Shannon Whitehead. (Photo Credit: Shannon Whitehead / Factory45)

Shannon Whitehead. (Photo Credit: Shannon Whitehead / Factory45)

(This is the fourth installment in Planet Experts’ Trailblazing Women series. For more articles in the series, check out the links below.)

Today, Shannon Whitehead is the go-to woman for entrepreneurs looking to get into sustainable fashion. Her program, Factory45, takes companies from idea to launch, connecting them to low-impact materials and fabrics, setting them up with sample and pattern makers and working with them to market, brand and launch their sustainable apparel companies. In the crusade against the excess waste of fast fashion, Whitehead is an undisputed leader.

It is thousands of miles and a handful of careers from where she started out.

In an interview with Planet Experts, Whitehead laughingly described her career path, from Journalism major to sustainable fashion entrepreneur, as “so haphazard.” She had initially planned on attending law school. “And then,” she said, “my senior year of college I ditched the LSAT test and booked a one-way trip to Australia instead.”

shannon3Whitehead spent the next few years bartending around the world, but it was in that first far-flung locale, Australia, where she would meet Kristin Glenn, her future co-founder of {r}evolution apparel. “She was another American girl who sort of didn’t know what she wanted to do after college,” said Whitehead. “And so when I got back to the states two years later, she sent me a Facebook message…”

The two knew that they wanted to start a business in the apparel industry but, like another wide and forbidding land, it is a difficult one to simply walk into. “I was a Journalism major, my co-founder was a Business major, [and] we didn’t know anything about the fashion industry,” said Whitehead. “We definitely didn’t know anything about the manufacturing industry.”

They eventually ended up in Central America to tour the only front-to-back organic cotton farm in the world. That’s when their idea began to coalesce into something truly substantial. “When we realized what goes into starting a clothing company,” she said, “it was very important to us to do it with as little harm to the planet and the people in it.”

Starting a {r}evolution

In 2010, Whitehead and Glenn founded {r}evolution apparel, a sustainable clothing company “for female travelers and minimalists.” In 2011, they launched a Kickstarter campaign for their versatile wonder-garment, the Versalette. 

{r}evolution apparel Introduces the Versalette from {r}evolution apparel on Vimeo.

Designed to be worn or used in 15 different ways (as a skirt, as a scarf, as a dress, even as a bag), the Versalette was made with 100 percent recycled fabric and right here in the USA. Intended to “bridg[e] the gap between smart design and overconsumption,” the garment went on to become the highest-funded fashion project of that time, receiving over $64,000 of its $20,000 goal.

From the beginning, Whitehead and Glenn knew they wanted to manufacture the Versalette in the US and with the most sustainable materials possible. But it wasn’t easy.

“It took us a year and a half to find a factory that would work with us in North Carolina and find materials that would really fit our sustainability guidelines,” said Whitehead. “So that was a huge obstacle. And also just figuring out how do we raise money – even tens of thousands of dollars – to launch production. We didn’t just have that lying around.”

The Versalette. (Photo: {r}evolution apparel Kickstarter campaign)

The Versalette. (Photo: {r}evolution apparel Kickstarter campaign)

The budding entrepreneurs set up a blog to document the evolution of their product, a move that Whitehead credits with helping their Kickstarter really take off. At the time, she said, they didn’t realize how much of an impact just telling their story would have. “We were blogging for that year and a half and so we were sharing all of the ups and downs, our mistakes, our first fight. We really brought the customer into the process and that really worked well for us.”

By the time the Versalette Kickstarter launched, Whitehead said they had a small but dedicated following of “maybe 800 people.” Yet those 800 people, said Whitehead, “were so dedicated to our success, they spread the word for us, shared like crazy, and that had a huge impact in the success of the campaign.”

The Folly of Fast Fashion & Launching Factory45

Today, Whitehead directs Factory45, an online accelerator program that helps other companies launch or transition into the sustainable space.

“I started it because I have first hand experience knowing how hard it is to start a sustainable clothing company and manufacture it in the US,” said Whitehead. “When I started my own brand back in 2010, I realized it shouldn’t be this hard. I don’t want designers to feel like they have to outsource overseas and use questionable manufacturing processes because they don’t think there are any other options.”

Sorting through garment samples. (Photo Credit: S. Whitehead)

Sorting through garment samples. (Photo Credit: S. Whitehead)

Whitehead not only helps entrepreneurs connect to organic suppliers and manufacturers, she also develops strategies for branding, marketing and fundraising.

The work she does is in sharp contrast to “fast fashion,” a relatively recent phenomenon that has consumed the fashion industry over the last decade.

“It used to be that we only had two seasons a year,” said Whitehead. “You had fall/winter and spring/summer. And then that sort of grew into four seasons a year and now we have 52 seasons a year. There is a new line of clothing coming out every single week if you operate on a fast fashion business model.”

Once upon a time, a garment’s journey from the runway to the local mall was a 12- to 18-month cycle. Today, stores like Forever XXI, H&M and Zara are accelerating their supply chain from the latest thing to the retail rack at breakneck speed, and it has resulted in whiplash at both the environmental and labor level.

“New merchandise is coming into the store every single week,” said Whitehead. “Well, unsold merchandise has to go somewhere. So a lot of that clothing is ending up in landfills and they’re made of very cheap petroleum-based fabrics that take hundreds of years to decompose.”

Meanwhile, the human toll of this insatiable machine is staggering. Fast fashion relies on the cheapest, fastest production lines, and it has precipitated a race to the bottom by unscrupulous factories that are willing to scrimp on protecting their workers or paying them decent wages. And, if retailers “don’t get the products to the customers on time, at quality, and in the specifications they want, customers will switch to a competitor,” Richard Locke, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, told Bloomberg in 2013.

Thus, factories in cheap labor countries like China and Bangladesh have neglected essential utilities. A lack of firefighting equipment, bad electrical wiring, an insufficient number of exits and other such violations have led to the deaths of over 700 garment workers in Bangladesh since 2005, according to the International Labor Rights Forum.

shannon5This is an immediate problem, whereas the damage to the environment is a longer-term and ever-increasing one. “The average American throws away 82 pounds of textilers every year,” said Whitehead. “That’s going into landfills, that’s not going to Goodwill or Salvation Army. That growing pile of clothing is going to be around for when our kids are here, when our grandkids are here, and that’s the scariest part. Our planet is a non-renewable resource. We only get one.

“So when H&M talks about, ‘Oh, we’re so sustainable because we’re launching this conscious collection,’ well… The fast fashion business model is inherently unsustainable, so no matter how much organic cotton clothing you think you’re going to make, that all has to end up somewhere.”

Part of Whitehead’s business is raising awareness about the tons of garments produced and thrown away every year, and how individual consumer choices can influence what the industry creates or destroys. “That’s the kind of impact you can have,” she said, “knowing where the clothes in your closet end up.”

Her Advice to Aspiring Women

For Whitehead, whose journey from college to sustainable advocacy was hardly a straight path, she recommends that young women find what they’re passionate about. “I think it’s something that a lot of people struggle with,” she said. “I struggled with it while I was in college and I was lucky to sort of figure it out early. Some people go their whole lives and work jobs they don’t like.”

And finding that passion is about a lot more than following one’s dreams. “Put in the dirty work first,” she said. Success is a process, not a magic trick.

“For so long I felt so inferior to all these women who were doing amazing things,” said Whitehead, “and I still feel that sometimes. I had to remember that I’m laying the foundation for where I want to be, and that’s not going to happen overnight. Surround yourself with people who inspire you, put in the hard work, and educate yourself. That’s how you set yourself up for success in the future.”

Shannon Whitehead. (Photo Credit: S. Whitehead)

Shannon Whitehead. (Photo Credit: S. Whitehead)

To learn more about Shannon’s work, visit her website or go directly to Factory45. New clients can apply starting September 16, so check it out today!

Planet Experts’ Trailblazing Women Series:

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