Why are environmentalists building fashion brands?

Since its founding in 2012, t-shirt and outdoor apparel company, Tentree has become a sensation amongst nature-lovers and sustainable fashion enthusiasts. The business model is simple: for every item sold, ten trees are planted. A tracking code accompanies each product, so consumers can see exactly where the trees are and what community they will benefit, contributing to the transparency that shoppers so desperately crave from brands. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that Tentree is the perfect sustainable fashion company.


Tentree cofounder Kalen Emsley initially tried to create a tree-planting business with his brother, Derrick, when they were in high school, but found that this was not a viable business plan. The goal was to buy up land, and brands could pay them to plant trees as a form of carbon-offsetting. Even though they had to give up on that business idea, Kalen remained a devoted tree planter and eventually co-founded Tentree with David Luba, marketing the clothing brand as a "tree-planting company that sells apparel." Unfortunately, while they spent so much time building up the tree-planting part of their business, they neglected the impact that producing thousands of printed t-shirt was having on the environment. In fact, for the first couple of years after creating Tentree, the shirts were no better than any other fast fashion shirt. Recently that has changed, and now the brand's clothes are made from 95% sustainable materials, including organic cotton, fake leather made from cork, and Tencel. As a result of their switch to more sustainable products, and the continuation of their tree-planting program, Tentree has now become one of the most recognizable and talked about sustainable fashion brands. And while no one can deny the company's success is deserved, the question remains, "why did environmentalists build a fashion brand in the first place?"


The simple answer is that physical products still rule in a world with an unlimited supply of digital and intangible content. Selling something tangible, like printed t-shirts, is the culmination of hard work that goes into building a brand. Look at merch that is offered by publications or influencers and is usually little more than a t-shirt or coffee cup with the brand logo printed on it. Or the print magazine, which persists despite dropping ad revenue and a rise in free digital content. These products continue to be produced because physical items remain the pride and joy of a business. Just look at the bounce-back of in-person fashion shows, which will resume this fall in many cities despite the success of some digital shows. The Emsley brothers' business idea has always remained the same — plant trees to create a better environment — but this venture didn't take off until a physical product entered the equation. This gave customers a tangible item in exchange for their money.


Since entrepreneurs learned that a physical product is a great, and sometimes necessary, addition to their brand, fashion has frequently been used to provide an easy and cheap product. According to A Better Lemonade Stand, setting up a printed t-shirt brand is one of the easiest businesses to set up. In fact, with more technology and tools like Shopify, today it is easier than ever to start a retail business, and since everyone needs clothes, why not get into fashion?


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There was a time not too long ago when sustainable fashion was a niche category in retail. Then, the widely popular and debunked claim that the fashion industry is the second biggest polluter suddenly brought the sustainable fashion movement to consumers' attention. This was when there was a brief period of time when shoppers wanted environmentally-friendly clothes, but there were not enough retailers making them, creating a profitable business idea and a way for conscious entrepreneurs to do good for the planet. Now there are more "sustainable" brands than anyone can count. As a result, they are not as profitable as they used to be, especially not with the current economy, which is hitting the fashion industry particularly hard. Sustainable fashion experts, including Whitney Bauck for Fashionista, have recently questioned if the environment needs another brand making "organic cotton dresses" or if the addition of more brands is doing more harm than good. At this point, too many sustainable fashion brands can be just as bad as fast fashion because each "small business" is pushing consumers to buy their products, ending with overconsumption.


It's not just that there are already too many fashion brands, though. Selling a physical product can actually counteract a brand's environmental initiatives. It takes the depletion of natural resources, transportation, and packaging to create and send tangible products like clothing. If fashion is the primary purpose of creating a brand, then offsetting the emissions related to creating clothes and using environmentally-friendly materials is an excellent way to make it sustainable. But, creating a clothing brand just to make an environmental project more profitable is not the answer to solving the climate crisis. Tentree's model of being a "tree-planting company first and a clothing brand second" is a not helping the environment in the grand scheme. All those trees may help for a short time, but the environment really needs less physical pollution and degradation, two things that the production of new clothes cannot solve.