It happened in the ’80s — I can’t remember the exact year. I was traveling to Asia every three to four months for business trips as a production manager for Esprit, an apparel and shoe company then based in San Francisco. It was my dream job. My values were closely aligned with those of the forward-thinking company and, like most young women, I coveted its unique clothing, shoe, and bag designs. Esprit went beyond fashion by bringing awareness about environmental issues and other progressive ideas through a lecture series offered to employees. The talks covered issues that this young woman from Nebraska had never heard anyone speak of. Leading California environmentalists told stories of tree spiking to prevent logging in the California redwoods. Another speaker enlightened us about irresponsible corporations tearing through our natural resources like a chainsaw cutting through butter. Gloria Steinem spoke on her crusade for women’s rights. And the gospel singers from Glide Memorial Church, in the Tenderloin of San Francisco, sang their hearts out for us one day, expressing spiritual passion. It was quite the esprit de corps.
Esprit was like most U.S. companies in the ’80s that had discovered the lure of cheap labor in China. Overseas apparel and shoe manufacturing was booming for this reason. It was not clear to me at the time, but this was the beginning of mass consumerism and fast fashion, which would roar on for decades. Greenhouse gases emitted from these businesses have ended up contributing heavily to global warming. As the years wore on and I traveled more and more, I started putting the pieces together and saw this catastrophe unfolding. It did not take a scientist to see that the air and water pollution in southern China was worsening, and the Western appetite for the latest and greatest in apparel, shoes, and electronics was fueling it. And there was no end in sight.
It happened on one of my first trips to China. We were in Guangzhou, the major sprawling port city northwest of Hong Kong, visiting a tannery that was making kidskin leather. Our agent had found a British expatriate who had a tannery in China and specialized in these small skins that resulted in soft, beautiful leather. The skins took color really well, and we had developed a collection of brightly colored sandals. We arrived by ferry from Hong Kong and took a two-hour car ride on a mostly two-lane bumpy dirt road, hoping to see the completed skins. After our stamp of approval, they would be sent to a local shoe factory for production. We had never worked with this tannery, so we needed to make sure the finished skins were at an acceptable quality level before they shipped. When we arrived, the quirky Brit met us in tall rubber boots and a dirty apron that hit at his knees. He was covered in soot. The place seemed unorganized. With only a handful of employees, it was a small, mom-and-pop–like operation, and not in a good way. This tannery was not the well-oiled machine we had hoped for. And the skins were not ready for our inspection.
In our business, when deliveries were at risk, we Americans had a reputation for ugly outbursts. So the Brit got a raging rant from our agent. He made some excuses and said he needed more time to complete the skins. Things finally settled down between the two men, and the Brit took us on a tour of the tannery to show us that the order was at least in process. We saw some skins being dyed lavender and some lavender skins drying. In a perfect English accent, he assured us that he would make good on the order but just needed a few more weeks. He then led us to the back of the building with a large window, through which I saw a small pond. Something immediately felt wrong. I noticed the pond was purple. This guy had absolutely no health or safety procedures to protect the workers or the environment, as he was dumping dangerous chemical waste into a pond behind the building. Both men gazed at the purple pond and laughed. The Brit chuckled and said that tomorrow it would be red.
I did not say a word when the soot-covered man and our agent joked about the purple pond. Inside I was horrified. I was not comfortable enough in my position at that young age to take a stand. But I never forgot it.
I later came to learn that this was not the only colorful pond, lake, or waterway in southern China. A blatant disregard for the environment was going strong. I would like to think that these types of practices don’t exist anymore, but I can’t say for sure.
As the years rolled on and my career advanced, I ended up a vice president of production for Esprit. That job catapulted me into other senior positions in merchandising and buying in fashion footwear and accessories. All of the jobs I had were fueled by America’s desire for fashion. I was responsible for bringing to market the latest runway trends and the must-haves, seen on the hottest street-style influencers. Across America young women were heading to malls with groups of friends on the hunt for the freshest new designs to define their personal style. I was a cog in the wheel that made this happen. Some days I would convince myself that when my career was over, I would somehow find a way to give back and make up for being a part of this reckless cycle.
In 2011 I did finally sidestep from the craziness of large, multichain retailers. Yvette Turner, a colleague of mine whom I greatly respected, and I founded Ashbury Skies, a highly curated website for small, independent shoe designers. Our shoe collection is like no other. We carry unique, quirky brands that stand out from others in the online shoe space. What was missing from our assortment, however, was any line with a conscience. Honestly, this is hard to accomplish. I knew this better than anyone — but nevertheless we persisted in our mission. Yvette and I leveraged our industry knowledge and tapped into our network built up over decades.
Through a year of research and collaboration, we developed the Bendy, a shoe that is not in conflict with the health of the people making them and has significantly less environmental impact.
We will not misguide anyone and say that the Bendy has zero impact on our planet — only going barefoot does that. What we do have is a simple construction of great materials made by some very kind and talented folks in downtown Los Angeles. Our tannery is a leading player in ethical, responsible tanning. Making the Bendy in the U.S. allows for less transportation, lower CO2 emissions, and fair wages paid to California workers, keeping it right in our backyard.
Life is full of irony: to think that those provocative environmentalists back at Esprit were speaking to a woman who would play a role in the explosion of fast fashion and mass consumerism as we know it today — an industry with practices that we now know are leading causes of dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the words spoken by the provocative environmentalists stayed with me all those years like a knot in the pit of my stomach. And now, this reformed, fast-fashion expediter can share her story, present an alternative, and encourage other women and men to join in our revolution of rethinking fast fashion.