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TRACE COLLECTIVE: FASHION TO REGENERATE OUR PLANET

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WITH RADICAL TRANSPARENCY, THE ENVIRONMENT, AND SOCIAL IMPACT, TRACE COLLECTIVE SHOWS THE FASHION INDUSTRY WHAT THE FUTURE OF SUSTAINABILITY IN EVERY PART OF THE SUPPLY CHAIN LOOKS LIKE. THE CO-FOUNDER SHARES WHY, HOW AND EVERYTHING ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW!

Words By Natsumi Amano

Trace Collective is a sustainable fashion brand, reshaping the interaction of the fashion industry with the planet and society. At the core, the brand re-imagines what it means to be sustainable in today’s world, and shows that beautiful design can be responsibly undertaken. 

How was Trace Collective founded and what is the intention behind?

Let us start by introducing our founders’ personal journey. Antonia was born in Slovakia, where she grew up near the mountains and surrounded by green, lush nature. Nearly 10 years ago she moved to Copenhagen and started her personal journey into a more sustainable lifestyle, soaking in the incredibly environment-friendly Danish culture. After graduating in Business Administration, she worked in different roles in the fashion industry and saw first-hand the scale of waste and environmental wreckage that often went unchecked. After moving to London, continuing studies in Fashion Marketing, she met Aroa, and the rest history. Aroa was born in Spain and spent a good part of her life living abroad and hoping from culture to culture. She studied in Australia and France, and worked in Germany and Kenya before ending up in London. Her family home is in the north of Spain, in Asturias, a beautiful region with kilometers of green coast on its north border and a wild mountain range on its south border. There she watched how the snow that packed so many of her childhood memories disappeared year by year. A lifelong passion for creating social change led her to Ashoka, the world’s largest network of system-changing social entrepreneurs, where she focused her work on helping businesses embed purpose in their models and scale impact through their supply chains. After six happy years, she left Ashoka to focus her work in environmental preservation and to set up Trace Collective with Antonia. Both of us were incredibly passionate about environmental preservation, and particularly about the power of consumers to create change through their purchasing decisions. Taking decisions that align with our values is uniquely empowering. And if you look at industries where consumers hold immense power, fashion stands out like no other – except food perhaps. Every day, people wear clothes. We have an emotional connection with them, and we use them to express our personality on a daily basis. Antonia comes from the fashion industry, and I (Aroa) come from the social impact sector. It became clear to both of us that fashion had an incredible power to mobilize citizens and that it was an ideal industry to develop a blueprint for what market economies can – and should – evolve to be in the future.

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 Initially we did not want to create a fashion brand because we did not want to replicate what others were doing. We talked extensively about the existing models and the most leveraged ways of creating impact. At the end, we decided to create Trace Collective because we couldn’t find anybody that was using demand for clothes to drive environmental regeneration through their supply chain, and we felt that this had to be tried on a large scale. So we started Trace Collective based on three principles: promoting environmental regeneration, adhering to circularity, and a radical transparency policy to reconnect communities with the stories behind the products that they buy.

As for our brand name, Trace embodies our ethos very well as we would like to remind ourselves that everything that we do leaves a trace, an impact, in the world, and so does every product that we buy. It is in our hands to decide what kind of trace our lifestyle is leaving behind. The name also fits well with our radical transparency policy; we disclose our trace to our community so together we can both feel good about the good that we are doing, and remind ourselves that there is much more to do and strive to be better together. And this togetherness is the bit that we want to reflect in the second part of our name: Collective.

“Collective – of or shared by every member of a group of people.”

What is the value and mission of the brand?

Our mission is to use fashion as a tool for environmental regeneration. To us, sustainable today can only mean regenerative. We are well past the time of trying to reduce negative impacts and we need to start thinking big about how our economies will contribute to reversing climate change. We believe that the fashion industry is in a unique position to do this, thanks to its global reach and massive volumes. This mission cuts across all of our supply chain: from choosing only fabrics that drive environmental regeneration and designing products for circularity, to choosing as a manufacturing partner a social workshop that provides training and access to jobs to women in the criminal justice system, our raison d’être as a brand is to use fashion to heal our planet and our economy.

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In terms of our values, radical transparency stands out as a primary company value that cuts across all of our operations. We share with our community everything, from our supply chain, to our impacts (negative and positive), our production prices, to even a tiny part like the materials and production of a button. Customers can trace the origin of crop and the entire journey of how the products are made on the traceability map on our website. Our linen grows in Normandy, France, and it is transported to Gdańsk, Poland for the crops to be made into yarn. It then is taken to Meulebeke, Belgium for the yarn to be woven and dyed. Finally, it is moved to Barcelona, Spain in the hands of our production partner, Fundacio Ared that helps women at risk enter the workforce. The co-founder and I visited Barcelona to see and hear from people at Fundacio Ared about their stories of how working there impacted their lives before the lock-down happened.

We believe that there is an immense power in reconnecting people with the stories behind the clothes that they buy, and that this level of transparency can spark important conversations about the trace that we leave in the world. Imagine that you know the whole story and full journey of how a piece of clothing you are wearing are made and also its environmental and social impact. Your friends may ask you where your jacket is from, for example. Then this is your chance to story-tell them which social business is involved in the production, why fabrics like linen and hemp are less environmentally-damaging and so much more. Wouldn’t it be amazing if you can inspire them to start questioning why a T-shirt is sometimes being sold for less than 10 euros, for instance? It is important to keep in mind that pushing people to do everything right perfectly overnight is not the way to go; almost nobody likes being pointed at what they are doing wrong. All you can do is try to understand why people are not there in their sustainability journey and guide them with compassion to small steps they can take in various aspects of life, not only in clothing, but also in food choice, energy consumption, and many others.

“Radically transparent on price, origin and impact.”

How is your brand sustainable?

Sustainability sits at the core of all of our work and guides each of our brand decisions. We only started Trace Collective because we saw that there was a need to embed regenerative practices in the fashion industry, and that there was immense potential for the industry to help stir behavior change and drive environmental regeneration. So, for us, sustainability and social and environmental impact came first, the brand came later and is just a vehicle for our larger impact goals (we also run a charity that runs educational programs and research on regenerative practices).

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Trace Collective then shared with us the practical ways in which they are actively sustainable:

We produce our clothes only with regenerative fabrics – fabrics that are helping drive environmental regeneration by increasing soil fertility and biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

We design and shape our business model for circularity. We create fully circular and biodegradable pieces, from thread to buttons, and have set up a repairs scheme and a rental scheme, to help our community pivot towards circular consumer behaviors.

Our clothes are fully produced in Europe, from farm crop to manufacturing, and we produce on a pre-order basis in order to minimize waste.

We integrate other social businesses in our supply chain as much as possible, in order to shift as much money as possible to the impact economy. On average, 20% of each purchase goes to our social factory, which helps women at risk (particularly in the prison system) enter the workforce. Our printing partner is also a social business.

We work with an external auditor to evaluate the negative impacts of each of our pieces. We know that, on average, our clothes produce 37% less greenhouse emissions than industry standards, and use 94% less water and 12% less energy. We use these data not to pat ourselves in the back (although we try to remember to do that from time to time) but to think how we can get better.

We have no dirty secrets. We follow a radical transparency principle and disclose all our supply chain and impact data in our website.

“We strive to have a positive ecological footprint.”

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What is your opinion on the growth of sustainable fashion?

It is amazing to see more and more brands challenging the status quo of the industry and raising the bar for how fashion can and must be produced. We continue to be inspired everyday by what other brands are doing. It is also encouraging that sustainability is a trend now because it helps expose conscious consumption for a wider audience including those who are yet to be aware of environmental impacts of our current consumerism. Furthermore, sustainability is not merely a trend but is becoming to be integrated into people’s lifestyles these days. We see through our customers that people indeed want to change and do something about injustice in society, and brands intergrade what the customer is asking for into the supply chain and policies, accelerating a transition to a sustainable model. 

However, the reality remains that fashion is an incredibly unsustainable industry, and that we need to do a lot of work to figure out how to create a new global model for the industry that makes it morally acceptable to keep producing clothes. What is being called today sustainable fashion has some of the answers, but not all. If we look at the scale of clothes production and textile waste globally, and at the greenhouse emissions, water, and energy consumption that the industry is responsible for, even if sustainable brands had the whole industry market share we would still be in a dire problem. It does not add up. In my personal opinion, the primary challenge of sustainable fashion is balancing gaining market share while promoting degrowth of the industry. At the moment we do not need people to buy more sustainable fashion. We need people to buy much fewer clothes. Only then we can start a conversation on what those clothes should be, and of course they should adhere to the highest sustainability standards! Nonetheless, this paradigm is quite difficult for us sustainable brands to navigate because as businesses we need to survive. And overall it is a very difficult shift for consumers, because it contradicts every bit of information that is being pumped into us daily by consumer culture. We need to look at how sustainable fashion is growing not in absolute terms, but in market share. When we see fashion as an industry contracting and sustainable fashion as a segment of the industry growing in share, then we’ll know that we’re getting it right.

“Buy less, buy better.”

What has been the biggest challenge with your brand?

There were so many, and still everyday new things pop up! We are getting used to things being this way. If we go back to the very beginning, material selection and how this affected the design process was particularly difficult. And here we are referring not only to our fabrics, which had to meet our transparency and regenerative standards, but everything else that goes into a garment and that we as consumers never think about: thread, buttons, interlining, and fusing. We were committed to creating fully biodegradable pieces, and we found out that none of the other stuff that most brands use is biodegradable at all. It took a lot of research to find the right suppliers, and we had to change and adapt our designs to be able to remove components that we just could not get in the qualities and standards that we wanted. 

In many ways, if somebody would come and look at how we manage our supply chain they would probably say that we are deliberately making things very difficult for ourselves. We have set rigorous standards that guide all our company decisions, and this brings a unique set of challenges in every single area of the business.

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Where do you think the brand is going within the next few years?

Our vision is to pave the way to a fashion industry that is regenerative at its core, and that acts as a blueprint for how the economies of the future will operate. We believe that if we pull the right levers regenerative practices can become mainstream, because embedding positive impact at the heart of supply chains benefits all in the long term. We think fashion is to experiment and explore, but we know how unsustainable it can be to buy too much. So we thought there can be a better way to do it. From summer 2020 we will offer a rental membership model. You choose the number of items that you want to receive at your doorstep every quarter, and we take care of the rest. You wear them for three months, and when our driver comes to deliver your new quarterly bundle you give him the clothes you wore these past months. Hassle free and guilt free, unlimited clothes swaps forever.

As we expand our operations, we are researching new regenerative crops in new locations to develop new fabrics, and engaging more and more farmers in this movement. We’re also putting a lot of emphasis on continuing our educational work – holding workshops with our community to help people reconnect with the stories behind their clothes and take ownership of their impact and helping many take action in small and big ways. We are also starting to see other brands get interested in the work that we do, and we very much hope to develop cool partnerships in the future to help others transition to regenerative supply chains. 

Shop and Discover Trace Collective

TRACE COLLECTIVE

The Mao Shirt

https://staiy.com/women/brands/trace-collective/p/5f0d81c23e3d8257295409e0/the-v-neck-dress

TRACE COLLECTIVE

The V Neck Dress

TRACE COLLECTIVE

The Raglan Sleeve Jacket

TRACE COLLECTIVE

The Gathered Trousers – Rust