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Welcome to the Companies That Care podcast, where I highlight business leaders who are making a difference in the world. I have a passion for companies that care and give back to their communities. The first three episodes of Companies That Care, launched on Earth Day, focus on sustainable fashion, food, and corporate philanthropy.
In this episode I talk to Aroa Fernandez Alvarez, cofounder of Trace Collective from London, UK. Trace is a group of two organizations—a fashion brand and a nonprofit--on a mission to make fashion regenerative. They are reimagining what it means to be sustainable in today's world by producing fully traceable clothes that drive environmental regeneration, helping reverse climate change.
Aroa and her partner, Antonia Halko, founded Trace Collective and Trace Planet in 2019. Aroa’s career has been in environmental and social impact, while Antonia has always worked in the fashion industry. Aroa has been concerned about the impact the fashion industry is having on the environment.
Trace Collective’s mission is to make fashion regenerative. They observed that the mindset of sustainability in fashion is “damaging less.” Aroa pointed out that we have enough garments in the world to go around, so fashion is not really necessary.
“So we are going to produce a product that it's not necessary. We needed to make sure that that product had a very tangible social and environmental positive impact. And that's what we set out to do.”
They have created a fashion company that connects regenerative agriculture, repairing the environment and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.
All of Trace Collective’s fabric is biodegradable, and they only use fabrics that come from farms.
Aroa explained that much of clothing today is produced from synthetic fibers like polyester. These synthetic fabrics are bad for the environment because they are frequently are made from oil or petrol. They also shed microfibers into the ocean for as long as they are in circulation.
Trace Collective’s garments are fully traceable, produced without pesticides and without dyes or treatments.
“What makes our clothes biodegradable is that we also don't use any other components that wouldn't be biodegradable. For example, most thread used in the fashion supply chain is polyester, even if you're buying a cotton jumper…we look at everything from our buttons to our threads to the interlining and make sure that every single material is checked for biodegradability.”
Trace Collective does an impact audit on all their products. Their radical transparency strategy has three components for each piece of clothing: traceability, impact, and production cost.
“We think it's really important that people understand how much it costs to produce clothes fairly, because that's how we start to ask challenging questions about what's actually behind the garments that we buy very, very cheaply today.”
They want to benchmark their components against the industry and ensure they are significantly lower than industry practices. They work with an external auditor to track these metrics and make sure they are working regeneratively.
Aroa explained the impact of fast fashion on the world.
“Fashion today is one of the world's most polluting industries. It produces more carbon emissions, more greenhouse emissions than shipping and aviation combined…fashion pollutes more than those two industries combined and is responsible for 20 percent of industrial water pollution, mainly through the dying process and through the use of pesticides and tanneries.”
At the same time, fast fashion means that clothes cost less, so we buy and dispose of them more than ever before, and most of them end up in a landfill or being incinerated.
“We are producing and throwing away clothes at an unprecedented rate.”
The latest data from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation shows that every second, we burn the equivalent of a garbage truck full of textiles.
In addition, cotton farmers are not being paid enough.
“They are being pushed to use more and more intensive pesticides that eventually completely degrade their soil to an extent where they cannot grow anything…we all know the story about human rights abuses in factories in Southeast Asia, which is where most of our clothes come from. And a lot of data show us how fashion is one of the last industries for modern slavery.”
Trace Collective is committed to paying the workers across their supply chain fair living wages. They travel to each of their factories and suppliers and ask very uncomfortable questions about how much their workers are paid.
They also choose to work with social companies that create value in their communities, moving capital to the social sector and maximizing the value customers receive with their purchases. For example, they partner with an organization in Barcelona that works with incarcerated women and other women at risk, helping them learn sewing skills so they can find stable employment.
“I think it starts with asking questions of any company about how much do you know about the people that make your product? How much do you know about your supply chain and all the different stages? I think it's important to open up these important conversations with suppliers about their working culture and the welfare of their workers and how much the workers are paid.”
To make fashion regenerative, they have two organizations: Trace Collective and Trace Planet. Trace Collective creates demand for fabric sources from generative agriculture, and the more people buy their products, the more they can support farmers’ transition towards regenerative agriculture.
The vision of Trace Planet, their nonprofit, is to help society transition from an extractive to a regenerative mindset. They are researching the connections between farm and fashion because of the impact on farmers’ lives.
“Roughly 300,000,000 farmers work in the fashion industry. But, where are they? What are their crops? How are they farming? There are a lot of answers that we don't know, and if we don't know those answers, we cannot create the right superstructures to create change towards regenerative culture.”
Trace Planet also offers educational activities through online and offline events, panel discussions, and fun interactive workshops. Subscribe to the Trace Planet newsletter if you’re interested in the workshops.
“What we try to do is build these immediate connections between our decisions as consumers and the power that we have to create change in the world. So, we use fashion as an entry point to have deeper conversations about the environment and how we are affecting it and how we can change our habits to create positive impact."
Because Trace Collective’s products are higher-end designer goods, I asked Aroa how everyone, no matter the income, can tread more lightly and navigate fashion sustainably, as explained in one of their blog posts, “Navigating Sustainability in Fashion.”
“The first one is to just buy less clothes…I think we need to look at keeping clothes in circulation for longer, and a super fun way to do that is by organizing a clothes swap with your family and with your friends. That is the most sustainable way to get new clothes without creating environmental impact. The second option is to buy clothes secondhand from somebody else.”
She also suggested renting clothing, which is something Trace Collective offers, in addition to free lifetime repairs.
Another way to reduce environmental impact is to re-examine how we wash and take care of our clothes.
“A lot of garments’ lifecycle impact comes from when we have it at home, not from the production cycle.”
She recommends washing in cold water and washing them less, separating pieces according to their care instructions, drying our clothing outside instead of in a dryer, and using something like a Guppyfriend bag to prevent the release of microplastics in the ocean. Also, if we get a stain on a piece of white clothing, we can experiment at home with dyeing.
Aroa and I also discussed how they started their company with a Kickstarter, and how they were just in the process of rolling it out when COVID hit. That slowed down their plans to enter the market, but things have been improving.
“We’ve tried to see COVID as an opportunity to make sure that the product was perfect. COVID gave us a breather to focus a lot on Trace Planet’s work. We were able to launch a very exciting workshop series and engage hundreds of people in very deep, meaningful conversations about our role as consumers to drive change.”
Aroa hopes more fashion brands come together, not in a competitive way, but in a collaborative way to create the structures we need to scale regenerative agriculture and bring transparency to fashion supply. Right now, Trace Collective is the only fashion brand that is fully focused on regenerative agriculture, but she hopes this becomes the mainstream.
She advises other companies to think about their own impact and what they can do to change.
“What’s the change you want to create? See what’s out there, because I think sometimes we are stronger when we join forces with existing initiatives and replication is not necessarily good when it comes to creating systemic change. See how you can build meaningful collaborations and if it comes down to nobody doing this and it needs to be me, then make sure you hold yourself accountable to those impact dollars.”
Aroa’s convinced that collaboration is the best way to achieve systemic and long-lasting impact, so she recommends finding the right partners to help grow your company and expand your vision. Trace Collective would be an outstanding partner for any other organization in the fashion or apparel industry.
In the next episode I interview Narendra Varma, one of the cofounders of our Table Cooperative in Sherwood, Oregon, a cooperative model for community food systems. Our Table grows organic products and, like Trace Cooperative, also has a nonprofit that offers education and supports food security.
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Contact us if you can use some help with your writing, editing, communications, or marketing. With 30 years of experience in the environmental consulting industry, I am passionate about sustainability and corporate citizenship, equity & inclusion, businesses that use their power for good, and doing everything I can to create a kinder, more sustainable, and just world. We help organizations and people discover what makes them special and help them share that with the world.
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