In her sunlit apartment, Gillian spoke with The Power Thread about her passion for sustainability and fashion. It all began when she studied economics and sociology in college. Now she is the founder of Bon + Vie, an online platform that teaches consumers about sustainability and sells sustainable brands. She wore a simple striped t-shirt and blue jeans, and she showed us how easy it is to incorporate sustainable fashion into our daily lives. Read on for her personal journey and how you can make a difference!
Can you tell me about your personal journey and what made you interested in sustainable fashion?
Every step of the way seems quite natural when I look back on it, but I had no idea where I was going at the time. I went to Manhattanville College and studied sociology and economics. Learning about modern slavery in supply chains sparked my passion for social justice. When the Rana Plaza collapse happened in Bangladesh, I made the connection between what I was learning and the fashion industry. I was disappointed when I looked into my own wardrobe for ethical clothing and couldn’t find anything.
During my last semester of college, I found a small Dutch dress company in Amsterdam, where I would be moving after graduation. This company had just started tracking their supply chain with the help of the Fair Wear Foundation (FWF), and agreed to hire me to implement and manage that membership. FWF focuses on the cut-make-trim, manufacturing process of supply chains, making sure the workers are paid fairly and that health and safety regulations are in place; very relevant to my newfound passion. It was an amazing position, and I learned a ton about both supply chains and the inner workings of fashion companies.
What sparked Bon + Vie?
Ever since I started researching ethical fashion, I kept track of the sustainable brands that I came across in an excel spreadsheet. Friends and family would ask me for sustainable clothing recommendations. As I was getting more and more questions about how to be more environmentally conscious, I thought, why not share all the information that I have been collecting? Bon + Vie started as an information source about brands and organizations, but now it has morphed into an online shop as well.
As it grew, I quit my job to fully focus on Bon + Vie and try to make it profitable. My business model is to sell other brand’s products for a commission and without holding stock. I hope that my customers are also curious to learn about sustainability while they shop.
My long-term goal is to make Bon + Vie the global, go-to source for sustainable information and quality products. For example, when I shop, I check if a label has a fair trade icon, or if it is a paper product, then I look for the FSC certification or responsible forestry logo. I want to put information like this on my website, so that people know what to visually look for when they’re shopping. I also do a lot of research on brands and make sure they are transparent about their manufacturing process and committed to making a positive impact before partnering with them.
What would you say to people who say that sustainable fashion isn’t affordable?
There is a lot of misinformation. For example, this shirt I am wearing is from Amour Vert, a sustainable brand that makes clothing mostly in California and from eco-friendly materials. This shirt is made of Tencel. It was $34, which isn’t unaffordable for a high-quality t-shirt. But yes, it’s more expensive than a shirt at H&M for $5. The misinformation is that $5 for a shirt is a fair price. The idea of a fair price has completely gone off the rails, because no one by choice wants to produce t-shirts for $2 an hour, which is easily what many garment workers make around the world. Fast fashion has skewed our perception of pricing and what is okay to spend on clothing. In reality, that price is not okay for anyone in the supply chain. For the consumer, it makes us want to buy more and have more than what we need, which ends up being both wasteful and mentally unhealthy. For the workers, they have to produce more and more, often under pressure from the brands. The brands are the only ones who profit from this mindset and culture.
To counter that, there is the slow-living and minimalist movements. They advocate to only buy what you need and appreciate what you have. If you invest in one piece of quality clothing that will last you a long time, then you will end up spending less money and enjoying what you wear more.
What is a simple way for us to make a difference?
The simplest strategy I have found is to just buy less. At first, you have to question every purchase. Do I really need this? It does take some initial effort, but once you get past that stage, you won’t even think about buying things you don’t need. I also read Marie Kondo’s book and KonMaried my wardrobe. It was a life-changing experience. Whenever I want to buy something, it helps to think about if that item will spark joy in my closet. I absolutely love the clothes I have and feel good wearing all of them- I have so much more mental space now, thanks to changing my buying habits.
Are there things you hope to change in the fashion industry?
Definitely! There are two main things: one is the environmental aspect of clothing and the other is the labor. Because of my sociology background, I understand and am more passionate about the labor side of the industry. It is ridiculous that people in supply chains still aren’t paid a living wage, even if the country they live in has lower living expenses. They are still paid under the local poverty line. It is just so inhumane of us to keep this going. On the environmental side of the industry, most products are still made from petroleum, like polyester, and it just gets into everything. When you wash fleeces, for example, little fibers of it will come off and get into the water system. I would like to see changes in the materials that we’re using and their entire life cycle, even after we are done wearing them.
There are a lot of positive changes going on as well, which is what I like to focus on. A lot of brands are using organic cotton now, which is fantastic because no pesticide is used and workers are paid fairly. There is new technology being developed to recycle fibers, and some companies are creating closed-loop systems where no new waste is being made. These changes are really inspiring for the industry!
What makes you powerful and how do you define power?
Owning the ups and downs of life makes me powerful. There will always be ups and downs, and just because you are in a “down” doesn’t mean there won’t be any more “ups”. When I am feeling down, I ask myself, what can I learn from this and where can I go from here? That often motivates me. On the flip side, when I am in an “up,” I remind myself that I can’t stay in an “up” all my life. That means being a good and kind person when I am feeling on top of the world (which has been proven to make you happier as well!), and having the humility to know that I could come down anytime.
Is there something you own that gives you power when you need it?
I use little acupuncture needles – I have four of them in my feet right now. Even though they’re small, they make a huge difference to my mentality. When I start to feel overwhelmed – that feeling when you’re just trying to keep your head above water, I put a couple in my ankles, take a deep breath, and within a few minutes, I am more calm, clear-headed, and patient! They give me power.
The jeans on the left are of MUD Jeans, a Dutch brand that aims to create a closed-loop production process, recycling all of their water, dyes, etc., as well as their denim. They offer a leasing option for jeans so that after a year, if you want to get a new pair, you exchange your leased jeans for a new pair, and they recycle the leased pair into a new style for their next collection. It’s very innovative and I think it is a great way to tackle the trend issue – that trendy clothing is more disposable because people will discard it as soon as a style is no longer on trend.