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Consciously: Democratizing Sustainable Fashion in the Midst of a Pandemic

consciously
6 min read

The following piece is brought to you by Consciously, a South Asian-owned platform where you can hop thoughtfully from designed and ethically made fashion brands — sourced, assessed, and curated for you. 

Growing up as a teenager, my best friend and I were consciously inclined towards bringing our fashion dreams to life. We both wanted to launch our own ethnic wear brand for young girls like us in Bangladesh. We regularly donned our own creations and were often complimented on our creative capabilities for their sheer mastery. We got excited to the point that we came up with a name for our business, designed a logo, pitched funding proposals to our parents, sketched designs, and even sourced fabrics. We were ready to take on the South Asian fashion sphere and position ourselves as serious entrepreneurs at only 14. But long story short, we didn’t ever officially launch (school ultimately took priority); it was thrilling nonetheless. The experience, though, sparked my curiosity in exploring entrepreneurial ventures and ever since, I developed a unique appreciation for fashion.

Come November 2019, while walking with my sister-in-law around her parents neighbourhood in Cary, North Carolina, I told her what had long been bothering my conscious. I was deeply frustrated by how exploitative and environmentally-damaging the fashion industry was and I sometimes felt guilty for choosing it as a career path.

I’ve spent almost a decade in fashion in various roles including design, marketing, and product development. But it wasn’t until I entered the garment manufacturing industry in Bangladesh that I fully grasped the magnitude of the systemic problems that exist within fashion. There were instances when I was in meetings with buyers of large fast fashion brands who blatantly exhibited their indifference in contributing to the economic wellness of the very people who were the backbone of their companies. I left every single one of those interactions feeling angry and disheartened, but those experiences have helped me discover the fire inside of me.

Garment workers have been underpaid and exposed daily to deadly health and safety hazards since time immemorial. What’s worse is that the current system is designed to keep them and their families in a continuous cycle of poverty. Bangladeshi garment workers, made up of 80% women, bring home about $3 a day with usually no paid overtime, and the industry supply chains are notorious for hiring child labor and turning a blind eye to the sexual harassment of women workers. As I bore witness to and learned more about how little the lives of garment workers are valued, I found my sense of purpose; to challenge the status quo. I wanted to make an impact at scale. I even had an idea I was prospecting but hadn’t yet fully fleshed out how it would manifest.

 

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The Inception

Less than a month after our conversation, I was back in San Francisco and had fallen seriously ill. To the extent that there were moments I feared, “this is it!” From December up until April 2020, my body stopped functioning properly. My PCP feared multiple-sclerosis or a brain tumor. I was immediately referred for a brain MRI, which was followed by several more neurology appointments. Turned out there wasn’t a brain tumor and it likely isn’t multiple sclerosis, but there are lesions in my brain. As I write this, I still have pending neurological tests to undergo. But my reason for being so forthright about my health issues is that it plays a critical role in why I finally took the leap of faith and built Consciously. My sense of purpose only strengthened when I feared disability, or even death, was possibly on the horizon. And nothing scared me more than not being able to make a difference in the world in ways I saw as my calling.

 

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In May, as I started to feel well enough to somewhat resume daily activities, I dived right into turning my vision into reality. I picked up from where I left off in 2019; conducting market research. Customer discovery was especially significant. During the process, I was not only able to clearly identify who and where our customers are, validate my assumptions, hone in the value proposition, and distinguish the pain points Consciously would ultimately be built to address but simultaneously spark the creation of an engaged and curious community. The more I talked to people, both customers and sustainable fashion leaders, the clearer the need for Consciously became and the excitement around it gained momentum.

It wasn’t a totally surprising outcome. Consumers are becoming more environmentally and socially conscious, and exercising their power through the products they buy. They’re even willing to pay a premium for it. According to a 2018 Nielsen study, the U.S. sustainability market is estimated to reach $150 billion in sales by 2021, driven mainly by Millennials. Markstein and Certus Insights surveyed 600 participants in October 2019 and found that 70% of consumers want to know what brands they support are doing to address environmental and social issues, and 46% look into a brand’s social responsibility efforts when they buy from them. The same Markstein and Certus Insights study highlighted that people are skeptical of companies that claim they’re environmentally and/or socially responsible. Just 9% believe corporate claims about social responsibility “all the time” and 67% said they believe corporates “some of the time.” Almost 75% believe companies donate to charities and help with community projects to improve how they’re perceived by the public, instead of genuinely wanting to help those in need.

 

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The Research

After countless conversations with members of the Consciously community, and beyond, aligned with the data market trends, I recognised that the archaic ways in which fashion operates is unsustainable. Consumers have grown to expect better. Navigating the complexities of sustainable fashion can be confusing; consumers have a keen interest in supporting brands that are doing good in the world. But they don’t necessarily know how to accurately identify them. Consciously, the digitally-native sustainable and ethical fashion marketplace I launched in October 2020, is on a mission to democratise sustainable fashion. It makes this possible by sourcing and vetting apparel and jewellery brands based on their environmental and social impact.

Consumers can feel confident when they visit Consciously that the brands on our site have already been assessed and gone through a system of checks and balances. We currently have eight values in our sustainability criteria that a brand must match within two or more ways in order to be eligible to sell on the platform. The sustainability criteria is our true north when on-boarding brands and we have tight guardrails around the types of products that can be sold on Consciously. Telling the story of each brand and how they fit into our mission is an important part of what we’ve built. This is why we have a brand directory that customers can use to browse a brand’s profile and easily identify the values it matched with, and relevant information on its treatment of workers, sourcing of materials, about the brand owners/makers, etc.

Our goal is to provide transparency to consumers who can then make informed purchasing decisions as they discover thoughtfully designed and ethically made fashion goods on the marketplace. We emphasise quality over quantity and that there shouldn’t have to be a compromise on aesthetics when opting for sustainable brands. Our curation strategy prioritises elevated, beautiful, and timeless products. When someone shops on Consciously, they’re championing women, small businesses, artisans from around the world, and family-run factories. We currently house products from 32 brands in our office (i.e. my humble San Francisco home) and everything is packaged and shipped by me personally. Our team is small but mighty, and providing a seamless, pleasant and convenient customer experience is of utmost importance to us.

 

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The Community

As a small, bootstrapped, mission-driven business, scrappiness and budgeting are an absolute must, as is tenacity and the willingness to be vulnerable. Running a startup is all-consuming so you really need to be obsessed with the problem you’re solving and comfortable with getting your hands dirty. You’ll get knocked down and mess up, but must believe in yourself and the mission enough to get back up each time. Launching in the middle of a pandemic resulted in unavoidable setbacks of course, and as the founder, the circumstances taught me the significance of being adaptable, resilient, and not letting perfection hinder progress.

As the world was forced to slow down, individuals and organisations across the globe started to think about how to reopen the world in a better way instead of going back to exactly what we had. We had a chance at stillness and a moment to reflect. This crisis has shun a light on issues many of us have been talking about for a long time, and this is the time to double down and prioritize innovation and interlink it with sustainability. It’s this conviction that gave me the courage to move forward with my launch plans, with the help of an amazing support network consisting of brand partners, mentors, community members, friends, and family.

It definitely helps to have a strong support system, and I’m so grateful for Consciously’s team and customers who are sincerely our biggest advocates. I’ve had the opportunity to connect with and receive the support of passionate creatives, activists such as Aditi Mayer, celebrities like Richa Moorjani, as well as other women founders. I feel incredibly lucky to have Anjelika Temple, co-founder and former Chief Creative Officer at Brit + Co, as an advisor. Anjelika is a creative Goddess and a huge inspiration to me both as an entrepreneur and a South-Asian woman. She’s a trailblazer passionate about Consciously’s mission and I’m honored to lean on her unique expertise to further grow the company.

Our launch response has been incredible, beyond what I had anticipated, and as we continue to grow, one thing that won’t change is Consciously’s commitment to making it easier for women to look good while doing good. Our mission to democratise sustainable fashion is just getting started. I hope you’ll join us on this journey.

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