Pictured from left to right, the Yoga Democracy team of September Easter, Natalie Oldroyd, Kirsten Gilbert, Edward Barnett, and Maria Reyes Cano. (Photo Courtesy of Natalie Oldroyd.)
In our third Q & A in honor of Fashion Revolution Week 2017, we spoke with Natalie Oldroyd, the owner of the Carefree, Arizona based Yoga Democracy. Yoga Democracy aims to fill a gap in the athleticwear industry by providing sustainably made yoga pants to customers.
UR: Tell our readers about your business and what you do.
NO: It’s based in Arizona, just outside of Cave Creek, in Carefree; that’s where our workshop is. We manufacture sustainable yogawear or athletic clothing and mainly leggings are our main product. Everything that we sell on the website, we manufacture in house. We set a goal of 95 percent of our fabric containing at least 60 percent recycled fibers to reduce the environmental impact of our garments. We also use a zero water dyeing process for most of our products including our artwork leggings, which is our main product line right now.
UR: Tell us the story of how Yoga Democracy started.
NO: It came from my frustration with a lack of alternatives for ethically made and environmentally friendlier athleticwear. I was doing a lot of Bikram (which is a type of yoga) at the time, and it seemed very strange to be buying from companies that make things in countries where standards are not typically great in terms of labor laws and also in terms of textile production and manufacturing on the environmental side of things. There is a human rights element and then there is also the environmental element. And then to charge an extraordinary amount of money for these garments and then to market it to people who are doing things like yoga, it didn’t jive. There is kind of a disconnect in yoga and the ‘do no harm’ philosophy behind it and the kind of clothing that was being sold to people practicing yoga.
UR: What is the meaning behind the name Yoga Democracy?
NO: The idea was always to focus on direct to the customer. Costs to produce in the U.S. are significantly higher than they are to produce in Vietnam, China, Pakistan, India or Mexico. In order for the company to be sustainable and to grow, I wanted to focus on direct-to-customer to show our website was going to be the primary way of delivering it. If our business model was primarily wholesale, we’d have to increase our prices and then that kind of puts off the middle income customer. It’s a hard sell to convince somebody to spend triple digits plus on a pair of leggings. The idea was to try to be affordable and an affordable alternative —not cheap, we can never do cheap, we can’t—but to be affordable and obtainable for, say, a middle class customer. So that’s where the democracy side of it came from. And also kind of from [where] we’ll do prints and come up with some crazy ideas and put it up on the website and if people don’t like it, we just don’t make that thing. We start small and then respond to the customer. We do some experiemental things, but if they respond well, than we make more. And so there is a very close connection with the customer and responding very quickly to what they want.
UR: Yoga Democracy produces products from 95 percent recycled fibers, aims to minimize water use and waste in it’s garment production, and products are locally made in the Carefree. workshop. How did these ethical production and business decisions come about when you were deciding to start the company?
NO: It kind of evolved. The intention always from the very beginning since day one was I decided to create a company that relied almost exclusively on either recycled fibers or sustainably produced textiles. That was the beginning, that was always from day one, a part of the company. The in-house production kind of evolved, so we were always making things in the U.S. We’ve never not made our garments, like you see [when] they’re made outside of the country, but being an Arizona company and starting as a small company, it became clear that the only way to grow would be to take all of the production in-house. Because of the geography and because this idea of responding to the customer and making things in short and small quantity and then seeing how they respond, I didn’t want to get tied into minimum orders and transporting things back and forth because that also adds to the carbon footprint and trucking back and forth. Also, just the commercial reality of being an Arizona company and trying to rely on cut and sew contractors in a place like California, it’s very tricky to grow because most of these companies have minimum orders and it stymies on the design side in that you have to guess what people want, and I’ve never been very good at guessing what people want. I’d rather just come up with some crazy ideas and stick it on the website and then see how they respond and then move from there and that doesn’t work well with outsourcing things. So there are two: there’s the commercial reality and the environmental side of things. I came to the realization that in order for the company to grow, we’d have to take everything in-house and so we went through a period of purchasing sewing equipment and training and adding staff on the sewing side. The dyeing we’ve always done, so that’s zero water dyeing, from day one we were doing that. We’ve already kind of taken more elements of a production house, but it just became clear that we had to and because there’s no garment manufacturing industry in Arizona. There’s no cut and sew people down the road. We had to learn and become that ourselves and that’s what we did.
UR: Why is it important to have sustainability in the athletic wear industry?
NO: For one thing, it’s a growing segment. Though growth rates have fallen a bit, there was a fever pitch there for a while, so there’s that. Also, the sportswear industry has a large dependence on synthetics. The kind of nature of the beast is you’re going to be sweating in it, you want to stretch in it, you want to crossfit in it, you want to swim in it. Performance apparel goes through a lot of stress and there’s a lot more demand put on a pair of leggings or even just a top for sporting in a yoga class than say, just a dress or a t-shirt. So I don’t think you’re ever going to get away from synthetics in the sector, they just have functional properties that are required. So it’s a dirty kind of sector overall, even by the standards of apparel. It’s very energy intensive, it’s very wasteful, but it’s also growing and the idea of using recycled fibers reduces the energy requirements in production by about 50 percent, so it’s a huge savings. Our nylon produces half the CO2, half the energy required in production, something like six times less water, even in the spinning process, so even before it comes to us. In the original manufacturing, it requires significantly less water, so there is a real need in performance wear to figure out how to meet the customer demand for it and to come up with garments that are going to offer an alternative that’s going to be comfortable as well but still kind of push back on the high cost of the sector.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.