I’m not a scientist (far from it: I’m a trained artist), but it appears to me that sustainability is pretty simple: Use fewer resources today, and you’ll have more for future generations.
“In the past 50 years, humans have consumed more resources than in all previous history.” —U.S. EPA
I started this business knowing nothing about the astronomical amount of waste that industry creates. I was shocked to learn how harmful production (especially textile production) is for the environment (and sometimes for workers), and I knew I didn’t want to add to the crisis.
“Nearly 70 million barrels of oil are used each year to make the world’s polyester fiber, which is now the most commonly used fiber in our clothing. But it takes more than 200 years to decompose.” – Forbes
The good thing about being a small company is that you can do things exactly the way you want. I am self-funded because that allows me to focus entirely on the product without the added pressure to make something solely for profit. I want Fierce Hazel’s products to appeal to everyone, but I also need them to be made with the least possible harm to the planet.
And the first product I wanted to make was something I personally needed as a cyclist: a durable, weather-proof bag. I wanted a small first run to test the market—and, remember, I fund Fierce Hazel myself, so my budget was also small. Most factories require a high MOQ (minimum order quantity). They typically encourage companies to order more product, often for valid reasons. One benefit is that reduces the per-unit cost—but if you can’t sell the product even after big discounts, what happens to the unsold items? It gets thrown away.
Excessive consumption is unsustainable for the planet. Period.
“The way we produce, consume and dispose of our products and our food accounts for 42% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions."—U.S. EPA, 2009
I was lucky to find a factory that would manufacture a small amount for me…only the amount I think I can sell. The price per item is higher but the benefit is less waste.
The next obstacle was sourcing materials. Most textile mills require a minimum purchase of 300 yards of fabric, way too much for our small first run. My solution was to use material that was already on the factory floor—literally. Fabric that was left over from other production runs or remnants from bigger items. This means we need to work closely with the factory so they will find and save the best fabrics for us to re-use. It’s tricky, but when it comes together in a piece like the Evolution Convertible Backpack, it’s all worth it.
“85% of textiles end up in landfills, though 95% of them could be recycled.”—edge expo
It also means that I need to be creative in the design process. People tend to hold on to a bag longer than a piece of clothing. I wanted to make something you will not get tired of in a month or two but will use over and over—a high-quality, super-functional product that will last a lifetime. But the designs also need to be simple and flexible, so several types of fabric will work. You’ll see that in the Echelon All-Conditions Pouch: The multi-colored one is a mix of ultra-lightweight ripstop, and the black version uses a super durable 420 denier fabric. Same product design but utilizing leftover fabric from different sources.
Let’s face it, it would have been much easier just to buy the exact fabric I wanted. Taking a sustainable approach to production means a lot of creative problem-solving during the design process.
“The clothing and textile industry is the second largest polluter in the world.” —alternet
And let’s talk about branding. It’s such an important part of a new business, and I knew that if I used scraps of material to make the bags, I would lose the ability to create a consistent, readily identifiable look. Initially, I thought using a custom-designed zipper pull would give my pieces that all-important brand recognition. So when I visited factories in Vietnam, I visited a zipper pull factory. I was shocked to see factory workers standing in front of machines that pour molten plastic into little molds, filling each mold by hand. It really brought home to me that people make every little piece of what we use, not “factories.” Yes, we need pulls for our product, but I do not need to add even a tiny bit of extra plastic waste to the planet by creating custom ones. So wherever possible I am using webbing, not a plastic pull.
Any worry I had about making high-end, weather-proof gear vanished after my factory visits in Vietnam. Known for their expertise in producing high-quality goods for the outdoor market, Vietnamese factories have the machinery and the highly skilled workers required to make it. It was important for me to find a factory that I could inspect personally. I needed to make sure the bags are ethically made in a factory that pays a living wage, with reasonable working hours and a good work environment.
I spent a week at the location and had full access to the entire facility. It’s small compared to most factories in Asia, with only 150-200 employees, but I can say it felt like a family. No one checks bags as people leave because the owner trusts his employees. There are no uniforms, like you see in many large factories, because he asked employees if they wanted uniforms and they voted no. They prefer wearing their own comfortable clothing. Lunch is provided daily for everyone, and work stops at about 5:30 each evening. I did my best to vet the company because people make the products, not a factory.
I am also the first woman owner the factory owner has ever worked with.
We carry our commitment to sustainability into our office too. At Fierce Hazel we are conscious of our electricity use, we are as paper-free as possible, and we reuse and recycle everything we can. All of our internal shipping products are either compostable, recyclable, and/or made from post-consumer waste. I firmly believe the best thing you can do is not to buy anything new and reuse what you already have. Repair it when needed. But when you don’t have what you need, make sure it will last a long time—like a Fierce Hazel bag.