An interview with Andrea Kennedy, Founder and Sustainability Lead of Fashiondex.com and Assistant Professor at LIM College in New York.
REVOLVE caught up with Andrea Kennedy who started Fashiondex. com in 1994. We learned a lot about the challenges and opportunities for circularity in the global fashion industry.
What led you to start Fashiondex.com more than 25 years ago? What does Fashiondex do?
Fashiondex started because I was at my first job working as a design assistant at Calvin Klein, and one of my responsibilities was sourcing materials. We spent a lot of time calling – asking for minimums, prices, countries of origin, and how long it would take to ship to our factories in Italy or China. After a while, I started imagining a directory that provides all this information in one place. Back then, we had Rolodexes, and they came with pre-printed cards arranged in alphabetical order. As I met with fabric supplier after fabric supplier, I used my cards and started developing categories for materials: black velvet went under V (for velvet), metal buttons went under B (for buttons) and so on.
The other designers loved my Rolodex, because it made their job much easier. There were seven floors in the company and I often had to run up and down to find my Rolodex because someone else was using it.
A few years later, I decided I should try and monetize my idea; so with the help of a techy friend, we purchased blank Rolodexes directly, made our own fashion-supplier cards, called it Fashiondex (Fashion and Rolodex morphed) and started selling them. At the time, everyone worked mainly by phone, with some emailing, but we decided to set up a website in 1994. Fashiondex.com was the first fashion-trade website in the industry, which really propelled us into the future. Still to this day, I have customers my age and older who say they only use Fashiondex.com for sourcing, since we were their first. We built a reliable following from the very beginning.
Our business shifted around 15 years ago as we started to understand the need to look closer at the impact of the materials we were sourcing and the supply chains that produced the materials, due to the urgent need for sustainability. We started sourcing and recommending more sustainable sources to our customers – those that were fair-trade produced or those that were made with organic materials, for example, or products that were made in factories practicing improved energy and water management. We strived to help companies create plans to produce goods in the most responsible ways possible.
Over time, Fashiondex became known as a trustworthy source for sustainable suppliers, products and consulting. I still work at Fashiondex in creating carbon-neutral events and sustainability consulting, but now I am thrilled to teach courses for the sustainability minor at LIM College. I especially love teaching the Applied Sustainable Practices in Fashion, a course that I had the opportunity to develop, where student “green teams” partner with brands and create sustainable and circular action plans for those companies.
R frameworks and R strategies for the Circular Economy
Whether reducing, repairing or repur- posing, there are many ways to start and reinforce the transition towards a more circular economy. “Many au- thors view the various R frameworks as the ‘how-to’ of a Circular Economy and thus a core principle of it” explain the authors of “Conceptualizing the circular economy: An analysis of 114 definitions”. The most prominent of them might be the 3 R framework – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – at the core of the 2008 Circular Economy Promotion Law of the People’s Republic of China. The EU Waste Framework Directive introduced ‘Recover’ as the fourth R. In May 2020, the European Investment Bank EIB updated its “Circular Economy Guide” which presents nine “R strategies” to be considered for investments into CE business models. One of the issues with the R frameworks: “Scientists are … messing up because they use 38 different ‘re-’-words in these hierarchies, even the one’s using 3R’s or 4R’s do not refer to the same R’s”, as the authors of the brilliant paper “… Getting beyond the messy conceptualization of circularity and the 3R’s, 4R’s and more …” explain.
In our interview, Andrea Kennedy shares her preferred R’s for rendering a more circular global fashion industry:
“RESPONSIBILITY is my favorite. We need to think about responsibility as our duty. We must act as stewards of the Earth. We are here momentarily. We have to create, produce and act responsibly. We are only guests on this earth, after all. We have no ownership here. Just as we take care and are thoughtful when we visit a friend’s home – we need to treat our earth responsibly and with…
RESPECT. How can the businesses we work for be respectful to all people, all beings, and the planet as well? How can each employee do their share in RESTRUCTURING our companies and organizations so our actions treat all people creating our products with respect – as well as source, ship, produce and sell within earth’s planetary boundaries – the source of the resources used to make our products. Nature is also the place to which products return to when we no longer need or want them.
REGENERATION. To regenerate and enrich nature is imperative. We must work to eliminate toxins and pollutants that destroy and hinder re-growth. In circularity, we have natural – biological and manmade – technical – components that create fashion items. It is important that all those material components be used again. Either by processes that include breaking down and regenerating materials to create new products, or for many of the biological components – if they have no toxic chemistry – they can be used for REGENERATION, and en- richment of the soil and planet.
RECONCILIATION. Before we undertake any of these actions towards circularity, we must understand the ways of the past that created the current issues, and reconcile them with our ecological systems. If we admit that biodiversity and nature matter, and we choose to live in harmony with all life types on earth, then we can move forward from the harmful impacts from sourcing, producing, and distributing products to the atmosphere, soil, water, land resources, and many people and communities. We must RESTORE those relationships. In reconciliation, we systematically change how we think about the environments and places of our business. And part of that is known as…
REGIONALIZATION: in the fashion industry we work globally to benefit from economies-of-scale and cost. However, a regional approach means we apply place-based thinking to our supply chains and choose to keep production and next steps close to the place of material origin. This can mean domestic, or same hemisphere; but regionalization can also be global. Working regionally can include multiple production areas – all close to the multiple customer regions. Meaning that for each area – sourcing, production and selling are consolidated to that one geographic place. This decreases shipping impacts because multiple regions each create smaller lots of the same product. Here’s an example: according to EileenFisher.com, the typical yoga top travels seventeen thousand miles before it gets to the consumer. This great distance is due to where the thread comes from, the label, ink for printing the label, fiber, fabric, hangtag, etc., all come from different places around the globe. When we keep the supply chain regional, we increase accountability and transparency and reduce fuel, pollution, and emissions from large quantities of materials and components traveling and crisscrossing the world. This makes our apparel production more respectful to people and places, and helps us to…
REVERSE the human-caused impacts from globalization. If you’re unfamiliar with Will Steffen, Google him and you will find that he and his colleagues charted the Earth-systems and socio-economic trends. Their research shows that as globalization, GDP and production of materials rose, so did the injustices to the Earth’s ecosystems. The take-away from their charts is that business actions and profits have taken the same trajectory as human impacts on earth; and this is why we must RECONCILE, and REVERSE.
We personally may not have caused these impacts, but there is a great opportunity to draw those charted impacts down and make our companies planet-first, people-first, and future facing. When circularity principles and responsibility are built into the design and development phases of fashion goods production, the products cause less harm and have more value. Circular products must be made for:
REPAIR and REUTILIZATION to last longer. Both practices work towards keeping products in existence for as long as possible. Repair practices include old-world skills, such as darning, overdyeing, and needle-working. Hand-craftsmanship offers local employment opportunities and therefore has local economic benefits. That said, to accomplish this end, clothing must be designed to be easily repaired, disassembled, and created – and with quality materials. A great store in New York already doing repair work to their products is Nudie Jeans. Reutilization – also known as REVALORIZATION, allows for the recycling and reuse of materials and products that are then transformed into something new. Both are very important in terms of circularity, and to do this we must RE-IMAGINE… which is my last but not least of the important “R” words in the fashion industry.
RE-IMAGINATION is about creatively and radically rethinking what products are made of, how they are made, and how they are used. Circularity is not only recycled or organic fibers in fabric. Circularity also questions if and how we need to buy and use this product – the RE-ANALYSIS of all the components. In our advanced sustainability courses at LIM College, for example, students work with fashion brands to create forward-thinking sustainable action plans with ten-year rollouts. We do a lot of reimagining in class in order to create these plans. The lessons help students become aware that it is the products and the ways we have made them that’s created the wicked problem fashion is now facing. The great part of re-imagination is that there are no right or wrong answers. Whether the tasks and responses include the sharing economy, new shopping processes, revised ways of packaging, low-impact shipping, easy repair solutions, offsetting, keeping carbon footprints low, or apparel that bounces back. Students re-imagine ways to keep garments out of landfills, away from incinerators – and as such, become part of a more circular system. Once they have their wild concepts, we funnel and hone them into plans that work towards circularity and are feasible, relevant to the brand, accomplishable, and cost-efficient.
These are exciting times. We know for certain that circularity is achievable. Circularity is a characteristic of nature. We can and should emulate nature for success. Just as the Earth is round, so too can our product systems be circular. What seems like the end is also the beginning.”