Q+A With Deborah Alden: How To Start Your Sustainable Fashion Business
Deborah Alden is the Managing Director of the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator, a new initiative and an impressive 21,000 square feet production and work space launched in 2014 by Pratt Institute in New York. The BF+DA provides apparel production, knitting services and digital fabrication services for small runs and no minimum orders, and additionally supports designers through sustainability research and business-mentorship to grow their start-ups into viable businesses, integrating local manufacturing and an ethical supply chain into their core DNA.
Before meeting Deborah Alden in person I ran into her online. Or more precisely I came across her TED talk on “Building a Hub for Ethical Design” and fell for her engaging speech on entrepreneurship, on setting up a business incubator with human and environmental health as its core principle and on how, as a community, we can grow responsible businesses through generosity, collaboration and resilience. In her talk she states that “We look for people with heart whose projects have a deep connection to who they are and whose businesses speak to a life they want to live”, which strongly resonates with me. And she provides answers for an important question: "How can we deal with the vast subject matter of sustainability in a manageable way and without feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed?"
So you just opened in 2014?
In this space, yes. We opened the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator (BF+DA) in November 2014. But we built it on the legacy of the Pratt Design Incubator which was started by our Founder and Executive Director, Deb Johnson, in 2002. Back then it was essentially for businesses that were in the idea stage and the Pratt Design Incubator created a place for them to collaborate and see where their ideas could take them. Where as this now is what we like to call the “grown-up version”. The companies that we are working with at the BF+DA are primarily in the scale up stage. They've been in business for a year or so. They know that they have a market, they've brought in the mid-sales but they are not viable yet. Additionally we now also provide production facilities, we employ researchers, offer a structured mentorship program and organise public events.
How do you help your entrepreneurs to expand their ideas and to make their businesses viable?
We work with them through a structured mentorship program both on business development and on social and environmental impact. We provide one-on-one mentorship training and adhoc mentor matching with various people in our network and bring in a lot of experts to help with particular topics that our entrepreneurs are facing. Plus there is a lot that the business founders can learn from just being in this environment and from the other entrepreneurs who come from very different backgrounds such as design, law or some have an MBA. We don't bring in any direct competitors so that people don't start to hide away but instead open up and share knowledge with each other. We have created a culture that is really open and generous, and we work with people who bring as much to the table as they are looking to take from it, and who like to learn as much they like to teach.
So how do you select the businesses who come and work here?
We have a fairly vigorous application and interview process, and through that we work with five main criteria: 1. Design innovation: Are they bringing something new to the market? 2. Mission: Are they incorporating ways of raising social and environmental impact into their business? 3. Business model: Is there something that has the potential to really work and can we help to tweak and develop it? 4. Growth potential: Is the business scalable? And finally: 5. Culture: Are the founders right for our community?
Before meeting you, I watched a couple of talks online related to your work. In one of the talks, at Fabrica in Italy, Debera Johnson (Founder and Executive Director of BD+FA) defined four pillars for sustainability and named research usage, ecological impact, human health and social equity. Could you outline the meaning of these four different areas?
Sure. When people come in here we are really interested in what their values are because often you can't do everything 100% with sustainability. So we ask them what is most important to them and then we usually guide them through the main topics of those areas. So concerning resource usage we would, for example, ask: "Are you interested in zero waste processes? Are you interested in reducing water usage?" Concerning ecological impact: "What is it that you are putting back out into the environment?" or "Where can you reduce pollution in you production processes?" In terms of human health: "Are you concerned about the use of toxins or pesticides?" Or in the case of social equity: "Is everyone along the entire chain being treated well? Are you concerned about child labour, about fair wages?"
Do designers who want to work sustainably have to fulfil all of these different criteria?
No, no. But we certainly want people to ask those questions and to actually understand that their decisions have an impact and need to be carefully considered.
How do you guide and advise them?
When we look at the lifecycle of a garment, we look at all the main different areas of impact and we address four to ten different strategies in each of those areas. To give you an idea: When you look at design innovation you can think about creating a garment that is trans-seasonal, that has multiple uses or a long material use. Or you can look at the actual production processes and assess what the mill process is like. As you follow the entire lifecycle of a garment you can also look at how it is being cared for and used. And what happens to it at the end of its life. For example, can the garment be brought back into a circular stream?
Is there one strategy that you favour?
We are not trying to promote one particular thing that will get you the sustainable stamp. When you look at all the issues involved, you will see that some of them compete or even conflict with each other. There are many different strategies that you can decide on. It's more like, in each new decision that you are facing we can help you make better decisions that are more aligned with your own values and your individual business impact.
You are basically helping each business to find their individual sustainability strategy?
Exactly. We have what we call a sustainability road map that looks at which strategies you have implemented in your business already and which ones you could approach next. I want to really arm people with knowledge and prepare them for the important questions that they will have to ask as decisions come at them.
Do you have any research material on this?
We do. We have created the "Sustainable Strategies Wheel" (see below), a chart that lists all the different areas of impact and their relevant strategies. We are also developing a tool that works with all of this information and shows it in case studies. Additionally, we have information on 35 different fibre types available in our sustainability lab and we assessed their lifecycles and listed the social and environmental impact of each particular one.
How do you see the role of designers today? Could you explain the term “system thinking” in this context?
My background is in communication design and architecture. People talk about architects as being the system’s thinkers of the design world. To give you an example, you can’t design a room and design every bit of it and then go on to the next room and so forth because you will end up with something weird that won't work. You have to first think about it from the capital system and then down to a little detail. You also have to look at how the flow works and the scale of it. And you have to consider all of those things at the same time, by constantly going micro and macro.
How would you translate this to the work of fashion designers?
If you're thinking about a garment only in terms of the construction and the materiality of it, you're missing out on a lot of ways in which that garment has an impact on the world. I think some of the problems that we are having are because most processes happen in silos and are not being connected. Often we are not able to get behind closed doors of different suppliers and therefore can't understand the bigger picture which prevents us from creating better solutions. There are so many ways in which we could create better systems if we were better connected.
It's like having a larger, holistic view on everything. But this also demands that we share information and knowledge in an open and transparent way?
Yes, absolutely. Knowledge creation and knowledge sharing is a big part of our value set as an organization. How do we redefine the fashion industry? How do we bring technology into sustainability and create better work processes for the 21st century? To give you an example, the founder of one of our companies, Boerum Apparel, is a corporate lawyer and when he started working as a lawyer he had to buy an entire new wardrobe for his daily work. He is an extraordinary conscious consumer in terms of what he eats and what he purchases. So he naturally started asking questions like "Where do the fibres come from?" or "Who is making the garments?". And no one could give him answers. So he was like "Right, this needs to change". But instead of just finding places that he might be able to trust, he created an entirely transparent supply chain for merino wool from scratch. He really thought about how things could work together to reduce impact. So he discovered one of two bio-grow-certified, organic, third-generation sheep farms in New Zealand. He visited them, talked to them, found out that there were also a couple of mills nearby and he went and visited those, as well. Eventually he ended up producing a textile of which he knows the entire origin. And now he can share his knowledge in a transparent way.
In today's world, fast fashion is reigning and very powerful. How do you think a small-scale sustainable fashion business can turn into a business model that is viable?
We regard the BF+DA as a lab for new business models. For so long the fashion system has been very rigid in terms of designers depending on wholesale. But right now we are seeing new opportunities to create more direct consumer models. It's really interesting to look at new ways in which brands can develop relationships directly with the customer and at new opportunities to share their brand in smart ways. In the past, the only way in which brands could get visibility was to be sold at particular retail outlets. Now they can do it on their own.
You mentioned before that the BF+DA runs its own production lab. How is this beneficial for small-scale businesses?
It is really hard to find factories that will take you seriously when you are an emerging designer. And to find factories that allow you to only make few pieces of a product. At the BF+DA we focus on zero minimums and offer small runs with one to fifty units. We have to get away from this fast fashion scenario where you have to order high quantities of pieces and then you have all this waste if you can't sell it. This is also why we have a digital fabrication lab. We are interested in additive manufacturing and 3-D printing of things. So far the materials are not great and the process takes up a lot energy. But the idea that you create things on demand, rather than create a whole bunch of things that might go to waste, is really interesting. So our researchers are looking into that and at how the technology could evolve.
Small-scale businesses often struggle with getting access to smaller quantities of sustainable fabrics. Do you have any advise for them?
We invite the public once a month to join us at our Textile Tuesdays. We bring in sustainable textile suppliers and connect the dots for people: Some small-scale fashion designers would like to use sustainable fabrics but they aren't able to order the fabrics they want because they only need 20 yards of something and can’t go to a wholesale supplier. Or they might be working with manufacturers who won't tell them where their fabrics come from. So we are trying to create connections by inviting smaller mills and producers that are looking for an audience that they can sell smaller volumes to.
Great! So you are creating a network for small-scale farmers, small-scale manufacturers and small-scale designers?
Yes. We host all of those events to integrate more responsible practices all across the board, and make them more viable by creating more work opportunities for small-scale businesses. We think the future is very much about small and medium size brands and a plurality of voices out there.
Do you see your work as political?
We do. I mean, in some ways for sure. We talk a lot about how what we are doing could enter into policy so that it has the potential to stay longer, to become the normal and the required. Through many of our events, we create these conversations and we create connections between companies that are not likely to sit down together elsewhere and discuss where we are headed and if we can head there together.
Do you think that large companies these days are more open towards adopting practices that take social equity and environmental concerns into account?
I think they are because they are getting a lot of pressure. I mean, certain ones have worked in a sustainable way right from the beginning, Patagonia and Eileen Fisher are really admirable. But also a lot of others are making big turns and maybe because they got called out on it. I think at the beginning some companies thought that corporate social responsibility and green washing would be enough. But people are seeing through that. It's too easy to fold the curtain back these days. Authenticity and responsibility are certainly not widespread yet, but I think it's a growing demand.
What do you think will help consumers to make more conscious choices?
We've gotten so divorced from how things are made in general. Even two generations ago, people still understood how their garments were made, how textiles were produced. But with the recent rise of the maker economy more people, and not just designers, are interested in how things are made. I think one of the challenges right now is to show really gorgeous, amazing and desirable designs and to let people realize that it’s not a kind of fringe thing anymore in order to move it into the mainstream.
Do you have any ideas for us how to live in a more sustainable and life-enhancing way?
You get out of life what you put into it, so approach it thoughtfully whenever and wherever you can. For example, pause for a moment and consider what and why you are buying the next time you make a purchase. The world around us tells us to buy more stuff to feel happy (retail therapy) without taking into consideration what creates personal meaning, lasting value or delight for each of us. What do you know about this object? Who made it? Where and how was it produced? Why do you want it? For how long will it remain in your life? How does it connect with your values, your desires, and your needs?
Also, this is going to sound cliché but I’m a huge believer in the golden rule. Be kind and stop to appreciate the little things in your life. If we all truly made that a daily practice, the ripple effect would be colossal.
Thank you so much for the interview, Deborah!
Inspiration from Deborah Alden:
"I am fortunate to be surrounded every day by brilliant and talented sustainable designers,
to know the stellar people they are, and to have the privilege of working with them
on the ins and outs of their businesses."
"The perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of SoHo. Relax and enjoy the gorgeous space. Have a cup of tea or glass of wine accompanied by a delicious bowl of soup. Peruse their great collection of books or catch a Moth night. All while supporting a great cause."
#2: Chikalicious Dessert Bar
"Don’t let the website and branding fool you. Chika and Don treat their guests to an
impeccable, thoughtful experience. Get the three-course prix fixe dessert with wine pairing.
Sit at the bar and be mesmerized by Chika’s graceful, artful choreography. Go early to avoid the line. Start your evening with dessert, followed by a dinner of dumplings or
Japanese curry in the neighborhood."
"Visit the beautiful resting grounds of New York’s infamous residents from Jean-Michel Basquiat to Louis Comfort Tiffany. Enjoy the views of Manhattan from the highest point in Brooklyn.
Take a historic trolley tour or attend a moonlight music or dance performance in the catacombs. Don't miss the green mock parrots that inhabit the spires of the main entrance."
#4: Storm King
"A sculpture park in nature. It’s an hour north of the city but completely worth the travel. Enjoy a picnic between jaunts over the meadow and through the woods, discovering pieces by Andy Goldsworthy, Alexander Calder and Richard Serra."