Public Habit’s Founders on Building an Affordable Sustainable Fashion Brand
We’re excited to announce we’ve recently joined forces with Public Habit, an affordable, sustainable fashion brand based in Seattle. Their elevated essentials are available to rent for the first time ever through Armoire! To kick off the partnership, we hosted a panel with the brand’s founders, Zakhar Ivanisov and Sydney Badger.
Scroll on to hear about Public Habit, straight from the founders themselves!
We are so excited to be here tonight celebrating bringing together these two amazing brands. Can you tell us a bit more about yourselves and the company you’ve built?
My name is Zakhar Ivanisov and this is Sydney Badger. We are the founders of Public Habit. We launched Public Habit only 3 months ago, but it has been in the process of development for quite a long time. Sydney and I met about 7 years ago when we were both at Amazon, working with big brands in the clothing and footwear industries and seeing the enormous amount of waste they produce. This experience confirmed our desire to be in the sustainable fashion space. A couple years ago, we decided we wanted to leave Amazon to start something different, though we didn’t know exactly what that might be or what it would look like. We just knew we wanted to work together and build something that was good for the world.
When we started talking to suppliers and experimenting with a few different ideas, we quickly learned a lot about this industry. For example, we consume an average of 70 new garments of clothing per year. That’s more than one item every single week! That’s a lot of clothing, and it’s forcing brands to try to keep up with these demands by producing non-stop.
As a consumer, you see a sales rack and you’re really excited to get a good deal. But what you don’t realize is that there are so many mistakes behind that sales rack. It’s kind of a little secret that nobody talks about in fashion, right? Then you hear about luxury brands that are burning their merchandise, and it just begs the question who is paying for all of this? We started asking ourselves this when creating our brand, and unfortunately the answer that we found is that we, as consumers, pay for all of this. We pay for the merchandise that didn’t sell; we pay for the merchandise that is on the rack; we pay for all of these inefficiencies. We wanted to change things and that’s why we decided to create Public Habit.
Who is paying for all of this? We started asking ourselves this when creating our brand, and unfortunately the answer that we found is that we, as consumers, pay for all of this. We pay for the merchandise that didn’t sell; we pay for the merchandise that is on the rack; we pay for all of these inefficiencies. We wanted to change things and that’s why we decided to create Public Habit.Zakhar Ivanisov, Co-Founder of Public Habit
Like Zakhar said, Public Habit is the combination of a lot of experiments and a lot of learning for us. It’s been a very humbling experience. We launched Public Habit thinking we need to flip the supply chain. We’re making more than we need. It’s that simple. The world has more than enough stuff as it is. In essence, what we wanted to do was only make what we sell.
The typical supply chain looks like this: you produce in high volumes, then the suppliers look for places to sell it, buyers have to buy a lot more than they necessarily need, and then the cycle just keeps going on and on. For us, we literally only make what we sell. We produce in very small batches with about four suppliers in China. I’m actually based there, which allows me to work even more closely with them.
We really committed to taking waste out of the fashion system. Waste can look like physical textile waste that ends up in landfills and is ultimately burned. There’s no denying that this incinerating is contributing to the horrendous environmental situation we find ourselves in, as demonstrated by Australia. Also, we’re committed to taking out other inefficiencies that cause us to pay more as consumers, and cause suppliers to earn less money as prices are driven down on the front end. We believe there’s a different way of doing things that is much direct from the manufacturer to the end customer. We can do this just through pairing more closely with the right people.
We’re so excited to be able to partner with Armoire, a company with a mission that really resonates with us. I think this entire industry is being flipped on its head, and it’s such an exciting time to be in the sustainable fashion space. We focus on premium quality essentials in all natural fabrics. Cashmere and wool is the foundation of our primary line, like the cashmere line you can rent through Armoire. Especially with Armoire, I think their mission to not put new garments out into the world is such an important message to all of us, and we’re excited to be part of that. We really believe that is the new luxury.
We’re committed to taking out other inefficiencies that cause us to pay more as consumers… We believe there’s a different way of doing things that is much direct from the manufacturer to the end customer. We can do this just through pairing more closely with the right people.Sydney Badger, Co-Founder of Public Habit
You mentioned costs, as in costs the consumer is incurring and costs to the supplier. I’m curious about the human costs as well, as disproportionately women in other countries are affected by fast fashion industry labor practices. Is that something you guys are paying attention to in your production cycles as well?
Certainly. I’d say from the standpoint of who we’ve chosen to partner with from day one. We’ve vetted over 200 suppliers in China, and narrowed it down to four who work with premium quality knits. China is a complex country to be working in, and it can definitely set people off just thinking about it. It made a lot of sense for the fabrics we are working with because it’s all produced right there in China. Four of the five of our initial suppliers are women-owned factories, so there is definitely an understanding of fair wages.
There’s a lot more that we can do still. The scary part about being in sustainable fashion is how much talk and scrutiny there is. There’s still a lot more we can be doing to deeply understand the supply chain, but it’s something that must be done in stages as we continue to learn.
What is the most eco-conscious way to get rid of clothes? I know fast-fashion companies like H&M and Zara offer drop-off donations, but I’ve heard these aren’t actually sustainable options. Do you have any recommendations?
I think the latest statistic I saw is that over 80% of what you take to donation bins, say your local Goodwill, will ultimately be sent to a landfill anyway. Obviously, nobody wants that to be happening. As a consumer you feel good about that drop off, but where is it actually going?
At the end of the day it comes down to reuse, recycle, repair. Is there anything that can be done to extend the life of the item, any ways to love it again? I think unfortunately, the fact that the majority of the Zara and H&M pieces are just done, whether that we due to poor quality or the end of the trend. The best thing those materials are currently being used for is recycled construction materials. There are some really good textile recycling companies like I:Connect that currently partner with a few different retailers.
This textile recycling is in such an early stage at this point. It’s a lot of experiments of people trying to figure out what to do with such a tremendous amount of waste. At this point, there’s no good solution that would solve this.
I think being aware of the issue is huge. The first step is truly awareness and mindfulness. If I still have an item in my wardrobe, it’s a reminder of what I don’t need to replenish. It’s a scary concept: out with the old, in with the new. It’s a painful reminder that we do not need to buy more.
That’s definitely one of the reasons we decided to focus on premium fabrics, like 100% merino wool and 100% cashmere. These fabrics will last longer than their cheaper synthetic alternatives. The best move is to buy things that will last. The average life cycle of a garment is less than a year right now. Our items will last you for years.
The first step is truly awareness and mindfulness. If I still have an item in my wardrobe, it’s a reminder of what I don’t need to replenish. It’s a scary concept: out with the old, in with the new. It’s a painful reminder that we do not need to buy more.Sydney Badger, Co-Founder of Public Habit
Are there any special care instructions for cashmere to help extend its life?
We suggest hand washing your cashmere and laying flay to dry for the best results. My favorite way to is to put it in one of those sweater bags you can toss in the washing machine on a cold wash. It’s so much easier to manage if you don’t have time for hand washing. Just toss it in on cold wash with very little detergent and just lay it flat to dry. That’s all you need to do.
Any interesting findings or learnings through your experiences? You mentioned it being very humbling and learning a lot, and it’s amazing that you are so open about this!
I think the biggest one is the fact that consumers don’t realize what goes into the price of an item. When we start talking with suppliers and doing the math, we realized that something that is a given these days —like free returns or free shipping, even markdowns — is already built into the item’s price. These companies already know that there’s going to be a certain portion of what they make that is not going to sell.
I’d say the other one is physically seeing the build up of waste, knowing that brands are making decisions to reject huge rolls of fabric or an entire run of an item because of a very minor defect. It’s got nowhere to go other than a secondary market or just to be thrown out. I feel like if you put this in front of customers and force them to accept the reality of where this has to go, it would be an entirely different result. Fashion is a very tightly closed industry, and I think that’s one of the biggest things that has to change.
We met so many suppliers when we were trying to find the right partners for the launch. One of the things we saw was great suppliers have so much experience—more than we could ever potentially learn being here in Seattle, or even the United States in general. There’s so much knowledge and expertise they have, and for us it was about how we can unlock that. If they meet our ethical standards for who we want to partner with, we want to help them to reach consumers here in the US. There’s a lot of negativity about China in general and we definitely saw a different side. We started with China because this is where we have the most experience, but ultimately we view Public Habit as being a global company with global supply chains.
Going into 2020, what changes are you committed to making in order to increase sustainability?
I’ve personally committed to not having a car. I sold my car a couple months ago and I try to walk as much as possible. That’s why I got this Apple Watch to track all my calories! I’m lucky to be able to do this and I understand a lot of people aren’t able to.
I love coffee so I started using a reusable cup, something I didn’t do in the past. It’s an easy swap that I plan to continue… and not just while Starbucks is offering free refills this January. Though, I do think it’s a good way for a business to incentivize you to be more sustainable. We hope to adopt some of the practices big companies are implementing, and learning how we can apply this within our business model.
How do you think affordable sustainable fashion will reach middle to lower income households, assuming that sustainable fashion means higher price points?
Ugh! This is such a good question…. Honestly, it’s not. Not yet. It’s still on average 15-30% higher for “sustainable” products and that usually comes down to fabrics. That’s because those fabrics are far more expensive to produce than their synthetic alternatives.
It comes down to doing a little bit of math. One really high-quality piece that could last ten times as long as five poorer quality pieces will ultimately save you money. It’s really looking at your wardrobe and saying I could have one of this versus I could have ten of these for the same amount of money, only one of them lasts twice as long and contributes significantly less waste. In the near term, this reduction in volume is the best option for us all to have access to ethical fashion.
I think it’s going to change eventually, but for that to happen the supply chain has to change a lot. For our model to work our suppliers have to produce in really small batches which makes it more expensive. Until they have the technology in their factories to do that efficiently, it’s going to be more expensive to produce in smaller quantities. We’re moving towards change but it’s certainly going to take a while.
We’re certainly trying to minimize costs with our existing suppliers. Our average mark up is less than 2x. Traditionally, when you buy something from a regular brand you’ll see a markup of 4-5x and in some cases in the luxury market 6x. But at that point, the sky is the limit. The cost of luxury goods has been driven out of control. What we’re trying to do is make affordable luxury items accessible through our collection.
The cost of luxury goods has been driven out of control. What we’re trying to do is make affordable luxury items accessible through our collection.Zakhar Ivanisov, Co-Founder of Public Habit
Have politics and the recent trade wars with China impacted how you run your business?
Why yes! I mean, I think it was a real impetus for us thinking there’s got to be another way. I mean, manufacturing in China is in a very challenging place. Chinese suppliers are looking for new ways to reach end customers because business has been drying up. Fast fashion has been moving further out to places like Bangladesh, Southeast Asia and South America, but the quality and craftsmanship and history is all in China. Now, the technology is really starting to be there too.
For us, being able to ship directly from China to the end customer is our way of navigating the trade wars. There’s a trade agreement between China and the US Postal Service so we can send product directly from China to the end customer without needing to pay the same tariffs. That is a big reason we’re able to save on inefficiencies during the era of Trump’s policies.
How are you combatting textile waste? What happens to your production by-products?
That’s a good question. When you think about how clothing is made there’s obviously a lot of waste in the supply chain. We want to be transparent about this. We’re tackling waste that happens after items are made at this point. This is where we see the biggest impact. On average, 1 in 3 items produced are never even sold. If you think about that, somebody produces all these items, but a third of that is actually never making it to an end consumer. That’s a lot of waste to deal with. We are tackling that aspect first.
To Sydney’s point earlier, there’s so many other facets of sustainability that we’re trying to work through and figure out what to do. What happens as an item is made? What happens after the consumer is done with the item and doesn’t want to wear it anymore? What if something is wrong with the item? These things are definitely on our mind and we’re working to figure them out. The first step we’ve taken is partnering with the right manufacturers who are conscious of that and better than a lot of the suppliers that are out there. Truly, there’s no good solution at this point.
But that’s why we love rental!