On Saturday I was one of the speakers at the TEDx UNCAsheville event. It was a great experience. Here's what I said, I'd love to hear what you think:
Rhetorical factory is a recycled clothing company here in Asheville.
The topic I chose to speak about today is huge and will lead to many more questions than answers, no matter what your position is in this world I encourage you to entertain these challenging ideas from a global perspective.
Rhetorical Factory re-invents used clothes from thrift stores and direct donation. We screen print original images and add our question mark logo to each piece with the intention to invite a second thought when it comes to buying new. I’d like to encourage a second thought, even a third fourth or fifth thought about every choice you make as a consumer in fact.
Because I believe our number one source of power as citizens of this nation is where we chose to spend our money.
Not having pursued a formal education left me with a lot to learn about business; these last four years have been full of the best training I never could have bought. Interestingly enough it’s a very good thing the perspective I began with was completely free from the influence of “Business as Usual”, because 13 million tons of clothing is thrown away every year and only 15% is recycled. I never thought that working with second hand clothing would take up every square inch of my life and every spare minute of my day, waking up to this fact and the realization that nothing is slowing down left me eager to develop a scalable alternative to our fast fashion world.
Taking on this challenge amounts to a lot more than just learning how to brand a clothing company in the competitive in fashion industry, because at Rhetorical Factory, we can’t sell anything more than once. Of 13 million tons of garments available as our resource, not one will be ordered and produced in the size and color combination that sells best for us. An investment is made in claiming, cleaning improving, marketing and finally selling each and every piece. Each second hand garment takes up space and is not guaranteed to sell again.
Industry doesn’t deal with this part of the risk at all, instead the risk falls on the the people who produce and source the materials. Clothing brands sell one design in mass quantities before production, spending as little as possible on the resources so they can keep prices low and get lots of orders. After production their work is done, and they continue depending on and therefore creating an unrealistic demand for clothing and goods. The whole goal is to sell sell sell, to make room for the new. Corporate Retailers can afford to sell for a fraction of what was invested because the last extra small tank top isn’t worth the room it takes up on the rack.
We need alternatives to this destructive cycle for the consumers, and we need to do something with all these clothes. I’m motivated every day by the opportunity that Business presents: to create value.
Business to me is what makes America great. It’s what makes America Free. Anyone who wants to can have an idea, and provide a good or service that their community needs. It doesn’t mean that the idea will work or that it will be profitable, but everyone in theory possesses that opportunity. A business is a vessel for ideas, an opportunity to solve problems through invention and creativity and teamwork. Owning a business is stimulating, challenging, and real. It’s exciting to succeed, failure means change is necessary. I believe in business. I was in college for one semester before moving to Asheville, I took a social problems class and a philosophy class. Most of you will probably be able to understand what frame of mind I was in when I moved here. I was disappointed, I was questioning everything about what I thought was working and not working. A group of anarchists opened my mind but I was never convinced that their way would work in practice. From a young age I’ve had creative ideas for business and I’ve always had lofty goals for changing the world. When I say I believe in business I mean to say that I believe in the power of business as a model for implementing solutions to the problems we face in society.
I believe that in fact we are all in Business. As individuals or in families. We develop ourselves, and sell our skills in order to survive! Similarly I would say that our nation is a business, taking in and spending money to create a foundation for the people and the market we live in.
Why hasn’t our surplus in clothing led to a decline in production?
Because there are companies that are treated differently, which don’t operate in an even playing field, some businesses don’t risk failure, they control consumer demand through the media, and when that doesn’t work they depend on government assistance. The economy needs to shift to a solution based model but the industries of the past century are involved in production, not creating solutions. Our leaders in government have a personal interest in keeping big businesses in operation because they benefit financially either through personal investments and businesses of their own or direct payments from lobbyists.
Not allowing businesses to fail is a dangerous waste of resources, but we don’t see the effects in the US because we are so focused on consuming.
In this day and age we have the time and technology to turn things around, to see where this cycle takes us and do something about it. ignoring failure should never work in business. I ask you to question whether our systems work, between what is privatized and what we can vote on - is change in this system possible?
Upcycling for instance, which is adding value to an abandoned resource, is a natural response to the industry’s failure to take responsibility for the waste created, is just one example of how innovation rises up and can be harnessed to provide sustainable alternatives. But I wonder if a company based in such a different paradigm would be allowed to succeed at the same level as the large competition. Between the giant businesses our economy depends on currently and the governing bodies that work with them, our small business alternatives don’t really stand a chance. Supporting the local economy nourishes sustainable business models but if that real playing field doesn’t stretch to big business our solutions will stay small every time.
Business should be allowed to operate on whatever scale the demand creates, and should be held to the same clearly defined standards for integrity all across the board. It’s easier to keep local business honest, it’s become almost impossible to hold corporations to any standards.
We are so close to creating a world that can solve it’s own problems. Investing in solutions means hiring and paying people, not mining our resources or exploiting other populations, we have a resource of waste and a surplus of people to take care of it.
Our democracy worked and created the American Dream, but business has developed to the point of control. Our leaders are in business because that is where the power is, that is fine as long as we have the opportunity to hold them accountable with each dollar we spend.
Avoidance of all of our issues will lead to collapse. In fact it almost has.
We have stagnant democracy because it doesn’t get enough of our attention.
We are continuing to produce waste also because we aren’t paying attention.
We have a choice to make.
In order to stay in business as a country and eventually global community, we need to know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.
Taking full responsibility for ourselves and our system means allowing Business to be our Government actively demanding integrity and working toward sustainable solutions, admitting failure and striving every day.