Photo by Kelly Cappelli
In our fourth and final Q & A for Fashion Revolution Week 2017, we spoke with Tracey Martin, a woman of many talents. Martin is a designer and sustainability strategist for companies and individuals. She is also the founder of three different companies: De La Terre Colours, which makes “GOTS certified plant based dyes for the textile industry,” Threads of Evolution, “a curated global marketplace for sustainable luxury items,” and Sustainable in Stilettos, an upcoming book and blog of the same name.
UR: Describe for our readers what you do.
TM: I do a couple different things. The fashion industry I’ve been in for about 18 years and I’ve launched quite a few different brands and I do consulting with up and coming brands and designers as well just to try and shift the consciousness of where we’re currently at and understanding. I also speak across the country on sustainability. I’m also a transformational life coach, which is really a good tool to have in this industry, because so much of it is ego based and there’s a way that we can have a conversation that creates more of a shift in consciousness where they show up differently in their jobs, in their companies, and in their projects. I also developed the nine pillars of sustainable living that I teach, that talk a lot about what your thought processes are, [such as] what’s your ‘why?’ We don’t need another brand doing the same thing over and over again, we need different things that are accessible to consumers, but then we also need to educate consumers so that they understand what their purchases actually impact, what their money actually goes to, and who they’re supporting with their purchases. Then I also design. I have a line coming out called Kaizen that will be coming out this Fall that’s all created with organic and sustainable fibers. It’s a classic line, it’s beautiful women’s basics, luxury basics that are…actually, you know, it’s funny—we use that term ‘luxury’ but luxury really just means the things that last and are durable and made well with design aesthetic. It’s not a status symbol, which is what Louis Vuitton and all those bags have got to be. So redefining luxury is really important to me. I mean, halfway around the world, water is luxury. So it’s really, ‘how can we define that?’ I also work with other designers as well to elevate their consciousness and across the globe we have people I work with in London and in France and they’re on the same mission, so it’s always fun to compare what we’re doing here in the U.S. which is not enough compared to what their doing, which is awesome. We’re supposed to be the leader, but we’ve lost our way a little bit.
UR: How did you first become interested in sustainability in the fashion industry and why?
TM: I have a huge why, but my first thing, is that I was actually raised on an organic farm. So my mom was the one that every morning said, “go out in the garden, pick what you want,” but it was a huge garden. Unfortunately, back then when I was eating meat, we raised our own cattle and we would have one that would be butchered a year and that fed my family for a year. My mom canned, we were taught all that kind of stuff, we were taught to buy well but buy less. I started making my own clothes when I was very, very, young and got into fashion after my oldest daughter, (she’ll be eighteen in September) when she was born, I launched a clothing line and I watched how I was producing things. I flew down to Miami and I met with my manufacturing plant that would make all my clothing and saw how it was done, saw all the dyes—so I’ve seen how it’s done here in the U.S. to an extent but not what it is overseas that we’ve done—which fast fashion over the last 50 years is really what has happened. And then my big why is that I believe we can all show up differently and my oldest daughter, all of her shots as a baby were contaminated with heavy metals, which is the same heavy metals that our clothing is being treated with and she has now Alopecia Universalis. She’s completely bald, eyelashes, eyebrows, she has no hair anywhere on her body, and I watched her at 4 years old lose her gorgeous waist length long brown hair over time and although Alopecia is not a life threatening, it’s life altering, so the message is that a lot of these things that we’re dealing with today healthwise are environmental. …There are people who are dealing with this all across the world and we have more resources here in the U.S., but over in the third world countries, they’re actually living with these heavy metals and a lot of other toxic chemicals that are lethal for humans. They don’t have the resources, they are just waiting for their own children to die or their life expectancy is cut short when they work in these factories. There’s a lot of why there, but the big thing is just from a humanity standpoint that when we purchase things, how much is enough? When is it ever going to be enough? … So there’s always that human aspect for me, which I don’t believe there is anything in anyone’s closet that is worth someone else’s life.
UR: What do you think is the most common misconception surrounding sustainability in the fashion industry and why?
TM: I think the common misconception is that it’s more expensive to do things better and that’s not true. I think a lot of times, the problem is systemic because designers that are graduating from these design classes have very minimal exposure to sustainability and how to actually create their line with better products and a better supply chain. So systemically, I think that it’s been perpetuated over the years and the curriculums have not been changed. … I think why is because I think the fashion industry is in it’s own way. Your supply chain is not a part of your brand story, we just tell people how beautiful the clothes are, how sexy and confident you’re going to be in them. We don’t tell them how we got it and I think that’s one of the issues. … I mean, if I told you a 12 year old made your shirt, you’d be appalled, but you like the fact that you can buy it for seven bucks. I think that’s the difference with the industry. The industry is definitely in it’s own way and it’s going to take the consumer and demand changes—which the consumers are going to have to understand—is if you had to pay the true cost of that shirt hanging in the store, you wouldn’t be able to afford it. Nobody’s taken into consideration major resources, nobody’s taken into consideration the water, I mean, 18 hundred gallons to make a pair of jeans, from growing the cotton to finishing the product—to pay for that? Imagine what your water bill is! And it goes on to health issues; these workers have no healthcare, they have nothing, human rights workers, they haven’t actually been able to get in and actually assess until there’s a tragedy like Rana Plaza, but the problem is that there are Rana Plazas happening all over the world all the time. We don’t see it because it’s not covered by the media. It takes people who are out there doing documentaries and sending information and actually being truthful and transparent to actually realize that this has to change. … If we actually paid the correct price, which is purchasing something in the U.S.— it has a smaller carbon footprint, that was made with fair wages, that was made with natural fibers—it is expensive. It actually is what it should be.
UR: As a public speaker on the topic of sustainability, what responses do you receive from people about the impact that your knowledge has on them?
TM: A lot of overwhelming helplessness. They see and they hear things that they had no idea. So one of the beautiful things about being able to deliver that message, is to deliver it in such a way that it’s not a judgement, it’s not alienating anyone. It’s an invitation to do better. … A lot of the the questions that I get is how can they do something better? So I have a whole resource on things that people can do differently everyday, places that they can shop and different habits that they can break, because they are habits that we’ve gotten into of purchasing things that we want when we want them. And realizing that you can buy less and buy better or there are other ways of shopping; there are other places to go, there are other outlets to go to, there are great apps on your phone that you can do things with and you can purchase through there that are resale but that are higher end. There are a lot of other really cool things. They also want to know what companies they need to support that are doing really good things. So I have a whole resource of different brands that are doing really good things in sustainability. I think the biggest thing is that they just don’t see how they’ve participated in it and since they don’t see it everyday, they don’t necessarily believe it. I have them look at the label of the clothing that they’re wearing and nine chances out of 10, it’s made overseas and it’s made in China or Bangladesh, wherever it may be. So then they kind of sit there for a minute and think, you know, maybe I have had something to do with this, and that’s probably the hardest thing for people to digest. Then it’s basically, how did it get this way? Who let it happen? I don’t think we as consumers woke up one day and said, “hey, I’m tired of paying this amount of money for something. I want cheap, cheap cheap.” I don’t think we asked for it. I think we were gutted though the brands, because the brands’ profits were astronomical. Like I said, I think the problem is systemic, but whenever I speak on sustainability the audience is very shocked at first, but then I tell them, “this is strictly an invitation to step into sustainability in a way that works for you.” And then once you start to make those small changes, it snowballs into bigger changes.
UR: You’ve also spoken with major brands about bringing sustainability in their garments to the fashion world. What responses have you received from them and what is needed on their part to shift to a more sustainable market?
TM: Well, it depends on who they are. I spoke with a super large denim company a few months ago and ironically, they actually contacted me about our indigo dyes that we have with our brand, and so I flew to L.A. and met with their men’s design team and it was funny because they said, “Well, just so you know, we’re not a sustainable company. We want to make money.” And I kind of laughed and said, “Well I want to make money too. Because the more money that I make, the more abundance and change I can help happen.” So, I said,”We’re speaking the same language. This isn’t about not making money, it’s about realizing that there should be a triple bottom line that you should be concerned with your people, your planet, and your profit.” It shouldn’t just be, how much money can I make for a company, because at that rate, just that one mindset of ‘I want to make money, money, money,’ you’re not realizing the imprint and the footprint that they have. The big thing that I work with is bringing the dye and then I talk about their supply chain. The problem is that the brands do not own the factories that are produced overseas. There are brands that own their own factories that are vertically integrated and that means that they, from start to finish, make their entire product and they really enforce the issues with workers rights, the safety, the compliancy of chemical dumpage, all that kind of stuff. They can actually control that in a sense. If I’m producing denim and my line is designed in L.A., but my production is overseas, I don’t really care about it because I’m not emotionally invested in China and that’s why I said being a transformational coach is such an interesting play because at the end of the day, if you’re not emotionally invested in something, you really don’t care. So my job is to help understand why they should care as a brand and then I like to bring those questions home to them to understand at that point in time, you are an influence and how will you use that influence that you have? And if you’re just producing jeans and you’re just making money, what’s your ‘why’ at that point? And that’s a huge one. There are going to be brands who don’t care about the why at all, they just want to make money, but a lot of the brands, once I have the meeting with them, do understand that their employees are their biggest natural resource and they should be taking care of them. And it’s not the employees in the U.S. they see everyday, it’s the employees that are actually making their product come to life overseas and realizing that they can make it better for them if they choose better factories and if they understand. … If you truly want to be a bottom line brand, you need to speak to the things that people care about, and they care about what’s going on, they just don’t necessarily know everything that’s going on. … When you speak with all these bigger brands if you can get to the point of what their why is, why they do what they do, and then the conversation draws from there and ask them what their impact is, it really is a different conversation because most of them are just interested in profit margin. The answer too, is that there’s a lot of people within the fashion industry that care more than that, so it’s finding those conversations with common ground communicators that I love to do because then that way I can sit with them and they can understand that they should care and here’s why. And at that point in time, I’ve given them the information and I usually get phone calls back after I’ve left that say, ‘You know, man, you really got us thinking.” I go, “That’s all that I ask. All that I ask is that you think about what you’re doing and that you can make steps in the right direction but you follow through on those steps, otherwise it’s just greenwashing and it’s just lip service, and I’m not interested.”
UR: The opposing view to the concept of fast fashion and the need for sustainable clothing due to the Rana Plaza collapse is that while the fashion industry has had a large negatively impact on the world, consumerism, and human working conditions and rights, that those people in those countries have those manufacturing jobs as their livelihood and that that’s their daily life, whereas, some would say that at least they have a job and are earning wages, as opposed to the opposite, where the could be not making any money and doing much worse jobs. What is your response to that opposition?
TM: Well and that right there, exactly what you’ve said, is part of the problem. We’re okay with the way that they’re living, we’re okay with the way that they’re being treated and that again, boils down to a moral issue. We would not stand for that kind of stuff in the U.S., we just wouldn’t. And we’re building our closets on third world backs and that’s why I say it’s a moral and ethical issue at this point in time. Absolutely, they have jobs, but what kind of jobs? At what price? We have an entity here called OSHA and if you’re on a job and OSHA comes out, OSHA’s there to make sure that people are treated right; there’s no safety hazards, everything is met to standards, and that’s what we expect here because that’s the way we’ve set up our business and our commerce. Over in the other countries, if I care about the rivers and the oceans, I should care about them all, not just the ones that I can see and because everything that we touch in this world affects something else and someone else. So yeah, they do have jobs and I would love for them to continue to have jobs but what is that job actually paying and what is the price that they’re actually paying? …That kind of question, I totally understand and I’ve been asked it numerous times…That that kind of question is really a very, I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, ignorant type of a response because it’s just like saying to someone, “Well at least she’s got a job, but she’s a prostitute. But she’s got a job.” And to be perfectly and bluntly honest, would we want that for our daughters? No, we wouldn’t. So that’s what is boils down to, the fact that, “Okay, well she’s got a job and she’s paying taxes, who really cares?” But what’s the moral and ethical ramifications of what that job brings? And that’s what we have to understand. These people are making clothing. This shouldn’t be a life threatening job, but it is. I mean, it shouldn’t be that when they walk into the factory, they have to suit up to make the chemicals in the U.S. but when we ship the chemicals overseas, these people are barefoot, they have no long sleeves on, they have no respirators on, they’re not given any kind of safety materials, they’re not given any kind of education, and that to me is a ‘responsible factor’ missing from the corporation. … There are so many things that we don’t see, we just sit where we are from our armchairs and our sofas and it’s just not the responsible thing to do. The responsible thing to do is to ask powerful questions.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.