Ethical fashion companies have been slowly competing with mainstream brands for some time, thanks to the fact that shoppers, for the most part, want to do good. But even though the sustainable fashion market has skyrocketed in the past 10 or so years, the definition of sustainability is still very fluid.
In 2013, Jason Keehn, realized consumers were having to do too much research on the matter and still had no go-to destination to shop for ethically-made products. That’s when he created Accompany, a Net-a-Porter-like site that sells apparel, accessories and home goods made by marginalized groups and Indigenous communities around the world. The name, Accompany, comes from “the idea of going on a journey with someone, somewhere.”
“It started as like a Whole Foods for fashion,” he said, “but it’s evolved quite a bit from there.”
The company is a certified B Corp and defines its purpose as: “not just about not doing less bad, but also about doing more good.” They create ethical ad campaigns for other brands through their agency, but their main focus is collaborating with artisans to sell chic products to the modern, conscious buyer.
“So we’re leaning into fashion trends but we’re also leaning into the artisans’ ability and what they know how to do. Because … they’re not manufacturers, they have a craft,” Keehn said. “And also it would be like cultural relativism to just say, ‘Make this Western thing.’ You want to find out what they already make and collaborate to find that happy medium.”
Their collaborations change every season, but in the past eight years, the founder said they’ve worked with over 300 different artisan groups around the world.
Some of Keehn’s favorites are: a handbag crafted in Colombia by members of the Wayuu community, a hat made from natural fibers in Ecuador, espadrilles handmade in South Africa, coasters handcrafted in the Democratic Republic of Congo, ceramic items made by a group of formerly homeless women in Atlantic City called Mud Girls and some tote bags created from upcycled PVC plastic made by people of the Penan tribe in Borneo.
The company also works with artisan groups that support widows with HIV in Ethiopia, and with a Massachusetts community of refugee women from countries like Myanmar and Iraq who are trying to get become U.S. citizens.
Despite Accompany’s incredible mission, Keehn doesn’t want shoppers to think they only sell “hippie granola” accessories. The site was created specifically to offer buyers luxurious, desirable items that also happen to be ethically made.
“I wanted to create one place for the consumer that felt like the design aesthetic and design standards were just as high as the ethical and impact standards,” he said.
One of the things that has made the site such a success is Keehn’s understanding that shopping can be very emotional for buyers—especially now.
“If I tell you that these jeans are made by using 50% less water (a big issue with denim because so much water is used to do the indigo dyeing), you know, that’s nice, but it might not get you super excited as compared to like, this denim jacket which has this incredible embroidered Indigenous design on the back that’s really bold and colorful—that’s something that feels really special and emotional and that you feel excited to wear everyday,” explained Keehn.
He said brands can’t just think that by simply fixing their supply chains they will be seen as more ethical and automatically appeal to the conscious buyer—it takes a lot more work than that.
“I think it’s hard with mainstream brands because they didn’t always have ethics at their core,” Keehn said. “The consumer is looking for an ally to their lifestyle. Consumers want purposeful purchases and they like feeling like they can vote with their wallet or that they are choosing brands that reflect their values.”
But that’s not to say mainstream brands shouldn’t still try to embrace sustainability—many are already taking great steps.
Amazon Fashion puts green labels on the items that are “Climate Pledge Friendly,” Zara has committed to using 100% sustainable cottons and linens and recycled polyester in all of its designs by 2025, Patagonia focuses on environmental activism because their key costumer loves nature, Eileen Fisher uses recycled and eco-friendly materials and Athleta creates sustainable products and collaborates with groups that support female empowerment. Even Target, arguably the most mainstream brand of all, hired Accompany for an ethical collaboration.
There are also companies such as The RealReal, which does luxury resale, or Levi’s, which recently launched a second-hand online store, which have different definitions of sustainability and ethics. “That’s where the word sustainable is a flexible term,” Keehn said. “It doesn’t mean all those products were necessarily made through eco-supply chain practices, but the idea that it’s pre-worn is a sustainable notion, because by not buying something new, you’re not creating waste.”
Companies claiming to be 100% sustainable have to make sure they have sustainable materials, working conditions, packaging and shipping services too, because planes waste a lot of energy, Keehn said, so it’s not always a realistic business model.
While several of the products Accompany sells and makes are eco-friendly, that isn’t always the goal. The ultimate goal is to help people in need by supporting marginalized groups, giving jobs to artisans living in poverty and paying higher-than-average wages.
I think during this pandemic everyone had a minute to pause and realize … the world is a little more fragile than we thought, and it just makes you want to buy things that matter,” Keehn said. “So, you can support a woman in Colombia by buying this bag instead of buying one mass-produced in a factory, and that matters right now … especially if it’s helping the Indigenous communities that have been hit so hard with COVID.”