Eco awareness isn’t just a passing trend in the fashion industry — it’s a full-blown movement. Nobody would know that better than Natalie Chanin, the mastermind who started the eco lifestyle label Alabama Chanin 15 years ago. We caught up with Natalie to find out what it’s really like to run a successful sustainable business.
theFashionSpot: Why is an eco-conscious brand important to you?
Natalie Chanin: I believe that designers and producers of goods have a responsibility to their consumers to provide conscientious, healthy products that will enrich rather than detract from their lives. Our entire team at Alabama Chanin strives to create a well-rounded, (w)holistic company that revolves around a central theme; sustainability of culture, environment and community.
tFS: What are some of the obstacles you face in creating more sustainable products?
NC: It’s a challenge to source materials that are made in the U.S., but we’ve done a great deal of research and, over many years, built relationships with our suppliers throughout our supply chain. We have to approach responsible design as an ongoing process and that requires vigilance. As the market changes and technology changes, we look for better and more efficient ways to design and produce. As Yvon Chouinard at Patagonia taught us, we have to be as honest with ourselves about our vulnerabilities as we are about our strengths. We cannot rest on our laurels and assume that we’ve found the answer.
tFS: How does the fashion calendar affect you?
NC: From a traditional fashion mindset, time is not on our side. But, when we truly embraced slow design, which is at the core of the work that we do, we had to opt out of fast-paced production. The construction of our hand-sewn garments is carried out by skilled, local artisans and can sometimes take up to six weeks to complete. The finished product is not the only important aspect of Alabama Chanin production; for us, the process is just as important.
tFS: What would we be surprised to find out about “green” companies like yours?
NC: There has been a big learning curve — and we still struggle with supply chain issues as we try to source our materials locally, organically and made in the U.S. There is quite a bit of falling down, getting back up, dusting ourselves off, having a laugh and then falling down again. My daughter is currently learning how to Rollerblade — all that great protective gear and a good sense of humor helps break the fall tremendously. Being able to laugh at ourselves is key.
tFS: What practices are you implementing that make your company eco-friendly?
NC: We have personal connections to our organic cotton at every step, until it is delivered to us as fabric. That way, we can ensure that what we sell is ethically, sustainably and organically produced throughout the manufacturing chain and, to the best of our ability, made in America. We also practice lean method manufacturing where no products are made until an order is confirmed. This process ensures that we produce only what is required, saving natural resources. At Alabama Chanin, we work to reduce environmental impact and make the “footprint” of a product as minimal as humanly possible. Our intention is to become a zero waste company and we come closer to that goal every year.
tFS: You’re great at educating your consumer. How has that affected your brand?
NC: Education has become central to our mission. Not only do we work hard to educate ourselves and our artisans, we offer educational programming to our customers. That was a watershed moment for us — the decision to share our methods and materials with other makers. If you want to effect change, you need allies. Our education programs have created and strengthened relationships with others who have the same ideals. We hope this will create a ripple effect and spread the message that responsible, ethical production is possible.
tFS: Why do you think more fashion brands don’t go “green?”
NC: I can’t speak for other designers, but the bottom line is that it is incredibly expensive and time-consuming to produce sustainably. For many brands, introducing sustainability into their design processes is a real paradigm shift because that mindset doesn’t necessarily align itself with the fast pace of current fashion cycles. By definition, slow design is the opposite of “fast fashion” and a lot of major brands need to keep up with the fast rate of consumption in order to make a profit. As consumers become more aware of the consequences of fast fashion, I think there will be an opportunity for more brands to branch out and create “green” lines or change their overall production practices. I also hope it will allow more sustainable designers to find space in the marketplace.