Ethica is an online boutique where you can learn about ethical, sustainable fashion and discover emerging designers. While it’s only been around for two years, those two years have been significant—Ethica was recently named the #1 site for ethical and eco-friendly shopping by InStyle magazine. We sat down to chat with Melissa Cantor, founder of Ethica, about her superhero origin, her business model and why she’s leading a movement to co-create an ethical fashion movement. Here’s what she had to say, in her own words.
I’m originally from Honduras and I actually went to high school in Tegucigalpa, Honduras with [Organic Bath Co. founder] Gianne. I moved to New York for college and then worked in journalism for 10 years, covering fashion and lifestyle. Then I ended up in fashion copywriting and was brought in-house by a fashion brand. That opened my eyes to the idea of sustainability, of not selling people things they don’t need.
Because of my journalism background, I love people’s stories and the stories of brands. I want to help people connect with what they’re buying—it adds to their personal lifestyle.
Fashion is always something I’ve enjoyed. I was a big shopper and a fast-fashion consumer, just like most 19-year-olds who have no money, and are lured into that cycle. As I got older, I moved away from low quality, even before I moved to sustainability. I started to think,
How do I shop but not just shop?
That’s what Ethica is based on. Shopping shouldn’t be a negative, angry experience—women like clothes and that can be an empowering form of expression. We want to celebrate the fun you can have with fashion but support better choices while we’re shopping.
My sister and I have always wanted to work together, and we love fashion, but we were daunted by the fact that neither of us was a designer. So we thought maybe we could just sell something—we knew we loved these artisans in Honduras who made jewelry. Then it transitioned into being a multi-brand site, and we had a three-year business plan.
When we started two years ago, there weren’t online sites that were dedicated to talking about ethical fashion issues. Even brands that were eco-friendly shied away from those labels because they were afraid it would detract from the fashion of it. We wanted to embrace it.
Now the space has exploded since we launched. Before, some websites had the theory behind them that we did, but they weren’t talking about it in the same way. The way we see it is that our goal was to engender our competitors—we didn’t want to be a market of one.
We try to create a cool, boutique experience without the granola stereotypes. We have the opportunity to bring all these great brands together on one site. Brands that were hesitant to talk about their sustainability before are now excited about it and we’re attracting really cool talent. We’re a great place to discover young, fashion-forward brands. The brands are the ones who are amazingly creative—they show that you can make gorgeous gowns out of plastic bottles. We just curate the experience.
We do have really high standards in ethics and sustainability for what we carry. If our standards were more lenient, we’d have double the product, but we look at baseline sustainability AND labor standards for all of our products.
I acknowledge that money is a factor when shopping sustainably. We don’t try to deny that’s the case. Part of it is explaining to people that the more you are willing to pay now, the more prices will come down. We all sacrifice a little and prices have come down a lot since Ethica started. We started with European designers who cost more, but now there are local designers or designers from Columbia, where they’re having a “Made in Columbia” movement and using it to build the middle class. There are little pockets of it all over and that helps prices come down. We’ve diversified our price point because it’s something we think about a lot. If you’re going to spend $300, at least make it stand for something.
It’s important to stress that a quality piece will last longer, wear better and isn’t driven by trends. It’ll stand the test of time.
Whenever we talk to someone who’s interested in sustainable fashion, especially young people, we tell them to just keep their eye on it. We’re all growing and creating the space together. That’s what’s most important—co-creating the movement, wherever people are on their journey. Nobody’s perfect and we just want everyone to engage in the conversation, and to be thinking about it. We’re making baby steps to increase the size of the community and increase awareness. That’s the most exciting and rewarding part of the process.
—As told to Nicolle Mackinnon
Melissa’s Top Ethica Fashion Picks for Fall 2014
Melissa was kind enough to offer you 15% off on ShopEthica.com from now until December 10, 2014. Just use code organicbath at check out to score (and get inspiration from Melissa’s recommendations below!).