Coined in 1987 by the United Nations, the term “sustainability” was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It was an important milestone.
But managing industrial adaptation to sustainability has been far from a seamless task. Since 1970, global CO2 emissions have increased by about 90%, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, with the garment industry a prominent contributor. In fact, the World Bank in 2019 singled out the fashion sector as responsible for a whopping 10% of annual carbon emissions worldwide – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Continuing in this way would see greenhouse gases surging by more than 50% by 2030.
Enter Alexis Eremia and Karin Granner, who have found a new way to tackle this issue locally with the Vienna and Amsterdam divisions of the Impact Hub, a global community founded in 2005 to generate and scale creative innovations for global problems. With their new Fashion Accelerator for Better Business (FABB), co-founders Eremia and Granner support local brands that operate sustainably, in hopes of creating more affordable and environmentally responsible options for consumers while ramping up the slow progression of this (as of now) niche market.
The FABB Two
When I met with Eremia, Granner and FABB’s acceleration lead and programs manager Ioana Constantin on a warm afternoon at Café Menta, their passion was contagious. “So, where did this fashion journey begin?” I asked, as we all settled in. Eremia met the US-born Granner through a recent program within the Impact Hub: While both hold degrees in finance, it was their love for fashion, sustainability and local business that cemented their bond.
Initially, Eremia came up with the idea for FABB after working with entrepreneurs in a nature preserve on the Turkish-Greek border. The project paired local producers on both sides, helping them generate a stronger business platform and expand their markets.
Historically part of the ancient Silk Road connecting European trade with the Far East, the setting is rich in tradition. Here, Eremia and her clients began experimenting with environmentally friendly silk production. The customary way involves the mass use of silkworms, with producers boiling the cocoons spun of silk threads before they hatch. Between 30 and 50 cocoons are harvested at a time, the threads fed onto a reel and slowly turned, unraveling and collecting each strand as it forms. The strands are so fine that it takes 2,000-3,000 cocoons to produce a single pound of thread.
One producer came up with two more sustainable options: One used old pieces of silk woven together and the other utilized broken cocoons that would have otherwise been discarded. Eremia and her team worked hard to help bring the product to market, finding a local designer who used this recycled silk in her bags, and eventually, jackets.
Emboldened by the experience, Eremia and Granner decided to support startups within the niche of sustainable fashion. The two began researching solutions through films like the 2015 documentary The True Cost and any relevant articles they could get their hands on. “Once you become aware of the topic and start learning about it, you become an activist,” Eremia admitted.
In search of support to make their vision a reality, the two visited the Impact Hub Amsterdam, which runs an entrepreneurial support program for sustainable fashion. However, it was only for large-scale companies. Eremia and Granner then realized that there was a niche for helping newcomers into the sustainable fashion industry, as there was little support for designers selling directly to customers. “This is a gap that we can fill – where we can make a difference,” said Granner.
Securing Your Spot
After building their platform in both Amsterdam and Vienna, FABB started accepting applications in May 2020. The feedback, they report, has been overwhelming.
“The response has been incredible,” Eremia marveled, “particularly compared to other topics, and without a big name or partner working behind us. It was just the Impact Hub and us.” The program is free for all applicants, with FABB accepting only 4-5 applications from each city. That way, the program can be tailored to the needs of each brand, providing an individualized plan with coaching, webinars and a multi-unit syllabus.
Among this year’s winners is Raw Fiction, a fair-trade and ecofriendly clothing brand created by Raphael Hulan and Marcel Bernard. Their motto: Guilt-free – which is easier said than done. To make their garments both socially and ecologically responsible, Hulan and Bernard knew it was going to take extra work to find sustainable resources and manufacturers that shared their vision. When the Impact Hub informed them of Eremia and Granner’s accelarator, they were eager to see how FABB could help reduce their ecological footprint. Together, Raw Fiction and FABB went over their business model and diagnostics, producing an individualized program that will start this September.
“After our diagnostical, we’ve already gained some valuable input that we can apply,” Hulan said. With FABB’s help, Raw Fiction hopes to not only gain insight into other markets, but also obtain new contacts with other labels and secure more sustainable suppliers and retailers.
Although their service is tailored toward newer businesses, FABB requires that all applicants already have a product on the market, to ensure they can help. By the end of the program, FABB hopes to hold an event where companies from both cities can meet, creating an environment for entrepreneurs to share their experience and build a community, although COVID-19 has temporarily pushed back their ambitions.
With the world still figuring out how to structure itself more sustainably after the pandemic, it seems like an ideal time to focus on community-based, environmentally friendly production.