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Build Your Business: Shop Talk
Cause CentralHow Fed by Threads is leading the way — and the world — in sustainability best practices.
Fed By Threads offers a resort line of “curve friendly” women’s apparel called Skya Papaya, using the same style and cut that favors plus sizes.
In February 2018, during a lecture at Harvard Business School, Skya Nelson was asked how his company, organic sweatshop-free boutique apparel maker Fed By Threads (FBT), was going to change the minds of today’s corporate consumers regarding sustainability. The question was one that Nelson, the company’s self-proclaimed “hippie”-driven chief operating officer and creative director, didn’t take lightly.
His answer was honest and forthright: Through manipulation.
What Nelson meant was that by introducing customers to a product matching some of their personal and corporate beliefs, they’d become intrigued. When customers realize they can improve the environment by “voting with their dollars” or help feed people by buying something they already planned on purchasing, it changes the conversation.
“Alignment is paired with desire and by explaining the positive ROI, intrigue becomes consideration [and] alignment becomes advocacy, thus creating desire where there had been none,” he says.
‘Looking for Our Solution’
Understanding FBT’s mission requires revisiting its beginning. The brainchild of Alok Appadurai and Jade Beall, FBT opened its doors in 2012 inside a Tucson, Arizona, dance studio. The partners received a letter requesting donations for a local food bank, and figured they could print and sell a modest number of T-shirts and donate meals to local charities. The business grew, moving from one rack of clothes to more than the studio could handle. Teaming with a local business owner, Manish Shah, the stored moved to a more permanent location.
In 2017, Appadurai sold 75% of the business to Nelson, a local artist and brand and marketing specialist, who eventually assumed the reins. Growing up poor and occasionally homeless, Nelson was drawn to FBT’s business model and dug in with a personal interest.
Today, along with providing certified responsibly manufactured products, FDT pursues an agenda to feed 1 million meals a year with its partners, Feeding America and the Tony Robbins Foundation. Eventually, the company plans to expand its sustainable programs globally by feeding people around the world.
While the mission to end hunger is in Nelson’s bones, he is quick to acknowledge FBT as a technology company operating in the “smart agriculture” industry — one that brokers intellectual-property rights in order to produce Earth-positive merchandise and provide social enterprise to communities.
“I’m not Machiavellian, just realistic,” Nelson says. “The customer doesn’t know what they want until you show them there is a choice and explain the benefits of that choice. They don’t know they want it until you show them how they can choose a product that does zero harm. Our brand has benefited from the fact that our customers spend hours looking on the internet for a product that matches their personal ethos. They’re not looking for a company in particular; they’re looking for our solution.”
Back to that Harvard speech. Nelson says sustainability is about paying attention, planning and understanding your resources, as well as reasonably predicting costs and repeating production with profit and without harm.
“Our customers are interested in our management of raw materials, resources and conservation, [as well as] education and community services,” Nelson says. “The fact that we add feeding meals, livable wages, no toxins and chose to manufacture using a transparent and ethical supply chain is an added bonus they didn’t know was available. They keep finding us and we want to meet their demands.”
Riding the Lightning
Is a strategy like this sustainable? During the past four years, without advertising, FBT has experienced 1,200% growth in year-over-year sales. With the addition of celebrity endorsements, a new CEO and leadership team, and integrated supply-chain verticals, it expects to reach $400 million in annual sales by 2025.
“Essentially, we are a T-shirt business at our core,” Nelson says. “It’s the engine that drives us. But having that key business is not enough. There is an entire product group that our customers demand in order for us to get the T-shirt business. The model we chose to provide is a ‘one-stop shop’ based on industry requirements and customer expectations. It took two years of customer interaction to create that operational template.”
Today, everything FBT does — data, standards, modeling, catalogs, patterns, marketing, etc. — is geared toward finding sustainable solutions to today’s problems. That means understanding its entire supply chain and continually recognizing its core strengths. FBT tracks every moment of production: water use, dryer temperature, production cycle times, recycling, tree plantings — even the use of ethical toilet paper and 100% recycled printer paper.
“The secret ingredient that will make or break us is time,” Nelson says. “Time is the only ingredient that we can’t buy, change or manipulate. We stand in front of billion-dollar corporations and tell them we will not compromise. When they are ready to do things sustainably, they can call us. We only sell positive change, and we only deliver positive products because everything we do is to be Earth— human— and emotionally positive.”
The job, Nelson admits, isn’t easy. But it’s something the FBT team takes to heart daily. “Our job is to fight against some of the worst human negligence and intentional poisoning of our planet,” he says. “To do this, we have to be positive and upbeat because the fight is dirty. If you become caught up in the ugliness of the industry, you may not be able to see the positive strides.”
‘Take Care of Your Stuff’
The mission is in FBT’s actions. For example, in February 2019, the company will host an event to educate 2,000-5,000 college students on the negative effects of buying “fast fashion.” Nelson says showing today’s generation that the T-shirt they’re wearing was made by one of the 168 million child laborers under age 14 living in poverty, among other atrocities, can be sobering.
“The clothing we wear has many stories and truths woven into it,” he says. “Our goal is to offer our customers the ability to have their dollars vote for a better world that values high-quality, long-lasting craftsmanship, as well as positive community and environmental impact.”
This year, FBT tied for first place as the country’s “Most Ethical Clothing Manufacturer” on “The Ethical List.” The 2018 book “The Green Wardrobe Guide” by Beth Fiteni listed FBT as the “Best Place to Shop in the USA.” In 2016, it received the Green America Award for its sustainable clothing boutique.
“Everybody was told by their parents at some point, ‘You can’t have nice things if you don’t learn to take care of your stuff,’” Nelson says. “That’s what we’re asking of our industry and our customers now. Take more time to think about the job, spend more money on the better product and explain your decision to your customer. Take care of your stuff.”
Michael J. Pallerino is an award-winning writer who has written for a number of national consumer and trade publications. For more information or to comment on this article, email Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fed by Threads At a Glance
Company Name: Fed By Threads
Address: 5984 E. North St., Tucson, AZ 85712
Garment Types Offered: 100% Recycled, 100% organic cotton, urban cashmere, bamboo/organic cotton blend, hemp, 98: RPET/2% Biolycra
Company Website: fedbythreads.com
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