The Solution to Fashion's Sustainability Problem
Origianally published in Forbes, the article below is an interview with founder and Creative Director Hailey Harmon. You can find the original article here.
Designer Hailey Harmon Has A Solution To Fashion's Sustainability Problem
By Macaela MacKenzie , WOMEN@FORBES
The fashion industry is notorious for its negative environmental impact. Designer and entrepreneur Hailey Harmon is helping set a new standard for sustainability using an unexpected resource: fish.
Recent conversations on sustainability have put a spotlight on fashion, a $2.4 trillion industry known for its eco-irresponsibility.
According to the World Resources Institute, a global research organization monitoring environmental issues, not only does the industry pollute — production for polyester textiles alone released 1.5 trillion pounds of greenhouse gases into the air in 2015 — but it also eats up resources on a massive scale. To make a single cotton t-shirt, it takes a two-and-a-half-year supply of drinking water for one person. The rise of fast fashion and social media-fueled tap-to-buy spending certainly haven’t helped the issue.
Harmon aims to do her part to set a new standard for the industry with a fast fashion antithesis. Slow and sustainable, her luxury leather goods brand AITCH AITCH is a small but mighty example of how fashion can be both chic and responsible.
“I was born to start my own business,” says Harmon—specifically an eco-friendly one. “I've always been around nature and been really conscious of it,” she says.
She also developed a keen eye for luxury and the level of craftsmanship that have made brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci the Godfathers of the industry while growing up north of San Francisco. “My family is in the luxury hotel business, so I grew up around this uncompromising value of incredible craftsmanship,” she says.
After starting her career under sustainable jewelry designer Monique Péan, Harmon headed to business school to make her entrepreneurial destiny a reality. There, she started having conversations with her classmates about how “chic” and “sustainable” often feel like antonyms in the luxury goods market.
“In other aspects of the industry, like beauty, sustainability is seen as a luxury,” she said, referencing the exploding natural beauty movement. “Looking at the market for consumer goods, apparel and accessories, it was like, ‘Why is there still this disparity between the two?’”
It was during these b-school conversations that salmon skin landed on Harmon’s radar. Aside from looking exotic and expensive (think luxury leathers like snake skin or alligator), the traditional leather alternative is also incredibly sustainable.
The skins Harmon uses in her bags are natural byproducts of the fishing industry—instead of trashing the skins as the fish are processed, companies like Harmon’s have them tanned. “You're basically up-cycling, which is a very un-sexy word,” she said. “Literally taking something that would end up being thrown out or discarded as waste, and turning it into something that people want to keep and treasure and pass down for generations.” She was hooked.
The more Harmon researched the idea of a luxe brand of sustainability, the more she saw the fashion industry moving in that direction. “Not just as a trend, but as a very significant shift,” she says.
So after finishing her MBA, Harmon started a nine-month apprenticeship training with a craftswoman who spent 20 years in the luxury atelier at Hermès. “During that process, I found a studio in London that I now work with that is passionate about keeping craftsmanship alive in the age of fast fashion,” Harmon said. “They want to honor this tradition that has been around for hundreds of years—my goal was to bring more innovative materials into that mix.”
While things like sustainable materials, natural dyes and non-toxic manufacturing processes remain at the core of AITCH AITCH, Harmon knows when you’re trying to sell the message of sustainability to an industry just on the cusp of catching on, design has to reign supreme. “It doesn't matter how sustainable, how eco-friendly. If it's ugly, nobody's going to buy it. Period,” she said.
Now almost a year after the official launch of AITCH AITCH, Harmon’s biggest challenge is no longer finding her rallying cry but finding ways to expand the conversation as the fashion industry begins to catch on.
In recent years, designers including Viktor and Rolf and Stella McCartney have made a habit of showing up-cycled, sustainable collections. Furthering the movement, Gucci recently announced it will be going fur-free starting in 2018.
“It's still kind of the beginning of this revolution in fashion, to be sustainable and ethical,” said Harmon. But like her early business school prediction, she doesn’t see the movement slowing down any time soon. “There are a lot of people that are so excited about it. Early adopters are really getting it and wanting to scream the message from the rooftops and spread it like wildfire.”
Here’s Harmon’s advice for young businesses hoping to make a big impact:
Forget instant gratification. Doing it right trumps doing it quickly. “You hear about these things that seemingly blow up overnight on social media platforms. Or all of a sudden a Kardashian is wearing something, and then that company is skyrocketing—but, there's so much time and effort that goes into those companies,” Harmon said, which is why she took a hiatus from her creative pursuits to back her business acumen up with an MBA. “There's a lot of aspects of starting a business that are so unglamorous. I meet with an accountant once a week—It's so boring but, I know how to do it.”
Find a mentor. “I think that we're right on the edge of women having the guts and the precedent to start their own business, without needing to look to someone who’s done it first—but, it's still really hard,” Harmon said. “Women are still the minority in a lot of businesses. Even in fashion where there are a lot of women at the top of the design world, a lot of investors are men,” she says. “Having a woman that you can look to as a mentor or even as a role model kind of gets you through some of the darker times of starting your own business.”
Find your tribe. Connecting with people across industries who are passionate about the same mission, can be more helpful than you might think. “We all need to kind of lift each other up and support each other in that sense,” she said—even if it’s as simple as reaching out to a blogger on social media to voice your love for his or her work. “You just develop and build relationships with these people, because your business isn't about what you're making—it's about why you're making it.”
Live your values. When you’re building a brand with a mission, you have to fight for authenticity with every step. “Asking the uncomfortable questions that you might not want to hear the answer to when you're talking to manufacturers and suppliers is so important,” said Harmon. “If they're not giving you a straight answer, there's a reason for that. If I ask a question, I expect an answer.” While it might be harder to find companies who share your vision every step of the way, “it's worth it to keep your ethics and your values in check. Once you compromise one thing, it can snowball very quickly—then you end up with a product you're not proud to stand behind.”