Shades of Sustainability

Alumni Discussion with Colette Brown, Class of 2019 | Feb 3, 2020

The climate crisis has inspired progressive businesses to organize, devise solutions, and take appropriate action. Some in the fashion industry have responded by providing a fertile ground for innovation: sustainability-focused brands that use eco-friendly textile manufacturing technologies are on the rise. Minerva alumnus Colette Brown talks to us about her sustainable clothing venture, Blacktogrey, discussing the different ways to define and understand sustainability in the context of fashion, the kinds of questions consumers should be asking of fashion brands, and what it takes to build a company focused on sustainable fashion.

What is Blacktogrey and how did it come to be?

Blacktogrey uses the most sustainable method of textile manufacturing to create branded merchandise for various universities. Our clothing is made by recycling post-consumer black garments and mixing them with organic cotton to produce items that come in a range of greys.

At Minerva, I became interested in finding the symbiosis between my two concentrations: data science and environmental science. I was also keen to learn about design, consumer culture, and industrial processes. In the summer of 2018, I began an internship with Hallotex, a Barcelona-based textile design and manufacturing company that developed an innovative recycling technology. Realizing the gap in the United States market for this recycling technology, two women (who would later become my co-founders) and I put together a proposal and a business model to bring it to the US. Hallotex decided to fund our idea, and we began building the business that would become Blacktogrey.

How did you determine that the textile manufacturing method used by Blacktogrey was the most sustainable approach?

Defining what makes a garment sustainable is one of the biggest challenges in the fashion industry because this concept is charged with value judgements and assessments. Three typical criteria used in this definition are greenhouse gases (GHGs), water use, and microfiber plastic content.

For one of my co-founders, the definition of the most sustainable garment is one that releases no microfibers into our water sources. For me, the most fundamental unit to evaluate sustainability is GHGs because ecosystem degradation, destruction, water use, and water availability all hinge upon having an atmosphere with a certain level of carbon dioxide. So the most sustainable garment, then, is the one that emits the least GHGs.

Life cycle analysis is one process of determining the amount of GHGs emitted in the production of garments, which converts the type and amount of gas and oil used in the production machinery into approximate equivalents of carbon dioxide emissions. These numbers are then used to calculate, on average, the amount of GHGs emitted.

To establish the sustainability of our textile manufacturing method, I conducted a garment production life cycle analysis, looking at varying amounts of recycled raw material, virgin organic cotton, and virgin conventional cotton. I then simulated the effects of garment dyeing on the amount of GHGs emitted.

My conclusion was that almost anything that Blacktogrey does would be better than almost anything that’s currently on the market, in terms of per-garment GHGs emitted. By deciding not to use synthetic fibers in our recycling processes, we are able to both reduce the amount of microfibers flowing into oceans and our GHG emissions.

How does Blacktogrey address the issue of the tendency toward overconsumption in fashion?

A large part of our strategy focuses on tackling overconsumption, which will never be sustainable. We want to persuade consumers to buy sustainable alternatives to the products they were already going to purchase, rather than purchasing more garments. This approach works especially well with merchandising, for example, because people are going to buy merchandise no matter what. So our aim is to make sustainable merchandise and provide a replacement in some sense.

We also heavily focus on durability and longevity. In every garment we produce, we limit the recycled content to twenty percent because that percentage composition will enable the garment to last through dozens of washes.

What do you say to the idea that it is nearly impossible to produce a 100% eco-friendly garment, at an affordable price?

In the fashion industry, the biggest problems are production and waste management — problems that many companies are working on solving. What is problematic, then, is that almost one-hundred billion garments are produced every single year and seventy percent of them end up in the landfill or are incinerated within the same year. So it’s a crazy production problem and a crazy waste problem. A truly eco-friendly garment would have to tackle both of these problems head-on.

One company that’s doing this is Tyton. Tyton takes post-consumer waste, clothes that people have already worn and bought, and separates the synthetic fiber from the natural fiber with 99% reclamation of water, zero waste by-products, and less chemical waste than its competitors. There’s virtually no water waste in Tyton’s production processes, which is huge for the fashion industry. So it would be unfair to say that it is nearly impossible to produce a 100% eco-friendly garment. The perceived difficulty is based on existing fashion industry practices.

Additionally, I most certainly disagree with the claim of affordability in that statement. The reality isn’t that sustainable garments are always expensive to produce, but instead that brands can still charge a lot more money for such garments primarily because of the current market demand for sustainable fashion. We’re coming to a day, very soon, where competition lowers the price on sustainable garments, and the playing field will even out. Additionally, raw materials like organic cotton and technologies like recycling are becoming increasingly affordable and have the potential to become standard practice in the next one-to-five years.

Why did you decide to partner with universities, as opposed to going direct to consumers?

Direct-to-consumer is often an ineffective strategy because there’s a lot of misinformation around sustainability, especially from the larger fast-fashion brands, whose claims of sustainability are not held to any real standards. As a result, small sustainable fashion brands must somehow find a way to get through this misinformation. It’s essentially impossible to shine in an oversaturated market, so that’s a key challenge.

Alternatively, having a business-to-business strategy solves a number of problems. Blacktogrey relies on collecting waste, and universities are community hubs that are centers for waste, with the need to get rid of it. The second is that we’re able to work with a group of people who are inherently curious, with fairly malleable minds, so we can empower them to inspire their social and academic peers. On a more logistical side, selling wholesale is easier than selling individually, which means that selling to a university makes it easier to fulfill an order.

How has your education at Minerva equipped you to lead at Blacktogrey?

Every single thing I do and how I think about the world is influenced by my experience at Minerva.

Minerva taught me how to work systematically through problems, and with Blacktogrey, how I think about and break down the climate problem into its subcomponents: the first fifty percent of human emissions and the other fifty percent, and then break down the first fifty percent even further. I learned how to think about problems at different scales and how the unique components of a problem interact with each other — skills and frameworks I use every day.

Do you think it’s a little crazy to co-found a company at age 21?

No, absolutely not — anybody can do it. You just need to know your personal boundaries and that what you’re taking on is within those boundaries. You need to be realistic about what you’re capable of doing.

If you were inspired by Colette’s story and are seeking a college experience that will teach you valuable pragmatic skills that will enable you to change the world, apply to join Minerva today.