Q&A WITH MELISSA CANTOR OF ETHICA

Tell me a bit about yourself.

     My name is Melissa Cantor. I'm originally from Tegucigalpa, Honduras (which is part of what sparked my interest in commerce as a tool for international development and positive social impact). I started my career as a magazine editor in Miami; later worked on digital media launches for companies like NBC, AOL and Fox; and most recently spent a couple of years working on web and social content at Tiffany & Co. and L'Oreal.
     I'm the co-founder and editor of Ethica, which I launched with my sister and husband in 2012, as well as an occasional freelance writer whose work has been published by CNN and New York magazine, among others.

What is Ethica?

     Ethica opened its virtual doors in September 2012 with a pioneering proposition: to make it simple and, above all, exciting to support ethical and sustainable fashion. Our brands range from buzzy up-and-comers to industry pioneers to tiny artisan outfits. In 2015, we expanded our selection to include a small selection of change-makers in the world of clean beauty as well.

What does “Sustainable Fashion" mean to you?

     It's timeless, high-quality clothing made with respect for people, the planet and other living beings. On a personal level, for me it's come to mean understanding the story behind a garment and falling in love with that aspect of it, in addition to the way it looks and feels. When I receive a compliment on an ethically made or sustainable item, I always have something I could share about it (though of course I don't always do so!), whether it's the fact that it's made of reclaimed materials, made in one of the few knitwear factories remaining in the U.S., etc. It adds a layer of enjoyment to it for me.
     From an industry perspective, I really like this question because it underscores the fact that ethical and sustainable are broad and subjective terms. From day one at Ethica, we have spelled out on every product page exactly why we consider an item ethical and sustainable, so that the shopper doesn't have to rely on our definition and can make her own decision. We hope that this translates into more empowered and informed consumers all around, not just when they are shopping with us.

Does the sustainable design trend we are currently seeing in fashion reinvigorate your passion for the industry?

     Yes, absolutely. I left my career as a fashion writer to launch Ethica precisely because I no longer wanted to be part of the status quo, and it's very encouraging to see how many people have embraced this movement in the past few years, from all aspects of the industry – you're a great example of this! I love meeting people who are contributing different sets of talents toward this common goal. For me as a writer and communicator, the creative and anthropological aspects of fashion are what have always been appealing, and both of these are magnified in sustainable fashion. There is so much creativity in terms of use of materials, designing for longevity, using commerce to make a positive impact, and so many takeaways when you look at this movement from a social and cultural perspectives. So yes, I'm really encouraged by everything I see, and it's so fulfilling to be able to create awareness about these issues and also offer people a platform where they can turn that knowledge into action.

Do you think an on-trend / contemporary wardrobe is possible, while maintaining our ethics?

     100 percent. Ethics aside, I don't think cheaply made, trend-driven clothing is the foundation of a good wardrobe. Deliberately investing in well-designed, well-made pieces over time is much more likely to lead to a strong wardrobe, so I think ethics and style go hand in hand.
Returning to the idea of story, when you have a personal connection to the things that you purchase, and when your closet is full of things that you want to keep over the years (instead of picking something up and going, "What was I thinking when I bought this?"), your wardrobe becomes an aspect of your personal narrative, and isn't that ultimately what style is?

The average consumer doesn't believe that they have the extra income required to pay the true cost of their clothing. Many seem to believe more sustainable options are too expensive or simply unavailable. How do you respond to this claim?

     I say that supporting ethical and sustainable fashion doesn't have to be a zero-sum game. That creates such a barrier to entry, mentally, and it turns it into something that people will do "someday." If you can't afford to buy ethical and sustainable fashion exclusively, that's ok. But there's surely a step that you can take, like maybe giving up shopping at one fast fashion store. Or buying just some things ethically. I know someone who's very committed to ethical fashion and sustainability, but who makes an exception for shoes because she can't find affordable options. I think that's perfectly reasonable, and it doesn't minimize her support for sustainable brands in other categories. It's about taking the first step, and then the next one, instead of thinking of it as this big, restrictive, expensive lifestyle. The more that you explore the field, the more options you'll find. There are a lot of great, affordable brands out there, along with plenty of sales and secondhand options. 

Is sustainable fashion able to reach everyday consumers who may shop in "fast fashion" now?

     It's certainly available to anyone with an interest in it. The bigger challenge, in my view, is creating that interest. Some people just don't want to engage in these issues, even if you tell them that the fashion industry is nearly as bad as the oil industry, or that a lifetime of wearing formaldehyde-soaked clothes might give them cancer someday. And I understand that, because that's not exactly an uplifting message. That's why good design is so important, because it's a way of attracting people through something positive, and once they have a positive experience, they can hopefully start to outgrow fast fashion.

What does "green living" mean to you? How do you incorporate green living into your life?

     It means to tread lightly, and to try to at least not leave anything worse than I found it–whether that's a person on the other side of the world who is affected by my choices, or whether it's a more direct environmental impact. I've always thought of myself as someone who cares for and about the environment, but giving up single-use plastic and aspiring to zero-waste living in recent years has absolutely blown my mind. I'm not zero-waste yet (or even close), but I work toward these goals every day.
     When people ask me how or where to start on a journey to sustainability, I suggest seeing how long they can go without buying something that's made in China or how long they can do without single-use plastic bottles, bags or straws. It's really eye-opening as to how pervasive these things are.