When I am on the margins, with people who own little and have few resources, I feel that I am home. Right now, in covid times, I get to work every day to build political power with the impoverished and the marginalized, and I feel great about that work. I also believe that it is time for me to depart from working where I am most comfortable in order to carry a fiduciary responsibility to those on the margins with me as I engage in systems-change. That calling is what brings me to this workshop with all of you.
One system in need of change is the system of how we make stuff. In the fashion industry alone, making the stuff we wear is responsible for 10% of the planet’s carbon emissions along with many extractive practices around land use, water, and labor. The system is optimized for speed and low-cost of production, which makes sense in a world where companies like Zara offer 24 new clothing collections each year. In 2014 alone, we manufactured 100 billion garments.
I would like the power to be able to change the way that stuff is made before the way we make stuff destroys our planet.
Dominant apparel Institutions exist to increase shareholder value, maximize return on investment, and respond quickly to new market opportunities, like global demand for clothing increasing every year. In order to stay true to their purpose and fulfill their fiduciary in the world, we should expect that they will work to save the planet and serve people only in so far as that work increases their shareholder value and maximizes their return on investment. In this sense, changing Dominant Institutions is not a likely viable path to systems change for how we make the stuff we wear.
Personal Transformation like a conversion to environmental awareness can certainly change how people choose what clothes to buy. But making a responsible choice about clothing purchases is a multi-layered privilege with a hard-stop at being able to afford a responsible choice. Exacerbating the challenge is the fact that many of the worst polluters on the planet invest massive marketing budgets and brilliant advertising to tell misleading stories about their environmental responsibility. They understand well that people, and especially our millennial and Gen Z friends, are voting with the way they spend money and care deeply about the health of the planet. These clothing companies must stay relevant to this customer segment in order to survive, but a-priori, these companies exist to increase shareholder value and deliver return on investment, so environmental and people impacts will come second.
One Alternative: a clothing company that exists to save the planet. This organization is not envisioned as a B Corp that promises to report on people and planet impacts, and tries to do less harm, but rather as a company whose mission and fiduciary is literally to save the planet…
Three-fifths of all clothing produced ends up in incinerators or landfills within the first years of its life. Together with a group of designers, scientists and environmentalists, we are launching a startup called re-SKU that salvages clothes from being destroyed, tells their rescue and carbon footprint story with a digital label, and donates 100% of profits to efforts to develop sustainable, zero-waste manufacturing alternatives.
We hope to start a new channel off to the side of a raging river of consumer spending, one that starts as an alternative path– a different way for people to spend money on clothing, starting with new products created from the waste and excess of traditional clothing manufacturers. We start with branded, digital labels telling the waste and carbon story of every product to educate and impact how people spend money on clothing, and we donate every dollar of profit to sustainable manufacturing processes and ecosystems. The re-SKU project succeeds if and when unsustainable production is supported by a trickle of spending, while the raging river of consumer spending supports sustainable manufacturing. The time horizon for this transformation is roughly nine years in order to avoid dire climate crisis. Precedents like Patagonia and Seventh Generation inspire, but they are a drop in the bucket: how might re-SKU achieve global scale quickly enough to move the needle on climate change before it’s too late?
I would greatly appreciate your collective counsel now, as we are on the brink of introducing re-SKU into the world: this startup is currently structured as an LLC that will donate 100% of profits to other orgs that are developing or supporting sustainable manufacturing alternatives. With a lot of good will, but no capital, the reason re-SKU is structured as an LLC for the moment is so that we can offer future equity (structured as SAFE agreements) to the designers, coders, and other early builders in exchange for their in-kind work on the project now.
What organizational structure(s) might best help re-SKU:
- Insure fidelity to its environmental mission through leadership and other future changes to the organization?
- Enable re-SKU to be agile, globally scalable, and able to compete with for-profit entities?
- Provide ownership stake to those who support the project and work for it?
- Attract significant investment if / when the model can be scaled?
- What do co-ops have to teach us here?
With gratitude for your counsel and insights,