The Art Of Ethical Fashion
Art & Eden is a new organic childrenswear brand taking the US by storm, but this New York business is about much more than just clothing, it’s a conduit for action. Laura Turner speaks to company founder Susan Correa to learn more about her vision of using the power of business as a force for good.
Laura Turner: What’s the story behind Art & Eden?
Susan Correa: Art & Eden was born in January 2017 and there are two sides to its tale. Firstly, it’s a story about a start-up built in response to an urgent social and environmental crisis. It’s about revolutionizing the world of fashion and bringing change to an unchanged industry, one that has earnt the dubious title of being the second most polluting on the planet. It’s a story about an underdog, a woman of colour and an Indian in America who founded and pioneered new ways to do work that matters. It’s also a story about radical internal change. It’s about a deeply personal transformation that could not be contained to the personal.
Before Art & Eden, I ran two multimillion- dollar companies. I spent two decades in the fashion world building and leading businesses across India, Europe, Canada and the US. I’ve worked across the spectrum, from top tier retailers down to discount stores, as well as across gender and size segments. I was blinkered, my attention focused solely on the bottom line and bringing the latest trends to market as quickly and cheaply as possible.
I wasn’t looking to start another business, but I was searching for a deeper meaning to the work I did. After years of driving global firms with profit as my only purpose, I craved to leave a legacy and do something that really mattered.
LT: What set the wheels in motion?
SC: In August 2014, in an effort to make business better, I visited the Hope Foundation School in Bangalore, India, to support a midday meal programme for the children. For every garment I made in one of my businesses, I’d committed to support one nutritious meal for a child in the school - for most kids that was the only hot meal of the day. I entered the school that morning, really fired up to make a difference, and left transformed. The kids changed my life. It felt awesome to use business as a force for good where profit could also be purposeful. From that day onward, my attention shifted.
LT: Where did you start in terms of setting up Art & Eden?
SC: For the next two years I spent every free moment studying how my ‘best for the world’ vision could translate from a dream to reality. Up until that point, I’d only focused on unrestricted growth without concern for conservation, efficiency, or diversity. I questioned, learnt and listened to data and material on the impact of fashion from seed to shelf. I couldn’t go back to ‘business as usual’ knowing the damaging impact of the linear take-make–waste model I’d been engaged in. It was time to reimagine a new way forward.
LT: How does Art & Eden’s model differ to those you’ve previously worked with?
SC: We pursue positive aspirations at every level of commerce, which allows us to embed intelligent, sustainable thinking deep within our corporate DNA. Art & Eden is created in a sustainable manner that embraces triple top line accountability to ensure we build a product that’s best for the world. Our values reflect our culture and shape our actions to build products that parents want to buy, children love to wear and a place where the team delights in doing work that matters.
Registered as a Public Benefit Corporation from inception, our approach focusses on ensuring prosperity while celebrating our planet and our people. The results are far more positive as they can be economically, ecologically and equitably enjoyed.
We’ll continue to build our code of ethics and human rights policies and I’m working on mapping, certifying and auditing our supply chain to validate choices that will consistently promote sustainability as our core DNA. My dream for the brand is a model that embraces a circular approach to production.
LT: Can you tell me about the collection?
SC: Art & Eden is a thoughtfully built lifestyle brand for ages 3 months to 10 years, one which is made to last and to be handed down to siblings or friends. It’s a whimsical collection that harmonizes style and sustainability, using comfortable organic cotton, low impact dyes and Oeko-Tex approved trims. We noted a lot of children’s clothes had thoughtful details stripped away to reduce price, so as a tribute to a child’s imagination and creativity, we’ve added those back in.
LT: What’s the distribution?
SC: Art & Eden was anchored by Nordstrom in the US and El Palacio De Hierro in Mexico from launch. It’s also currently sold in 356 specialty stores in America. We have five national distributors in the US and two international distributors, with stockists in America, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Kuwait, India and Central America. We’re very excited to have partnered with Gary Kirkland Agencies to launch Art & Eden to the UK, too.
LT: What are your standards in terms of production?
SC: Art & Eden is produced in India and China in carefully chosen factories that share our core values. All of the factories are Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which means they’re environmentally and socially responsible in all aspects of processing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, trading and distribution.
Today’s clothing industry - a seven trillion-dollar industry - uses over 8,000 synthetic chemicals. Conventional cotton alone accounts for 24 per cent of global insecticides, more than any other single crop. These insecticides harm the health of consumers, agricultural workers and the environment. The industry’s rampant use of them to treat clothing results in thousands of pesticide-borne illnesses and has a devastating impact on our environment and our bodies. Many people are focused on little ones eating organic, but not so much about them wearing it. Kids may not ‘digest’ clothes like they do food, but skin is our largest organ and it’s porous. This is why we’re committed to using organic materials and processes; if we say something is organic, we mean it.
LT: How do your ethics extend to the day-to- day running of the business?
SC: We realise that making a change extends beyond numbers, certifications and using the right materials. It requires we change internally, too. We’ve started with the low-hanging fruit; using green appliances, reduced printing and removing paper and plastic cutlery from the office kitchen. All of the plastic bags we use for shipping are biodegradable and our boxes and tags are made from recycled paper. We’re also working on implementing a formal green office purchasing policy for all our supplies.
LT: Can you tell me more about your community work?
SC: Kids are at the root of all we do, so we have two give-back programs that directly benefit children and our team is also engaged in two volunteer programs.
In the US, we have a partnership with the Camden Street School in Newark, NJ, where 95 percent of the students live below the poverty line. We work with a group of 15–20 middle school students using a curriculum centered on building skills in communication, entrepreneurship, teamwork and of course, the creative arts. We’ve also developed a program in which our staff regularly volunteer to provide literacy support, creative engagement and mentoring. It’s not all bound to the classroom, though. Over the school year we sponsor the students to visit NYC to participate in hands-on learning experiences in fashion and social entrepreneurship. Overseas, we’ve partnered with Hope Worldwide to provide vital nutrients to children in need.
We also ensure our customers get to feel the impact of their decision to shop better with our Clothes for Cure programme. For every garment they buy, a portion of the cost goes directly to support one of our children in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Tijuana in Mexico. The initiative has already delivered one million multivitamins and 7,000 doses of medication, improving 4,498 children’s lives.
LK: What’s next for Art & Eden?
SC: We’re in talks with multiple US majors on exclusive projects launching in-store from February 2019. We’ve signed a global licensing deal for home and towels with the Welspun Group, one of the largest exporters of home goods from India, which will launch in autumn 2019. Disney India and American Greetings have both sent us licensing deals that we’ll consider for 2020 collaborations. Azadea group, which has franchised 50 of the top global brands across 13 countries in the Middle East, has reached out to us to explore building our retail presence in the Middle East. We’re also in talks with a billion-dollar US group for a sustainable licensing deal for Art & Eden nightwear. Finally, we’ve signed a really exciting and rather major licensing agreement with a top US company that will launch in-stores for spring 2019. It’s under wraps at the moment, but watch this space.