Whether you’re an eco princess or not, it’s good to be aware of the fact that the fashion industry is the most polluting business in the world – second to oil. Did you know it can take more than 20,000 liters of water to produce 1 kg of cotton, equivalent to one t-shirt and a pair of jeans?
That said, sustainable fashion brands try to tackle the fast fashion industry and these they’ve become more and more popular these days, ranging from luxury to high street brands. In other words, it’s never been easier for us to shop responsible and environmentally friendly styles. Today, we’re talking sustainable fashion with Willa Stoutenbeek (34), owner of W.Green, a branded communication agency with a focus on sustainable fashion & lifestyle, based in Amsterdam. Willa: “My goal is that W.Green will be obsolete by 2025.
You’ve been working in PR years before you decided to run your own sustainable fashion business. Were you always that much into sustainable fashion?
Willa: ‘Well, no. The whole sustainable fashion business grew on me. I did choose to be a vegetarian by the age of 9 and I’ve always been politically inclined. I was a lot more of an activist in my younger years. My dad used to call me a champagne socialist. I used to tell him that I do think you can have a Gucci bag ánd be a socialist too, he was raised in an entrepreneurial family and was taught to have different beliefs. I told him I was a socialist and I donated a lot of money to charity, but I found a designer bag important too. Haha.. I do look at things a little different now but I think my beliefs are still rooted in that rather ‘naïve’ conviction I had back then.’
How did you make the leap running your own business in sustainable fashion?
Willa: ‘My high school years were a mess, to say the least. After several obligatory psychological tests, I was diagnosed to be gifted and suffered from ADD on top of that. I didn’t know how to follow the linear route that school expected of me, I was also very frustrated they didn’t offer alternative routes which lead to me dropping out school by the age of 17. I was an unhappy teen, bored out my mind and ready for a new adventure. I started at rock bottom (as a store clerk) and climbed my way up, step by step. I rose to the top without any degree – it took me 10 years. At Spice PR, I worked with amazing fashion designers big brands: from Hugo Boss to the Glamour magazine. My last job was as marketing manager for a successful Dutch Denim brand where I was in charge of all the event production and communication materials and activities.’
What happened next?
Willa: ‘After a few pretty successful years, something was gnawing at me. I was near a burnout and wanted to make a difference. I talked my career through with a good friend, one hot summer night on a balcony in Rio de Janeiro. We spoke about my talents in branding and communication, but I explained I didn’t want to work with brands anymore I couldn’t relate to as I became more and more concerned with sustainability and the environment. She said: why don’t you combine the two, start your own PR business and work with sustainable brands only? That’s what I did. Initially, I started from under the umbrella of Spice PR as an Associate Partner but looking back it all really started when I launched W.Green in 2013. Me and the team have a grand ambition to clean up the industry in an aesthetically high-value manner.’
‘I believe in honesty, transparency and although I’m familiar with old models and ideas, I rather pioneer and find new models and solutions. Therefore, W.Green evolved into something more than just a PR agency. We offer everything from brand strategy, positioning, identity, art direction and communication in the broadest sense of the word. Good design needs a good story. If a sustainable product has an incredible story, it doesn’t sell itself if it’s not aesthetically on fleek.’
Let’s move over to the myths. Myth #1: sustainable fashion isn’t that fashionable.
Willa: ‘There’s a kernel of truth in this myth. Fashion used to be about self-expression and extraordinary pieces back in the days. Unfortunately, we can’t turn the tide. Nowadays, fashion is fast. Trends come and go. You might have bought a cool silk pajama top the last couple of months, but you may not wear it next year. In sustainable fashion, the pieces are often designed to last longer and therefore less fashionable than fast fashion. I would like to see some more bold designs in sustainable fashion too! In my younger years, I saved up for big investment pieces, like a pair of Miu Miu shoes and a Dior bag that I would combine with everything. I still don’t only buy a 100% sustainable things only, I tend to invest in an Acne or Filippa K coat, High quality, timeless pieces that will last forever. It’s the same with sustainable fashion: it’s often more expensive than what we’re now used to and I would suggest to rather invest in a good quality pair of sustainable black jeans, than an inexpensive panther print dress. Or at least be aware of the choices you make. ‘
Myth #2: sustainable fashion is expensive
Willa: ‘No, there are two sides to every story. First: we accepted a non-realistic norm. A $3 shirt is not real. There are all kinds of ways to make this happen, like for instance, structurally underpaying the workers in the factories. But also by using that tee to lure you in, you might pay extra for a more expensive piece in order to counter the loss of the tee. Big chains are still able to make a profit selling cheap products because they sell some pricier products too. It’s like the IKEA $1 breakfast: you know it’s not possible, but the cheap breakfast is a way to attract customers.’
‘I’m glad there are a lot of inexpensive sustainable labels nowadays, who sell jeans for $70. That’s an acceptable price for jeans. $15 is not an acceptable prize at all. It enables horrible circumstances in factories, stimulates over buying and makes the worldwide waste issue worse every day.’
Myth #3 It’s hard to find sustainable brands
Willa: ‘The range of brands is still small, and it’s totally bumming me out. I try and approach it as a personal challenge. Yes, it’s true: if you walk through the high street of Amsterdam, you’ll hardly find sustainable brands. But thank god, there’s a lot online. But you need to know where to find the real good brands.’
Myth #4: I can’t impact the deeply saturated fashion industry’
Willa: ‘The Dalai Lama once famously said: if you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with one mosquito. So many fashion brands are fighting for your attention and invest a lot of money in expensive marketing campaigns. One person is all it takes. That’s what I tell myself to keep going on the hard days.’
What do you hope for in the future?
Willa: ‘I hope we can shift sustainable fashion from niche to norm. My goal is that W.Green will be obsolete by 2025. That’s the end of my mission. Until then, there’s a lot to do.’
You told us you ‘need to know where to get the real good brands’, online. Which sustainable brands should we keep a close eye on?
My personal favorites are: HONESTby, Everlane, Dick Moby (sunglasses), Organic Basics, Margaret and Hermione, ECOALF , Vege Threads, Alas the Label, Celeste Tesoriero, Elsien Gringhuis, WORON Store, Reformation, TribeAlive Kowtow