The ‘Triple Threat’ of Sustainable Fashion | EDGE Talks to Laura Tanzer

. . .The essential triangle of sustainability is social, economic, environmental. You have to have all three or you are not really sustainable. . .I want to be a positive part of my community – thus growing a business and hiring, training, creating skilled jobs goes with the territory. That fills both social and economic legs of the sustainability triangle.” – Laura Tanzer

With clothing and textiles the #2 polluter in the world [oil is #1], we [both consumers and the industry] have an incredible power to improve the environmental and social impact of the fashion industry.  What comes first, the chicken or the egg?  Is it consumer demand or the social media culture of “see now, buy now, wear now” that feeds this “buy and toss” frenzy – piling it into the landfills?  Or is it the industry and the antiquated supply system that ignores this tremendous carbon footprint?

booth-courtesy-of-laura-tanzer-1The Laura Tanzer brand embodies the ‘essential triangle’ and is making sustainable fashion the new norm.  Yes, it should be the ‘normal’ business model to incorporate zero waste, mitigating the negative impact on the environment, along with an ethical and fair trade practice.

My environmental objectives are to come as close as possible to zero waste as a manufacturer of clothing can. To that end, we reuse and recycle everything possible.

Although ‘born an artist’, experimenting with both two and three dimensional media, Laura’s passion and most creative output comes through designing clothing.   She comes from a family line of tailors, artists, and craftsmen.

Laura’s impressive academic credentials speak to how well suited she is for the sustainable design business.   She studied fashion illustration at Parsons School of Design and gained technical skills at Fashion Institute of Technology [FIT], graduating with honors.  She worked on Seventh Avenue in the fashion industry for several years before attending business school.   Laura graduated from New York University’s [NYU] Stern School of Business with a bachelor’s degree in international marketing and an MBA in international finance.   Laura’s PhD studies in the School of Renewable Natural Resources at the University of Arizona’s [UA] gave her a better understanding of the fundamentals of sustainable practice.

We are delighted about this interview with Laura.  She is a role model on how you can create, design, and run a fashion business while economically empowering the community, sourcing and producing through fair trade practices, and reducing our carbon footprint.  She is a proponent of “Made Right Here” and proudly  operates her entire business and production in Tucson, Arizona.

One thing people do understand is that if a business makes a good product, and makes it ‘Right Here’, they will pay a premium so that their neighbors will have jobs, and their community will maintain economic viability in a very unstable world.

Exposure is key in communicating a brand’s message.  Laura communicates her brand through fashion shows and consumer driven trunk shows.  This emerging designer showcases her SS 2017 collection at Phoenix Fashion Week and is part of their 2016 Emerging Designer BootCamp program.

Congratulations Laura!

Laura how did you get started and why did you go the route of sustainable fashion?
Two things –

First, I got started in fashion with my grandmother, when I was about 7. I loved the wild fashionable outfits she wore, and the ones she made for me, AND I loved making cool outfits with her for my Barbie. I went to NYC to go into the fashion world – first studying at Parsons (fashion illustration), then at FIT for technical knowledge. I graduated FIT with a degree in Fashion Design, and returned for a degree in Fashion Merchandising (at night, while working on Seventh Avenue).  It didn’t take long to realize that I would eventually have my own business, but I needed to learn about business.

Second, the sustainability part took a little longer, and came through my life journey. Being active, and outdoors, became more important to me as I grew up, so when I decided to study business at NYU, I also minored in environmental management. That led me to try to find a way to incorporate sustainable concepts into my work, and in my research while studying for a PhD at UA (to be clear, I wrote the dissertation, but I walked away before defending). Ultimately the goal was to create a business that could ‘walk the talk’.  I did take a bit of a detour though, teaching Sustainable Business Practice for ten years at the UA, in the Commerce Program (an outreach business program run by the Ag school). Now here I am, with a sustainable fashion design company!laura-working-courtesy-of-laura-tanzer-4

You are what we call in the industry, vertically integrated.  For simplistic terms for our readers, your business model includes the entire product development cycle from design conception to produced merchandise to sell through to the consumer.  Your designs are produced [or made] in Tucson.  Why ‘made in Tucson’? Why is your sustainable message to produce locally?   And does it meet zero waste and ethical/fair trade objectives you may have?

Correct – my business is vertically integrated, to an extent – I do not weave fabrics or do the printing here in Tucson! However, I do develop, create samples, and make production quality garments in Tucson. There is also a contractor in the Phoenix area with whom I am in discussions to take on larger production runs as the company grows. They are just as passionate as I am about quality, and about creating skilled jobs for locals!

Why local? The essential triangle of sustainability is social, economic, environmental. You have to have all three or you are not really sustainable. They do not have to make an equilateral triangle, but they do have to make a triangle… Local for me is Tucson because I love it here. Love the desert. It is serene. And beautiful. And quiet. I do make business trips back east to NYC, but am always happy to come home to the desert. Since this is my chosen home, I want to be a positive part of my community – thus growing a business and hiring, training, creating skilled jobs goes with the territory. That fills both social and economic legs of the sustainability triangle.

My environmental objectives are to come as close as possible to zero waste as a manufacturer of clothing can. To that end, we reuse and recycle everything possible. For example, when we cut a production run, we naturally try to maximize use of the fabric, but there will always be remnant pieces of various sizes. The larger pieces go to my cousin, who makes totes and clutches that accessorize the current collection. Smaller pieces go to schools and children’s organizations, to be used for art projects.

I also encourage my team to bring their lunches – both economical and waste-minimizing.   I insist on reusing paper, and recycling all paper and plastic products that come into the atelier.

Since I do not do business with companies in countries that have ethics issues (such as Bangladesh, et al), I do not really have interaction with those issues. As for ethics, I conduct myself with integrity in every situation, and I teach that to my interns.

laura-working-courtesy-of-laura-tanzer-2Where do you source your materials?  How do you work with your suppliers in not only offering Eco-friendly fabrics and trim, but how are they sustainable with reduction or reuse of textile waste and fair trade/ethical practices?

I have sources in NYC and in Western Europe. These are family run companies that have been around for a few generations, who have clear understanding that anything that is toxic to them in the work place is also toxic to their customer. So, we source all natural fabrics (organic where possible, but that is still a challenge in my world). We source cotton threads and trims – my current favorite trim is a cotton grosgrain from France.

Since these family businesses have operated in a local/sustainable manner for generations, I have no problems with their fair trade practices. They meet the criteria for sustainability by employing locals, which contributes to the local economy, and they do not befoul their beautiful natural fabrics with toxic finishes. Clean and simple.

Let’s talk about the consumer.  In pricing, do you find the “ethical fashion” story gives more price value to the product?  In other words, is there a premium to sustainable product and is the consumer receptive to this?

Rhonda, there’s the rub. The consumer still needs quite a bit of education regarding the issues of quality, whether that means quality fabrics, quality construction, or quality styling.  It often means that this lack of understanding accompanies a lack of appreciation for those attributes, and their relationship to price. If you then add a concept of sustainable fashion, or ethical fashion, the average consumer becomes overwhelmed. How can we teach these relationships? I think we need to start with kids in kindergarten. The “teach it early and often” theory gets my vote!

What is really important about the ‘premium’ price for USA made quality goods is that we are paying for skilled work right here. I am a proponent of “Made Right Here”. One thing people do understand is that if a business makes a good product, and makes it ‘Right Here’, they will pay a premium so that their neighbors will have jobs, and their community will maintain economic viability in a very unstable world.

laura-working-courtesy-of-laura-tanzer-3The public and the fashion industry have a long way to go in shifting the demand away from unsustainable consumption to a business model that will thrive in a much needed sustainable environment and at the same time, offer fashionable clothing.  What are your thoughts on the shifting perception from the consumer on sustainable clothing as fashionable?

It is a challenge! My business model is just one of many diverse ways of rising to that challenge. I interface directly with the consumer. I am a happy ‘trunk show’ designer (although I prefer to call myself a clothing engineer – but that is another story). I do trunk shows at boutiques around the country, to both get in front of new clientele, and to give the boutique owners a peek at the joy people find in putting on a really well made garment that was Made in the USA. I also do private trunk shows hosted by someone who invites a dozen or so of her fashionista pals for a party. These are great fun – people can try and show, get approval (or not), and generally leave with their 2-4 items that they know will look great because they had an approving audience. Think about it – shopping on one’s own, one is susceptible to the salesperson, who only wants to make the sale. At a private trunk show with pals, one has the luxury of immediate feedback. It doesn’t get much better than that! This model is my way of not only getting in front of my target clientele, it is a great way to educate that clientele about sustainable fashion. It is up close and personal, and also fun (Who doesn’t like to play dress up in beautiful clothes?). One other point – I cater to real women, most of whom have curves.  My clientele ranges from 35 – 85. My design sensibility is modern, sustainable, with classic lines and interesting details, and my engineered garments fit the real woman’s body.

Laura, you wear many hats throughout the course of your busy days and weeks.  What keeps you going?

I love my job!  I have a great team!  I thrive on client feedback!  When I’m not designing/making/running the business I wind-down with cooking, exercise, getting outdoors, watching our amazing Tucson sunsets. And I love to explore interesting places with my husband.

Laura Tanzer, we applaud you!  Congratulations and EDGE wishes you continued success.

Images:  Courtesy of Laura Tanzer

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