With Caroline Priebe, Founder of the Center for the
Advancement of Garment Making
More than simply a response to the altruistic call of social responsibility, the participation of entrepreneurs in the burgeoning sustainable fashion industry is also, at the bottom line, a smart business decision. Climate change and social strife are existential dangers, and because of that, are huge business risks that currently have—and will continue to have—a very direct negative impact on every sector within the fashion industry.
Indeed, the future of the fashion industry, our environment, and our communities depend on adopting a new paradigm that opts out of the abhorrent practices currently and historically plaguing fashion. The only way forward is for fashion entrepreneurs to become a part of an entirely new conscious fashion economy: one that is rooted in responsible growth, sustainability, and circular design.
So, how do you become a successful fashion entrepreneur within this new industry?
In this show-post and the corresponding episode of the Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Podcast, we speak with Caroline Priebe, founder of the Center for the Advancement of Garment Making (CAGM) and seasoned design director and sustainability strategist, to better understand the practices a fashion entrepreneur must embrace in order to forge their place in this brighter, more regenerative future.
How to Become a Successful Fashion Entrepreneur and Leader in a New Fashion Economy
Adopt a Holistic Perspective
As a sustainability leader in the fashion industry, Priebe encourages others to take a holistic view of their businesses and their paths to success.
We are all familiar with the saying, “no man is an island.” Well, neither are our clothes. The materials must be grown, harvested, and processed, the design formed, and the pattern sewn. Multiple actors and locations are involved, and the conscious designer must adopt this wider purview with regard to the impact of their products and business.
There is a myriad of industries connected to the fashion business; it has links to almost every sector, from agriculture to manufacturing and from transportation to media. This wide reach makes the conscious fashion industry uniquely capable of not only bringing about large-scale change in the way we do business but also in redefining and realigning our cultural values and collective beliefs. Clothes and accessories are a defining part of culture, after all.
It is therefore the responsibility of the leaders within the new circular fashion movement to wield this influence in ways that bring success not only to their own businesses but to the communities and environments that rely on them. As a fashion leader, you will need to reflect on the impact of every aspect of your company; the success of your design, sourcing, manufacturing, marketing, and beyond must be measured in terms of sustainability as well as profit (which we will talk more about below).
Priebe believes that fashion entrepreneurs must also redefine what it means to be sustainable:
“There are definitions in Webster’s and [OED’s] that generally define sustainability as what is sustainable for Planet Earth and our natural systems. […]
I want to add to that and ask ‘what is socially sustainable?’
Is working in a factory for less than a living wage socially sustainable, or physically?
Is the work physically sustainable for someone?
How do we make this business model financially sustainable, socially sustainable, and environmentally sustainable?”
Acting sustainably is not just the right thing to do; sustainability and the consideration of large-scale impacts are also approaches that will enable your company to develop more robustly. Treating your workers with dignity will ensure they are invested in their job and improve their performance. Participating in sustainable sourcing practices maintains your access to materials and helps you control your prices. Creating desirable and high-quality products maximizes your marketing appeal, while campaigns that uplift will inspire marginalized communities. The list goes on!
What could a holistic perspective of success and sustainability mean for you?
In short, it means zooming out to see the bigger picture regarding the impact of your decisions and acting accordingly.
So, what does that really mean!? It could mean rethinking your materials and choosing plastic alternatives in order to reduce your waste output. It could mean providing workers’ benefits or making your manufacturing plants carbon neutral. Or perhaps it could mean monitoring your plant’s economic impact in a community in terms of education or access to healthcare.
Overall, it means acknowledging, respecting, and enhancing the interconnections that exist between your business, our humanity, and our beautiful planet.
Want to learn more about the practices of a successful social entrepreneur? Check out the Grow Ensemble article on best entrepreneur tips and advice from Yogi Tea’s CEO Giancarlo Marcaccini. 👉 Read entrepreneur tips.
It is when we narrow our focus and forget about all the delicate wider interconnections that we leave them vulnerable to damage.
Perhaps one of the most destructive features of our current economic system, especially within the world of fashion, is the equation that bigger business means better business. The obsession with unfettered growth and the aim to increase stakeholders’ profits above all is what leads us to cut corners. Priebe sees this narrow scope of view as largely responsible for the failures and destructive practices of the fashion industry, from water contamination and GHG emissions to labor exploitation.
As Caroline puts it, we live in a society in which public companies have to produce compound annual growth infinitely for shareholders, but since:
“…we live on a finite planet, creating that sort of compound growth usually requires cutting corners, usually requires [having] no regulations, usually requires less taxation. You have to exploit labor because of the ridiculous notion that you can have infinite annual growth year after year. And so that causes fashion companies to cut corners, to exploit labor, and to overproduce.”
To be a socially responsible entrepreneur in the new fashion industry, you should already be oriented to a wider viewpoint. From that perspective, Priebe insists, you must also know when enough is enough. You must grow to scale, calculate your growth, and realize when you have reached the optimal intersection between profitability and healthy operation.
As Caroline points out:
“Eileen Fisher just said in an article that she actually was most profitable when she was about half her size, so growth and profitability are not intimately correlated or connected.”
This understanding goes hand in hand with broadening your perspective of your business’s impact and success. It means defining your success not just by profit margin, but by measures of sustainable development: not overexploiting resources, avoiding pollution, promoting workers’ wellbeing, or fostering a positive company culture.
As Caroline explains, growing businesses to scale versus infinitely has real benefits. She recalls her own family’s experience:
“My parents and grandparents grew the business, grew the business, grew the business, and at one point decided, okay, we’re done. We’re good. We are employing people. We’re providing health care. We’re giving people a lovely livelihood. Our employees seem to be happy. We can go on vacation or the kids can play soccer. We’ve got a nice house. We’re good.”
In order to really understand how your business is growing, you must include many measures of success. She goes on to say:
“I hope that the fashion industry questions this need for growth at any cost, because growth only measures growth. GDP only measures growth; it doesn’t measure any of the associated costs. A tree is only accounted for in GDP if it’s cut down.”
The movement of fashion companies toward choosing to reign in their growth to responsible levels will bring about a future of fashion that is rooted in the local community. Priebe believes that these successful mid-sized businesses will be better suited to fulfill the needs of their surrounding communities. After all, she reminds us, small businesses are the biggest employers in the U.S., and each region will know what is best for each region.
More than fulfilling each communities’ needs, creating this local fashion economy will also help avoid the social and environmental costs of international corporate operations. Using materials sourced locally and responsibly will strengthen both the local economies and local ecologies. The increase of local businesses will curb carbon emissions by minimizing the shipping of commodities and lessen corporate reliance on foreign labor.
Fibershed is a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing regional fiber systems that regenerate soil and protect the health of our planet. Through their grassroots programming and verification systems, they help provide companies with opportunities to work with regenerative farms, rebuild regional manufacturing, and educate consumers about the importance of responsible sourcing practices and slow fashion. In just four years, their carbon-farming efforts have sequestered over 45,550 metric tons of CO2 and have verified and moved more than 200,000 pounds of Climate Beneficial Wool into supply chains that fund ecosystem restoration.
What could a commitment to grow responsibly mean for you?
Committing to healthy growth will mean creating your own goals and measurements of success that go beyond profit and acknowledge people over product and planet over profitability.
It will mean asking yourself not only how to grow to scale but also what is “enough?” How do you need to be compensated? Are all your workers being paid living—or even thriving—wages? Are your employees all receiving benefits, access to education, and healthcare? Are you able to cover all your expenses and still have a comfortable budget for donating, experimenting, and optimizing operations and sustainability efforts?
If your answers all check out, you’re probably on the right track.
Embrace Circular Design
Beyond the cut corners caused by irresponsible growth, unconscious design practices have, in large part, been responsible for the waste and pollution problems of the fast-fashion world. It’s likely that we’ve all experienced buying a brand-new product that arrives with a defect or doesn’t even last a few weeks before being worn out or breaking simply through normal use.
Where does that now-unusable product usually go? Let’s remember that the average American throws away around 81 pounds of clothing per year and that three out of five fast fashion items end up in a landfill.
This unwarranted waste can be avoided. To do so, successful fashion entrepreneurs will need to adopt a new philosophy of design that brings about fast fashion solutions and embraces circularity and regeneration.
Like the other two practices key to developing sustainability in fashion, Priebe explains that design needs to keep the larger picture in mind. She urges fashion professionals to assess every aspect of the product chain, from sourcing materials to end-of-life use, in their product design.
In the circular fashion movement, design will not only be focused on beauty and aesthetics, but on ensuring quality, longevity, and end-of-life value. It will focus on answering the question, “how do you make a product that is simultaneously beautiful, functional, and durable?” More than this, it must consider where that product will go when it can no longer be used by the consumer. Can the material be recycled or is it biodegradable?
Because of this holistic view of design, Priebe explains, the principles of circular design must also be extended into other parts of your business model. She goes on to encourage fashion designers to:
“…be very thoughtful about not just your designs, but as thoughtful with your designs as you are with your business model and supply chain.”
This means not just making your products with the individual consumer or product in mind but also considering future generations as well. Do the farming practices in your raw material production consider soil health? Do your materials or your dyeing process contribute to waterway pollution?
Preventing environmental damage and protecting resources and communities will help you create a business that can survive the environmental and social threats that the industry is currently experiencing and will increasingly face as we move further into the climate crisis. That is why circular design and regenerative business models will be the only way forward for the fashion industry.
What could embracing circular design mean for you?
More than just implementing quality controls on your products and designs, perhaps integrating circular design into your company could also mean opening up a product recycling program, like Patagonia has, through which consumers can return worn-out clothes to be repurposed. Or maybe, like Sunski, it could mean utilizing plastic waste to create your fashion line.
It could also mean sourcing your materials from regenerative farms or directing your 1% For the Planet donation to conservation efforts. Or it could mean implementing a business model like BANGS or TOMS in which you donate a percentage of your profit to worthy causes.
In short, how do you structure your design, supply chain, and your business model to support a circular fashion economy where there is little waste and resources are not only protected but regenerated for future use?
The Center for the Advancement of Garment Making
Founded by Caroline Priebe, a design director and sustainability strategist with more than 20 years of experience, the CAGM is on a mission to energize and empower the leaders of the new circular fashion revolution through consultation and education.
The CAGM is a consulting firm that creates customized, comprehensive, and sustainable business strategies for socially responsible fashion brands.
Using an in-depth consultation process, the CAGM guides socially responsible companies at any level through every aspect of creating and operating a fashion venture that is rooted in circular design, ethical sourcing, and sustainability. Through its systematic, individualized, and design-forward approach, the Center assists businesses in developing everything from their mission statement to their ethical sourcing or production practices.
The company also offers workshops and training programs (such as their Sustainable Leadership Masterclass—read more below) to educate socially responsible entrepreneurs and optimize the work of design, development, and production teams.
Caroline Priebe, founder of the CAGM
Caroline Priebe started her career in the fashion industry at DKNY. Upon discovering Lynda Grose and her work creating Esprit’s E-Collection (known as the first corporate sustainable fashion collection) and being inspired by Grose’s passion and vision, Caroline went to join her mentor and began studying sustainable fashion at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
After attending a farm tour that highlighted the differences between conventional and organic cotton production practices and the impacts of those practices, she committed herself to the advancement of sustainable fashion, working for several companies as a designer and a sustainability and product design strategist, even creating her own fashion collection, ULURU. Caroline then moved on to a career in education and began teaching zero-waste and circular design methods at the Parson School of Design.
Drawing upon her experience in the fashion industry and the classroom, she most recently founded the CAGM with the aim of educating, training, and inspiring fashion leaders to progress the circular fashion movement through conscious business. She also acts as the sustainability editor of Display Copy, a fashion publication that highlights thrifted, found, recycled, and upcycled items.
“So, whatever you do, make it count and make it rooted in beauty, justice, and sustainability”—Caroline Priebe
Taking Action: The Sustainable Leadership Masterclass
Embarking on the journey of purpose-driven entrepreneurship can be a daunting endeavor, especially within the fashion industry. Again, as a fashion designer, you are situated in an industry connected to various sub-industries and partners. You will not only need to navigate your business through these multiple channels but also at a higher level of responsibility.
It’s not only hard work; there are a lot of moving parts!
The best way to equip yourself for the challenge is to gather the knowledge you will need to create, design, communicate, and integrate real solutions within all levels of your operation.
The Sustainable Leadership Masterclass will help you cultivate these skills in ways that will both enhance your current roles, whatever they may be, and nurture you as an entrepreneur. This interactive and in-depth course will examine the key elements required to create a sustainable fashion brand, from circular design methods and sourcing strategies to blockchain and recycling technologies.
The eight-week class will not only push you to develop new ideas, step outside your comfort zone, and cultivate self-belief and confidence; it will also prepare you for the logistical realities of running a sustainable fashion business.
Closing: Become an Activist at Any Level
Moving forward into a future of fashion that is all holistic, local, circular, and regenerative requires that new fashion leaders and entrepreneurs must put these principles into practice.
If you’re just starting your own business, several years in, or even if you just simply buy clothes, you have the power, now, to make a difference in making this future a reality.
Whether this takes the form of learning or teaching others about sustainability, implementing ethical practices, or choosing to vote with your dollar and support the companies that align with your ethics, Priebe reminds us that:
“No matter our title, we all have the ability to be leaders and to speak up and to make strategic and courageous decisions at any step.”
Additional Resources & Links Mentioned from the Episode:
- Caroline Priebe on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter
- Lynda Grose
- The Sustainable Leadership Masterclass
- Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher
- Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World by Jason Hickel
- Elizabeth Cline
- Twilight of the Ethical Consumer by Elizabeth Cline
- The OR Foundation
- Liz Ricketts
- Jasmin Malik Chua
- Rachel Cernansky | Vogue Business
- Slow Factory Foundation
- Clothes Horse Podcast
- Clothes Horse Podcast Instagram
- Display Copy
- Brynn Heminway
Grow Ensemble Contributor
Alma Rominger is an educator and farmer passionate about regenerative agriculture, composting, gardening for mental health, and outdoor education.
Alma believes that the health of the earth and the health of its people are intrinsically connected and has spent her entire career advocating for both. She currently specializes in Bokashi composting systems and soil ecology through her work with Compost Queens, a women-owned community composting company based in the San Antonio area.