June 17, 2019

A social entrepreneur on what inspired her to start her own ethical fashion company

Shopping with a conscience has become a full time job for Erin Houston.

Wearwell, founded by Erin Houston and Emily Kenney, is a personal shopping subscription service that let's people support great causes as they update their wardrobes. Photo via Wearwell

Over 14 million garment workers around the world—including right here in the U.S.—make the fashion we wear each and every day. Have you ever thought about who made your clothes?

I’ve put years of thought into this question, since April 24, 2013 to be exact. For most people, that was a day like any other. But for me, it was when my eyes were opened to the power my clothing  purchases have on communities around the world and here in the U.S.

On that date, the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh, resulting in the loss of 1,134 lives and over 2,000 injuries.

What I learned

This hit me hard not because I knew someone in the disaster or that I was ignorant to labor issues, but because of the work that I was doing professionally at the time for a media company covering global development issues.

Everywhere I turned, large multinational companies were, despite many people’s cynicism, doing amazing things. This includes getting vaccines to the last mile in remote areas, providing access to bank accounts for women, and improving access to technology that advances education. The one glaring exception at the time was the fashion and apparel industry.

What we’ve come to understand as the fallout from “fast fashion”—poor treatment of factory workers, use of toxic dyes and a host of other issues—is simply coming from company decisions to provide lower price points to their customers. Read: I was part of the problem. The more I learned, the more I realized that in order to drive change in the industry, we all need to vote with our dollar.

But actually, this is a global women’s issue

For me, this is so much more than just shopping with a conscience. It’s a women’s issue. When I step back and take a moment to envision the person who made my clothes, I see a woman.

In fact, nearly 85% of garment workers are women. As someone raised by incredibly strong women and who believes that supporting one another is the only way we’ll ever achieve equality, shopping consciously for my clothing has become a feminist action.

We should all be able to support a living wage and a safe work environment for a woman who is no different than our mothers, our sisters, our friends, or our neighbors, whether she’s in Bangladesh or Los Angeles, even if her face is obscured by the global supply chain between us.

My cofounder and I started Wearwell to make it easier than ever before to find ethically and sustainably made clothing. And in doing so, we’re giving other women the opportunity to support each other.

If you’ve ever tried to shop for consciously made clothing, you know how difficult it can be to navigate the many certifications, how time consuming it is to find what you’re looking for, and how frustrating it is to truly feel confident that your purchase is making meaningful impact. At times, the barriers make it so overwhelming that it’s tempting to give up.

Progress over perfection

My one piece of advice: just start somewhere. If each of us made one small change rather than striving for perfection, we’d make a world of difference. So, here are a few actions you can take:

  • Ask the store’s team members if they can tell you anything about the brand’s manufacturing and transparency,
  • Look for fair trade, GOTS certified, or B Corp options,
  • Opt for once-owned through consignment or resale,
  • Or take better care of the clothes you already have to reduce your consumption.

Keep it simple and choose to grow your impact from there. No action is too insignificant. The reality is that it’s going to take years for the fashion and apparel industry to change because of the multitude of social and environmental issues intertwined with a lack of transparency, but the only thing that has the power to accelerate this change is you and your choice to use your purchasing power.

Social entrepreneur Erin Houston

Erin Houston

Erin Houston is the co-founder and CEO Wearwell. She is an entrepreneur in the conscious fashion movement, communications & brand consultant, and deeply engaged in global development and social enterprise.
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