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I am often reminded how big of a hypocrite I am.   With absolute certainty I can say that all the clothes, including lady garments, I’m wearing today were made in deplorable human-rights violating factories and child labor was probably used at one point during the manufacturing process.  And while my words speak against such facilities, my actions say that I condone the violation of fundamental human rights.

Ugh, doesn’t sit too well.

So what options are there to buy socially and ethically responsible clothing?

First, there are always second hand stores like SalVal, Goodwill, and the numerous independent thrift stores, in which the despicable origin of the clothing is redeemed through the act of recycling.  I try and try again to shop at these stores but I just can’t do it.  I don’t like the clothes, I hate how disorganized everything is, and I usually don’t have the patience or creativity to sort through racks and racks to find cool stuff.  (Hey, that’s a business idea – personal thrift store shopper.)

Then, there are the “social enterprise” companies that slap an Ed Hardy-esque graphic on a t-shirt and give the proceeds to charity.  Sure, they use American Apparel t-shirts so everything is OK, but American Apparel is not picture perfect with sexual harassment lawsuits and sexist advertisements. Wherever you stand on the issue, clothing companies that give proceeds to charities without regard to their vendors are simply band-aids and are not fundamentally changing anything; not to mention the business model is less than exciting.

There’s also the vertically integrated companies that buy their materials through direct trade, pay living wages, and are deeply invested in their community of operation.  Companies like Oliberté and People Tree are doing great things and producing high-quality clothing. However, the trade off is a price point that is out of reach for the vast majority of people.  As much as I want to support these types of companies, my budget can’t support a wardrobe of cotton dresses and shirts at 70 bucks a piece.

I know I’m not alone.  The dilemma between upholding values and personal finances is extremely challenging.  The counter argument, of course, concerns consumerism and the frivolity of the fashion industry but we’re not going there today because at the end of the day everyone needs clothes.  So how can fashion companies make socially and ethically responsible clothing at a price point that the masses can afford? Or, more specifically, how can a social enterprise make humanely-made underwear at a price that competes with Hanes? Not, is it possible, but HOW can it be done.

This question is slowly becoming a deep-seated obsession of mine and is a critical question to answer in order to achieve fundamental change in manufacturing.  In order for a social enterprise of this impact, cross-sector collaboration is a core catalyst in order to share business risk and raise the funds needed to support such a venture.  Sounds like a task not for the faint of heart.

“I want to start a non-profit because I want to help people and money is not that important to a non-profit.”   I hear that often from well-intentioned people; unfortunately, they are setting themselves up for complete failure.  Society has conjured up a false view of the non-profit industry.  Yes, industry.  The non-profit world has its lingo, best practices, industry-specific jobs, and its fair share of political games and financial scandals.  Moreover, non-profits are probably more concerned with money than for-profit entities because funding is unstable and competitive. What society has forgotten is that non-profits are really just a type of business entity.  A non-profit IS a business.  A business whose business is doing good and whose structure is to redistribute its profits back into the organization/community to continue doing good. Non-profits have become synonymous with doing good, but social enterprise argues that doing good is not limited to one business model.  A social enterprise could be a not-for-profit, for-profit, co-op, or an emerging model called L3C.  For some examples, check out, SCRAP, a non-profit whose mission is “to inspire creative reuse and environmentally sustainable behavior by providing educational program and affordable materials to the community;” KNO Clothing a for-profit clothing company fighting homelessness; Evergreen Cooperatives a conglomerate of four cooperatives roviding job creation, wealth building, and sustainability to Cleveland, Ohio; and MOO Milk Co. an L3C promoting farm preservation and economic development by organic dairy farming.  Doing good is not limited to non-profits and does not discriminate; there are many paths to doing good.

The Wall Street Journal recently wrote an article “Tech Boom Hits New York.” The article highlights an up and coming e-commerce, fashion eyewear company, Warby Parker.  The company is attracting investors left and right, in fact, they are turning away investors.  What’s interesting about the article is that it does not mention once a critical component of Warby Parker’s business model – “for every pair of glasses sold, we provide one to someone in need.”

Warby Parker’s success is an excellent example of how profit and social impact aren’t mutually exclusive; but, where’s the plug for social enterprise? Is it necessary?

Social enterprise is nothing new, and over the decades, acronyms, catchy phrases, and terminology have shaped the concept of social enterprise to become a unique sector.  Vocabulary has its role, but has it stifled the potential of social enterprise to impact mainstream business by segregating itself? I think WSJ’s article on Warby Parker points to an underlying sentiment in the traditional business world; it’s great if you do something good for the world but it’s still the bottom line that matters.   If the goal of social enterprise is to change the way business is done, maybe it’s time to ditch the semantics and work on creating killer business models.