Fashion in a different fashion!
The footprint that the fashion industry leaves on the planet is disastrous. It means that our everyday clothing impacts our future to a significant extent. This is why we decided to interview Marije de Roos, who is the founder of Aest-Ethics, or Æº. Marije and her work are inspiring and a great contribution to our blog ‘Doing Business with an Impact’.
Aest-Ethics primarily addresses SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production. However, the company actually covers a much wider range of SDGs, which this article will introduce.
Can you tell me about your business?
Marije: Aest-Ethics is a fashion platform that educates the consumer about responsible fashion. We also strive to bring back the fun to fashion. It is actually part of a bigger model and is integrated with 3 other ventures. This is a unique solution. The purpose of the fashion blog is to educate the consumer on the reasons and needs to shift from fast to slow fashion. It explains why it is important to know the origins of the material and the production processes of our clothes. By addressing our consumers, Aest-Ethics aspires to make a positive impact.
The company started with the idea to create an app that, based on the weather, tells you what to wear. This explains the name What.to.Wea(the)r. However, popular commercial brands would no longer work for me. I wanted to create a business model related to sustainable clothing, and thus recommend consumers what to buy. The clothes should be environmentally friendly, meaning that they are biodegradable and free from hazardous chemicals.
This concept is hard to find somewhere else. Putting myself in the consumer’s shoes, I realised that we are lacking science-based facts to make informed decisions. Therefore, my team and I do the research, produce content and create hands-on guides and tutorials.
The third component of Aest-Ethics is the gamification part – a truly rewarding system. By shopping less and shopping ‘good goods’, the consumer will earn points. Thus, one will be incentivised to interact with the Aest-Ethics platform, through which they can earn and validate their points.
In what way is your product sustainable and why is it important?
Marije: First of all, everything is digital. In fact, I practically do not use any resources to produce Aest-Ethics, apart from my laptop. All I need is a computer and the Internet.
Being sustainable today means that you will stay in the business. More than ever, and particularly in the fashion industry, the consumer demands ethical clothing. This is because of the increasing awareness about practices in the fashion industry that are harming a myriad of aspects. And if we want our children and grandchildren to have a future, something clearly needs to change.
This is where accountability comes in. Businesses have to indicate where and how they produce their products. Who is part of the supply chain? What impact does their product have on the environment? There is increasing pressure to answer these questions. Moreover, authoritative investment funds promote impact investing, showing higher returns on investment in sustainable businesses.
How is service connects to the SDGs?
Marije: The fashion industry is the second biggest polluter after the oil industry. The reason for this is a large amount of oil used in the production of materials among its many facets. These so-called petrochemicals are used to create synthetic materials, such as polyester, acrylic, nylon, and spandex. Basically, all cheap clothes produced with machine-made fibres contain petrochemicals.
SDG 12, which aims at ensuring sustainable consumption and production, lies at the core of Aest-Ethics’ strategy. By spreading the word about slow fashion on my platform, I hope, in the long run, to ensure that fashion brands produce in an ethical and sustainable way. In my opinion, being ethical towards the resources used in the supply chain (both material and human), is the most critical component to lead the change.
I have in particular worked with target 12.8, which addresses the consumer’s right to information about sustainable development issues. This is an area that is almost untouched by the fashion industry. I believe that the reason for the lack of information is the power of businesses that do not operate sustainably. More conscious consumers would have an effect on these companies and push for more sustainable practices. After all, the consumer can truly vote with their dollar. Or kroner.
Another SDG that I touch upon is SDG 8, which addresses the working conditions. The supply chain in the fashion industry involves everyone. From manually sourcing fibres of for example the cotton fields in India to the workers that spin, dye, weave textile and so on. It is a long process to make a garment. And we cannot easily document the number of hands that touch it before it ends up with the consumer.
People receive extremely low wages while working under alarmingly unhealthy conditions. Exploitation has always been an issue in this industry. Unfortunately, it continues to exist even though we are living in the 21st century. This zero-sum game has great potential of being challenged and changed into a win-win game. It takes a global network to do this though.
The environmental impact is equally important. Water and marine pollution (targeted by SDG 6 and 14 respectively) are amongst the next biggest issues. For example, the production of a single pair of jeans requires 7,600 litres of water. This does not only impact the general accessibility of water. Most importantly, it affects the availability of clean and safe water. The washing releases hazardous chemicals that come from pesticides in the cotton crop as well as from the dyeing and washing processes. Further, as the textile often is a blend with polyester, microfibers are released into the water at every wash.
SDG 13: Climate action is another relevant topic. In fact, textile production generates more greenhouse gas emissions than international flights or maritime shipping. This clearly makes the fashion industry one of the main industries responsible for climate change.
My business model touches even SDG 15: Life on land. Across the globe, cotton production severely degrades soil quality. To combat this, Aest-Ethics actively seeks material sourcing practices that implement resource restoration and reforestation.
The goals covering the social dimension are SDG 5: Gender equality, SDG 1:No poverty, SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth, SDG 3: Good health and well-being, SDG 11: and Sustainable cities and communities. As Kate Raworth writes in her book Doughnut Economics, we should meet the needs of all, within the means of the planet.
The hazardous chemicals are not just harmful to the people involved in the production. They are also hazardous to the people selling them and wearing them. We always think about what type of food we eat, yet we are less considerate of our clothing. This is a problem, as our skin is a sensitive part of our body and the largest organ. It is therefore essential to understand that whatever we wear, has a direct effect on our body’s ecosystem.
Another issue is waste from old clothes. Even though they are still in a good condition, we donate or throw clothes away because the trends are changing. This is problematic because donations often end up in developing, African countries, where local distributors continue to sell them. However, as the locals are often not interested in spending their money on this, these often become waste. An ironic cultural perspective from India here is that people that deal with these disposed clothes imagine Western people having no means to wash their clothes.
We take waste management very seriously. In fact, there are companies that have created special technology separating the fibres from your discarded clothes. Then it spins new yarns out of these and brings back the raw material into a production process.
What are your next steps to make your company greener? And do you have any tips for other companies that want to work with sustainability?
Marije: My business philosophy is that you have to practice what you preach. It means practising being sustainable yourself when running a sustainable business. I strive to follow a moral compass, but often choose the metro over biking and am far from perfect. But I am learning and trying to make my lifestyle sustainable every day. It is a transitioning process I believe everyone can do. It requires education and discipline, that’s the secret recipe in my opinion. With spring being around the corner, I will soon get my bike out of the basement.
Do the right thing. As a CEO, I believe that you just have to listen to your gut feeling, because it is your second brain. In my opinion, the core reason for the fashion industry turning evil was that profit has been put first before the planet and people. I believe that you generate profit by putting the planet and people first. A vision for the future combined with patience is what I recommend CEOs to implement.
Even investors validate this strategy. As I mentioned earlier, BlackRock coined a similar strategy for investors ‘impact investing’. Their annual reports show enormous returns of responsible businesses.
Now is the time to take action. We have done enough talking, but now we need to roll up our sleeves, get up on our feet, and make our moves into the right direction. In a nutshell, if you want to be in business for the long run, you need to become sustainable and simply do the right thing. It is a marathon, not a sprint.