worn over 30 different ways, and we brought it to market with a Kickstarter campaign that became the highest funded fashion project at the time.

We quadrupled our production order, we were featured in The New York Times, and we sold out of our first 1,400 units almost immediately after the campaign ended.

Fast forward to the end of 2012, after road tripping for three months on a “sustainable fashion tour,” and my co-founder and I had complete entrepreneurial burnout. We closed our doors at {r}evolution apparel, Kristin went on to continue selling the Versalette through her new brand, and I started a small consulting business for designers and entrepreneurs.

I consulted on a per-project basis for a year before launching Factory45, an online accelerator program for sustainable apparel companies. I now work with idea-stage entrepreneurs to take their products from concept to launch. The emphasis is on sourcing sustainable fabric and materials, setting up manufacturing in the U.S. and raising money to go into production.

How would you define ethical fashion?

Ethical fashion considers everyone and everything that’s involved in the making of a garment. It considers human rights, fair and living wages, environmental impact, the garment life cycle and end use, as well as the impact of cleaning and drying (when the majority of the environmental impact happens).

Why do you think the slow fashion movement has been so slow to catch fire here in the United States?

I don’t think the slow fashion movement is that different from anything else that has been slow to catch on in the U.S. Following trends, the organic food movement has been a lot slower to catch on here than in other parts of the world and has only recently picked up pace with early adopters.

Indirectly related, take a look at paid maternity leave, gun control, public education — those are all issues that have been made a priority in other countries but are still being argued about over here.

We can blame the policy makers, but we also have to take responsibility for how apathetic we can be as a society. The events trending in the news here are about Kim Kardashian’s butt and Jennifer Lawrence’s new haircut.

What does that say about us collectively? And what does it mean for the issues that actually do need our attention?

What are your 3 best tips for creating a business plan?

1) Identify your ideal target customer. Put all marketing efforts towards attracting them to your product. Ignore everyone else – if you’re trying to appeal to everyone, then you won’t appeal to anyone.

2) Define your business model. This goes back to cash flow – how are you going to make money?

3) Determine a long term vision for the company that will guide your decision making in the beginning. This is the vision that’s going to get you through the rough times.

Sustainable fashion business plan

What is your favorite fabric in both looks and eco friendliness?

I gravitate towards anything that is ‘upcycled’ – it’s so important to make use out of already existing materials, cutting down on the energy needed to create something new.

As far as looks go, Tencel is beautiful. I love how silky it is while being fully biodegradable with a closed-loop process. It still has to undergo a chemical treatment like bamboo, but 99% of those chemicals can be reused.

I’m also keeping an eye on Evrnu, a recently launched fabric technology that takes cotton fiber waste and turns it into new fabric.

What services do you provide to sustainable fashion entrepreneurs that they can’t get anywhere else?

When I originally came up with the idea of Factory45 it was based on a need I saw from my consulting clients. It’s tough for startups to afford consulting fees with bootstrapped budgets. I started toying with this idea of an “accelerator program” so that I could work with a bunch of entrepreneurs at once, making it cheaper for them but still financially viable for me.

Factory45 is the start-to-finish option for entrepreneurs who want to launch their companies right the first time. Instead of having to hire a sourcing consultant, a design consultant, a business consultant, etc. and pay thousands of dollars for each, Factory45 gives bootstrapping entrepreneurs the chance to do it themselves with the guidance, resources and connections of someone who has done it before.

What is your #1 advice for people looking to start their own business?

Know what problem you’re solving for your customers. The world is saturated with new clothing lines coming out every day. It’s not enough to simply launch another clothing collection with your name on it. You must know who your target market is and aim to solve a problem for them.

Shannon Whitehead

Shannon Whitehead is the founder of Factory45, an online accelerator program that takes sustainable apparel companies from idea to launch. Source fabric, find a manufacturer and raise money to fund production. 

Are you an emerging sustainable fashion label?

Thanks a lot to Shannon for the interview and her advice. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you are a slow fashion brand and want to share your story.

  • Cool, what is your product?

  • I hope to be part of her Spring 2016 cohort.