Fashion with a conscience
Sasha Ternent's biggest challenge in building her T-shirt company was making people care.
Her mission when she launched Suco — The Sustainable Company — last year was to “replace fashion basics with sustainably made alternatives”.
The problem was that the average person wasn't concerned about “abominable” working conditions in clothing factories or the impact fashion has on the environment.
“You care about things that go onto and into your body, but do you really care about the damage it's doing to workers in Bangladesh?” she asked.
“I'm seeking to grow an attachment, so that people can understand how it affects them. This is happening in the factories that make our clothes. Factories are creating fast fashion that we don't think twice about buying because it's sitting on a shelf, looking pretty, with a nice price point — but that price point comes at a cost.”
Another fact that concerned her: fewer than two per cent of women working in apparel worldwide are paid a fair working wage.
“So, it's not that we're getting something cheap — someone else is paying for it,” she said. “Fashion is the second most environmentally damaging industry in the world after gas and oil. It is responsible for 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions; the airline industry is responsible for 2 per cent. And, less than 1 per cent of the world's cotton is grown organically.”
The 32-year-old put two years of research into Suco. Over that period, she sent hundreds of unreturned e-mails, audited more than 50 factories, made 20 site visits and went to “tons of trade shows” to get the product she wanted.
Ms Ternent found her match in a Portuguese factory with enough organic farmland onsite to offset the carbon emissions and cool the atmosphere around it.
“It was very aligned with my philosophy,” she said. “It's not just about neutralising the negative impacts, it's about creating a positive impact on the people involved.”
She decided on four styles of T-shirts — now available in black, white and grey. The UK-based fashion consultant then laboured over finding the perfect, lightweight fabric before asking industry friends from Stella McCartney, Rag & Bone, Alexander Wang and Givenchy for feedback on fit.
She learnt about environmental impact, fair working standards and organic cotton standards from organisations in the US, UK and Europe.
“Certification not only guarantees that the cotton has been grown organically — that is, without synthetic pesticides and fertilisers — it also means the rest of the supply chain can't use any toxic, hazardous chemicals, any allergens, heavy metals, anything that leaves a residue of carcinogenic material,” she explained.
She said the standards are rigid and involve every part of production, right down to the light bulbs used.
“I've never found such a challenging subject to study because it doesn't just involve fashion, it involves agriculture, the environment, sociology, anthropology, economics, science ...” she said. “How can you make a sustainable brand that's profitable? How can you make a T-shirt soft without chemicals? It's very multidisciplinary.”
She believes she was schooled to be an entrepreneur. Her late father Michael Ternent started Bermuda's Bersalon group of salons in the 70s.
“I've always had it in my blood, but having a company to have a company was never going to be enough for me,” Ms Ternent said. “It has to cause change and progression.
“I studied politics and international development in university and from there I was inspired to do something that would help the world.
“Our generation is in a position where we have the tools available to do this. With technology and communication you can find other people who have a shared vision and work with them to try and effect change.”
Her plan is that Suco will eventually offer sweaters, dresses, pyjamas, underwear, bedsheets and towels.
“It's not about making it the biggest company in the world; it's about changing the way people shop,” she said.
“A lot of the time when people think about sustainability they think of it as a bohemian notion of not really consuming very much and, while we agree with that, we want people to enjoy themselves. If it's done smartly, it can be done in abundance.”
• www.sucofashion.com. Priced from $55-$68 at Atelerie, Reid Street