Let’s be real: most people don’t know much about the story of their clothes beyond the rack or website it came from. It’s not your fault. With ‘sustainable’ becoming a hot topic in retail, we’re seeing new marketing campaigns, but not getting the facts. Coming off of Fashion Revolution Week, we could think of no better resource for dispelling the myths and misconceptions about ethical fashion than ShareHope founder Cynthia Petterson.
A longtime veteran in the fashion manufacturing world, Petterson is changing the game in athletic apparel by putting the people who make her clothing first.
Beyond salaries up to twice the minimum wage, and a safe, supportive work environment, every time you buy a pair of ShareHope’s signature leggings, you’re also supporting their programs in Haiti that provide health education, a high school completion program, support for deaf and hard of hearing workers, and community sanitation and waste management.
The first thing you see when you visit the Share Hope website is, “putting people back at the center of business.” What does that mean to you?
Our society has become obsessed with profit and maximizing profit. One can of course argue for and against this, but the fact of the matter is that making money has too often taken priority over people. And it has too often come at the expense of people’s lives, their dignity, and their wellbeing. Since the beginning of my career as a business owner in the garment sector, my philosophy has always been that business needs to be about the people. Your business can be as successful as you want (in profit-maximization terms), but if your business is not making a positive impact in the lives of the people working so hard to make it run better, I believe that it is not truly successful.
So my motivation throughout my career has always been to put people back at the center of all of my business considerations.
And not just people in a hypothetical, nameless sense; it’s about real, individual people who I knew by name, knew their families, their challenges and their dreams. My goal with ShareHope was to do that at a larger scale and start to change the industry status quo.
What’s the most common misconception you hear about garment manufacturing?
Wow, this is a BIG one! I’ve spent my entire career in garment manufacturing and in factories. I have heard so any misconceptions, from, ‘I didn’t know that there are people who still make our clothes, I thought it was all automated,’ to ‘garment factories are all abusive, bad places to work. They’re all sweatshops!’
Unfortunately, garment manufacturing has been consistently a victim of the ‘single story.’
The stories about garment manufacturing anywhere in the world tend to highlight only abuse and struggle. This story doesn’t allow for change to come from within. We’re changing the narrative not only by telling stories of empowerment from within the sector, but also by changing the norms for how the sector itself functions.
You sell a pair of leggings on your site for $55, while Lululemon sell a similar product for $98. Does a higher price mean they are able to pay workers higher wages?
Our leggings sell at $55, but you are right: they are of comparable quality to those selling in the $75 – $98 price range. Many factors determine price when it comes to the production of garments.
If Lululemon charges a higher price, it doesn’t guarantee that they are paying their factories and workers more. You can’t determine the social or environmental value of a product by its price alone.
This is why labels and certificates exist, like the Fair Trade label for food. The price is not the sole indicator of the ethics or fairness behind the production. We went back and forth on the pricing of our legging, but decided to take lower margins in order to make a premium legging more affordable for a larger number of people.
Ethical fashion should not be seen as a luxury for the wealthy; everyone, regardless of their income level, should be able to feel that they can make a difference through their purchases.
We’ve also noticed you carry a nice range of sizes, from XS – XXL. Why is inclusive sizing important to Share Hope?
For us, this one is a no-brainer. We are a team of people of all shapes, sizes and colors, and we know that this world is full of people of all shapes, sizes and colors. We are proud of and celebrate diversity – it’s in our DNA. We talk a lot about human dignity at ShareHope, and we’re all about promoting the dignity of workers in the garment sector. But we’re also about promoting the dignity of people who come from different backgrounds, have different body types, speak different languages. And we want everything we do, from the leggings we sell to the social programs we put in place for the workers, to promote that dignity, and inspire people to be confident knowing that they have something valuable to contribute to this world.
What would you say to people in the fashion industry who argue that ethical manufacturing is just too expensive to commit to?
I would tell them that restructuring cost structures with added money towards the labor component does not need to translate into exponential cost increases at retail. Even the consumers who purchase at the most inexpensive retailers would gladly pay $1.00 more per garment if they knew that it would transform the lives of the people who make their clothing. And it’s true: $1.00 more makes a big difference.
Kat Eves is an inclusive wardrobe stylist dedicated to helping people find their fashion pulse and feel great in their bodies. She's passionate about making ethical fashion more accessible for people of all sizes, shapes, and incomes. When not styling, she's writing on TheStyleEthic.com or posting to Instagram @StyleEthic.