It’s time to be bold for ethical fashion

“We thought about changing it… maybe it’s too provocative,” said Sara, business manager of “THRIVE”, an ethical fashion store in Gothenburg, as she caught me chuckling at their branded tote bag that reads “#FUCK FAST FASHION”.

Then she added “but we really want to take a stand for ethical fashion, cuz it’s time.”

It indeed is time.

Gothenburg is the second largest city in Sweden, the country known for IKEA, good looking people and and their environmental consciousness. It’s where you always have to look out for the bikers when crossing the street; where you can ask for a latte made with soy milk in almost every cafe; where everyone, even the kids know how to separate garbage into six categories. However, you may not expect that it is also home to one of the biggest fast fashion brands.

In Gothenburg alone, three big H&M stores are located within 1 km in the main shopping area, with countless similar brands like Zara and Lindex scattered in between. And they are always busy, especially when there are new season sales, mid season sales, end season sales; or when it’s the holiday season, weekends, or just when the weather is nice… There is never a bad time for buying new clothes.

No wonder according to Ecowatch, the fashion industry is valued at 3 trillion dollars, approximately 2% of the world’s GDP.  The Godfather said it the best: “Behind every great fortune, there is a crime.” In the case of fast fashion, indeed, many crimes. From the intensive water hogging plantation of raw materials, to the dirty polluting chemical dyes to the inhumane exploitation of cheap labor… Most conveniently, all these costs are nicely hidden from the consumers’ conscientious radar.

Hopefully that is about to change as increasing number of mission oriented businesses are providing us with easy alternatives. Sara and Fredrick’s store, “Thrive” being on of them. The couple have always been interested in introducing a more sustainable lifestyle to the public through their work. They have explored areas from food, green building to renewable energies but hadn’t been able to set their mind on one. Luckily, sometimes opportunities arise and give us a gentle push towards the direction we are meant to go. After a trip to Bali, they got an offer to take over an uncle’s clothing store on a nice street in Gothenburg.

It’s a perfect opportunity and they decided to transform it into an ethical fashion store. They quickly got to work with Sara diving into the books and the internet to research about sustainable fashion standards, and a diverse range of materials and brands; Fredrick working a part time job to make ends meet while learning how to run a business and to decorate the store with recycled wood palettes.

I was quite impressed with their courage to go all in into an unfamiliar field. They don’t have a business or fashion background but they took a chance, worked hard and made it happen. I think that’s truly inspiring for anyone with ideas they want to realize. We’ll never be 100% ready for the projects we want to do. Sometimes all it takes is the courage to get started, then just work hard to figure it out as you go.

Another aspect that compelled me to write about their story is their commitment to a high sustainability standard for the products they sell. Sara told me a story of receiving an order from a brand and later found out that certain ethical requirements hadn’t been met then had to return all those clothes. Decisions like this certainly cost business, but Sara is quick to make the tough calls. Maybe that’s what happens when you want to build a business for a cause but not for getting filthy rich, such decisions just aren’t so hard anymore.

You tend to be taught a lot about making compromises during an education on sustainability: “No, that pipeline had to be built or the people wouldn’t have enough energy”, “No, they couldn’t force their suppliers to raise their standards or it would be too expensive to produce the products”, “No, we can’t introduce tax to reduce traffic in the city or people won’t get to enjoy their polluting lifestyle”…

That’s why it’s so encouraging to know that there are people who have gone past all the temptations and illusions of convenience to compromise. Instead they took a stand and then built a small business according to their much-higher-than-market ethical standards. And as it turned out, they managed to demonstrate that ethical fashion can be at a reasonable price and have great cool designs. They have been well received by the citizens of Gothenburg and their business is doing well. “People want to be part of the good,” as Sara told me. And they believe that they should make it easy for people to choose ethical and sustainable products, as that is the most effective way to change behavior.

It makes me optimistic to notice that more and more sustainable products are coming into the market. And we no longer have excuses to settle for something “ok”. Stop shrugging it off and telling yourself that you don’t have a choice. We are all masters of self deception and turning blind eyes, but what if we don’t “need” to anymore. It’s entirely possible to wear only ethical fashion that is also stylish and reasonably priced. Though of course they won’t be dirt cheap as the plastiky dresses from Primark, I bet a thought through clothing purchase will bring you long lasting joy as a reminder of your being GOOD.

Now you may wonder isn’t “Thrive” still a business that relies on sales and profits? Aren’t Sara and Fredrick trying to grow their business despite that they want to reduce dirty fashion consumption? It indeed requires delicate balance. They’d like to grow their business to be able to carry the message further and to provide this alternative choice to more people. At the same time, they do not like having big sales because it encourages thoughtless buying. Fredrick tells their customers that he cares more that they get what they truly like and will take care of, than them simply buying the products. So when you come to the store, you could trust that you are under no pressure to buy that sweater you are not sure about. But when you really need a pair of jeans, do remember to go check out their shop before heading to Östra Hamngatan.


(All photos are taken at the shop “Thrive”. Södra Allégatan 11, Gothenburg)

PS: I recently attended a Circular Fashion event co-hosted by KPMG and H&M where the sustainability manager of H&M, Hendrik Alpen appeared and gave a nice talk on their endeavors to be more green: collecting old clothes, sponsoring eco-startups, sourcing more organic cotton, buying more renewable energy and etc. I was highly skeptical about their sincerity for sustainability and then I realized that maybe they are doing the best they could. Indeed as Aplen said, if H&M is not selling massive amount of clothes, others will.

This fast fashion business model is indeed powered by consumers. Maybe H&M is partially responsible for creating the opportunity for such business models to exist but now it’s naive to ask them to change the fundamental way of how they make money and go out of business. All they are capable of is reducing the environmental impact of their products but not telling their consumers what a horrible thing they are doing to the planet by buying so excessively. So in the end, the power to change lies in you and me to put more thoughts into the things we buy and the business we support.