Donna Sikyta, founder of The Sustainery, discusses a solution for diverting material waste from landfills and incinerators. The Sustainery is a B2B marketplace offering solutions that support a circular economy by connecting fashion designers with sustainable and unused materials. Environmentally conscious designers can rely on the Sustainery as a new way to handle materials in the manufacturing process. Donna’s work through the Sustainery creates a more effective system for unwanted and wasted deadstock textiles.
Originally, Donna worked in corporate social responsibility and sustainability making sure people have safe and fair working conditions. After many years working in the garment industry, Donna says she decided to do something about the material waste she saw happening. She describes the Sustainery
as a solution to reduce surplus fabric waste in the textile supply chain; alongside this, managing the surplus of fabric helps companies recover economic losses. How involved does the Sustainery need to be to create an impact in the fabrics ecosystem?
There’s no official data about the amount of deadstock or surplus material floating around the fashion industry. It’s not accounted for after the manufacturing process. In this conversation, Donna explains the general life cycle of fabrics during the manufacturing process. She starts by giving the perspective of the garment industry. In the garment industry, makers usually buy 15% extra fabric to cover any mishaps that may happen during the manufacturing process. Anything left over after the process is done gets sent to a landfill or incinerator in most cases. A marketplace became a fitting solution to form a closed-loop cycle of materials.
The Sustainery works as a marketplace without holding any inventory. Donna compares the business model to Airbnb or Etsy. She shares her insights into starting the adventure of this initiative, and what it’s like working with the fashion industry from this angle. Companies like the possibility of making a profit off wasted fabric, while some like the idea of knowing the continuation of the fabric’s lifecycle. For designers, they are able to get a better deal on fabrics, which also makes it easier to fuel their sustainable designs. The marketplace is the center for this communication and exchange that benefits multiple sides of the fashion industry.
This episode encourages any person interested in fashion to think about the front and end of material management. End of life for garments can be contained in a closed-loop where all deadstock is accessible to emerging or established sustainable designers. With the fashion industry being the second top polluting industry, conversations like this one with Donna open room for supportive innovation. She even mentions that the Sustainery also works with interior decorating/ furniture companies that have waste fabric or want to buy fabric. Listen as Donna talks about the industry’s typical fabric usage, fashion education building awareness of fabric waste, and the need to tackle the waste issue with policy and consumer demand.
[00:00:11] Adam: Welcome to People Helping People, the podcast for social entrepreneurs who want to build social impact businesses and increase their sustainability footprint. I'm your host, Adam Morris, and quite honored to bring to you season two of our podcast, with a deep dive into sustainable innovation, exploring everything from environmentally friendly product design to zero waste to social enterprises addressing sustainability in new and exciting ways.
I'm very excited to introduce our first guest for this season Donna Sikyta founder of the Sustainery, Marie, a business connecting fashion designers with sustainable and unused materials. Donna, welcome on the podcast.
[00:00:47] Donna: Hi, Adam. Thank you. Thank you for having me.
[00:00:49] Adam: Before we dive in, can you give us an overview of what the Sustainery does?
[00:00:54] Donna: The Sustainery is a B2B marketplace offering solutions that support a circular economy. So we enabled, a more effective system for unwanted and wasted dead stock textiles, which come from garment production, actually it's called post industrial deadstock waste.
So after the garments are made, there's leftover fabric. It's not really measured or accounted for. There's no statistics. And I hope to change that also, but we connect suppliers that have the leftover fabrics with sustainable, and emerging conscious designers that are looking for more sustainable solutions.
And we help them through a collaborative effort with unwanted textiles that would otherwise end up in landfills or incentives.
[00:01:37] Adam: Can you just share your definition of a circular economy?
[00:01:43] Donna: making available products to go back instead of getting wasted that they go back into a system somewhere and then can actually be utilized.
[00:01:52] Adam: You mentioned that there were no statistics on how much of this dead stock is out there, but what's the scope of it from what you've seen.
[00:02:01] Donna: Um, well, I've actually worked in the garment industry for a long time. And just general statistics tell you that a maker will have 15% overage. It's an intentional overage. They have to cover. You have to buy a little bit extra fabric to account for quality issues, fallout, mistakes et cetera.
So there's always going to be an over amount ordered, but if there's no quality issues, if there's no problems that where they had to use the extras up, there's this leftover. You can't just order exactly what you need.
I don't think any industry would do that. That's too risky. So they over order by about 15%. And if you just think about that alone, that how much extra fabric is being unintentionally wasted.
[00:02:44] Adam: And that typically we just go straight into a landfill.
[00:02:48] Donna: Not typically there's different outlets, there's different options that accompanies have to make choices. I have actually witnessed enormous amounts of this waste and I've witnessed where it does get sent to landfills or incinerators. And this is what I'd like to try to change.
[00:03:07] Adam: How did this idea start?
[00:03:08] Donna: well, I did spend many years working in the garment industry. I have traveled all over and worked in factories and I've just witnessed this waste. I worked in corporate social responsibility and sustainability mostly focused on making sure workers are being paid fairly. That they're.
They're working hours are fair and representing, a company's social responsibility. But I also witnessed a lot of waste in the industry, which really weighed heavily on my mind. I could remember seeing containers full of fabric, just sitting there because the factories just didn't know what to do with it anymore.
After they had produced the brand's orders they have these leftovers And for legal reasons, they might not be able to do anything with it. So just these images in my mind, just really stuck with me. And I thought I want to do something about this.
[00:03:55] Adam: And how did you actually get the ball rolling that beginning?
[00:03:58] Donna: Well I just I went through a business accelerator course and. Time to formalize the idea and articulate what it would look like. And it evolved, it changed it. I pivoted several times, but I have to give a lot of credit to the business incubator program that I went to.
[00:04:16] Adam: And since you've started, how has your perspective changed on what's needed and how do affect change?
[00:04:21] Donna: There's a lot of challenges, so it is much easier for a company to throw away the fabric, it's much. The Sustainery is a marketplace. So we have suppliers can go on the marketplace list, their leftovers, they have to take pictures. I don't purchase anything or have an inventory myself.
We just run the marketplace. The challenges that are it's much easier for the supplier just to throw it away. So we have to find suppliers that are interested in being more responsible. And we have to convinced them that's a more responsible choice is to offload it in another way.
[00:04:56] Adam: Got it now, do they earn money from reselling this material? Is there like a profit in there for them?
[00:05:02] Donna: Yes. And that's the hook for them? They can recover losses that they might otherwise experience from either throwing it away or selling it off to a jobber. Jobbers take very little for 30 cents a pound and they'll just take it away. And then the suppliers don't know where it goes. So this. Responsible choice to the supplier. They can free up storage space, right? Make room for the next customer's goods or they're storing things and taking up valuable space. And then a couple of our suppliers that actually really appreciate knowing where the fabric is actually going to go to.
So they thought that was really a great idea.
We're really targeting the more common or more generic types of fabrics that can be resold without being recognized. Or tied back to any big retail brand, but we do give the suppliers an option to advertise on the Sustainery who they are.
So do they want to be known for responsible business practices? We certainly will feature them on the website.
[00:06:01] Adam: And on the other side, who's purchasing. These fabrics.
[00:06:04] Donna: Up and coming designers, right? So there's a whole new generation of people that want to design more responsibly and bring more responsible product. Driven by consumer demand as well. So up and coming designers usually cannot meet minimums required working with big fabric mills.
So they're really stuck in a place where they don't have any resources that they can use, so we can offer fabric by the roll in much smaller quantities.
[00:06:31] Adam: So for them it opens up doors to materials that they wouldn't have access to at prices that they can afford.
So I know nothing about purchasing of fabrics or how any of that world works.
[00:06:43] Donna: Surprisingly, it is done mostly online right Now, but as we speak with designers, if you can imagine they spend hours and hours looking for things. What can I find in the quantities I need and the quality I need. And most designers based on our surveys, they'll design their products and their goods after they resourced the product.
So they'll just base design on what they can find. So we're hoping to be able to provide the service to them where we can do the sourcing. And we're a go to for them, a typical go-to company where they can say, Hey, I'm looking for something specific. Can you find this for me? And we'll search our network for that particular group. Um, so we're really hoping to be able to provide a service to these designers to help save them time.
[00:07:29] Adam: How has sustainability entered the mind of new designers coming up? What does that what's changed in that way?
[00:07:35] Donna: First of all, in their education. So it's being taught now in these fashion schools and it's such an evolution now. Everyone's a lot more aware of the pollution problem. In the fashion industry, it's the number two polluting industry, and there's a lot of up and coming designers that would like to change.
[00:07:53] Adam: What sort of things on the horizon for changing the waste generated
[00:07:58] Donna: Oh, there's all kinds of interesting things going on. Companies developing ways to recycle. Cause there's not a lot of means for that right now. It's very expensive and very rare to find the facilities to do actual recycling and shredding of fabric to remake it into something else, but it is happening.
There's mechanical, shredding, there's chemical reduction of fibers, right? So they. Break out the different fibers. So part of the problem in the industry too, is there's a lot more blended fibers now, so they're harder to break down and treat once they're blended, they have to take them apart.
So it's very tricky, but there's a lot of initiatives right now that are going on.
Another one would be natural. Natural resources. So there's, fabric being made from mushrooms or pineapple or different fruits and vegetables. They're looking at, making fibers out of them.
[00:08:49] Adam: I just a written article about a gun, go fund me in Africa somewhere where they were buying machines to take the trunks of banana trees and turn them into fibers that they could weave into cloth. Apparently otherwise they would take these, trunks and just burn them.
Which is very bad for the environment. So they have a way of turning them into a new product and diverting that waste. So it's fascinating what's happening there.
[00:09:16] Donna: Yeah.
[00:09:17] Adam: I'm curious about how the sustainers has grown over the last couple of years, because you started right before the pandemic started.
[00:09:24] Donna: Yes, we did. We didn't launch right away either. Cause it's, we're building a marketplace and there's nothing like this, nothing exists. So we have to take our time to build very slowly the right marketplace. So it's the right experience. If you think about a marketplace, there's two sides.
It's not just a customer. We have a supplier and a buyer or a designer in our case. We have to be sure that everything is working properly. We're still in beta testing phases, just because we're still working out a lot of kinks. We've been through three different software providers and we get so far down the road and then find deal breakers that don't work for our customers.
Or for the whole experience for example, shipping is quite complicated for. Just because we don't know at the point of sale, what the shipping costs are going to be. So we had to back up and figure that out so we can quote very accurate shipping prices. We might even be talking about small truckloads of fabric. So this is not like a let's say a t-shirt business where, it's $8 to ship a t-shirt. So we're shipping full rolls of fabric. And depending on the purchase quantity, the shipping charges could vary in the distance. So going from east coast to west coast, or is it.
Local delivery. There's a lot of complications to what we're doing, but we keep going because it's very promising and we keep figuring things out. So we just, it just motivates us to keep going.
[00:10:46] Adam: Now are most of the fabrics being sold here in the U S or are they coming from factories overseas?
[00:10:51] Donna: The fabrics that we have listed are in the U S right now, there weren't necessarily produced in the U S that's another story, but we are planning to work, just an operate just in the U S right now, because we know there's plenty of waste right here and definitely need to test and, fully vet this whole business model before we can go international, but there's so much potential to go international.
[00:11:14] Adam: From my own experience, I've heard a lot of, production happens overseas, what's the picture of how that works of a national retailer developing a clothing line.
[00:11:23] Donna: Yeah. Some of the supply chains can be quite complicated. If it's a US-based company, yes. The design and development usually happens in the U S but as technology is taking over also digital sampling is also very exciting. So reducing the amount of samples that are being made is an evolution. Then production overseas, like you said, the most companies are producing overseas and then shipping back to the U S right. To be distributed to wherever the stores are. It could be quite complex.
[00:11:53] Adam: How did they do that? Digital sampling?
[00:11:56] Donna: 3D Yeah.
It's amazing. They can render the fabric and the body type and the shapes and sizes just think of an avatar. So it's it gives the companies opportunities to see if they want to buy something before the samples are made. So another way to reduce resources.
[00:12:11] Adam: What's it like actually building a marketplace?
[00:12:15] Donna: It's challenging, but it's exciting at the same time. Every day I'm realizing as I'm, meeting these challenges. It's, nobody's done this before, so this is not something that's commonly done, but there are marketplaces there's lot of very successful marketplaces out there.
So if you think of Airbnb and Etsy these are an Uber, they're all markets. So it's that concept where we're onboarding suppliers and we're onboarding designers at the same time. And as I was going through a lot of business development, I kept thinking, you know what comes first? The suppliers of the design of the chicken or the egg, but is definitely we have to have the supply.
So if we don't have supplies, then it doesn't make sense to bring designers to the website if there's no supplies. So we are still focused very much on onboarding suppliers.
[00:13:06] Adam: And then are there timing, considerations of like how quickly people need to move the supplies and get rid of them?
[00:13:13] Donna: We're finding some suppliers who don't have an outlet for their leftovers. They've been sitting.
on goods for awhile And as a business, I think, wow. Why would you do that? But they don't have a choice. They don't want to throw it out. They don't know what to do with it. We're offering the solution that hopefully it's very attractive to a lot of companies.
[00:13:33] Adam: That's fantastic. What's the vision for the Sustainery?
[00:13:37] Donna: International, definitely international. And I want to branch out, I want to offer financial services to designers so we can, finance their purchases. Just, there's all kinds of opportunities that we see with a Sustianery. So it's pretty exciting.
[00:13:51] Adam: Also just curious in general, like I hear a lot about sustainable fashion. And, people trying new things with upcycled or recycled goods. But it always seems like what you mentioned at the beginning. There's just such a scale of how companies do business today. What do you think is needed to change the industry overall?
[00:14:18] Donna: If companies were more responsible about the end use, I think that would be another focus for companies. You have to think about the difference between profit driven company, right? They're being rewarded to sell product, to design and sell product. And then you have, there are some purpose-driven apparel companies.
And their focus is more on the end of use. So what happens when the garment you're done wearing the garment and they're offering services like resale and we'll fix your goods or we'll turn them into something else. So that's very exciting to see the difference. But that's that's a a definite direction that companies need to be looking at is what, what happens. At the end of the life of the garment and what can we do to either better design something that is biodegradable, or or have another outlet for that product when the customer is done with it.
[00:15:11] Adam: So something really needs to change in the conversation. Profit driven companies to start taking responsibility for the end of life, with their products.
[00:15:20] Donna: Yeah. That would be a great change.
[00:15:24] Adam: Do you think that's something that needs to be done through policy or is that done through, consumers demanding it,
[00:15:31] Donna: Both. Definitely both because they're not going to do it if it's not policy. So I think from all angles, right, consumer demand definitely would help drive that, but so would policy helps.
[00:15:42] Adam: What can a general consumer do to help move that along
[00:15:45] Donna: Being more responsible for about where you buying from, what are those companies doing and really looking at what they believe in and what their values are before you make a purchase? I think we're seeing this happen on.
[00:15:56] Adam: I'm always curious, like, where are you going to find that information? There's some companies that are very vocal about it, and so you can hear about it from there. It's if you go to Patagonia area, they're always talking about what they're working on and what they're doing well, what they're not doing well.
[00:16:11] Donna: Right.
[00:16:12] Adam: but a lot of companies don't even have any information on that.
[00:16:15] Donna: Yeah. Suggest that they might not be doing anything that they want to tell a story about. It really, if you're doing something like that, wouldn't you tell the story? It's, I think that's a real obvious fact there that, do your research and see what these companies are talking about.
I think you've learned a lot as a consumer.
[00:16:33] Adam: What tipped the scale for you from like it bothering you to be in I'm going to do something about this. Was there a moment?
[00:16:40] Donna: Actually I'm not working in corporate retail anymore. So I think that was once I stepped outside of that. I think that was my moment. I really do. I thought, I don't know. Maybe I'll work back again in corporate retail. I don't know. But for now I just thought, instead of talking about the problem and thinking about it, let me see if I can do something about.
[00:17:00] Adam: What do you have coming up in 2022 for this Sustainery?
[00:17:03] Donna: Moving from the beta test to the fully launch website. So we are custom building a marketplace right now because we haven't been able to find something that has. solutions that we need. So we're looking for something that's really dynamic. You know, Once you shop, you can go see where the fabric is located with mapping services and maybe some more inspiration on the site, what you could do with the fabrics.
And we're looking at building out blogs and more articles to increase our SEO, et cetera. So all the basic elements of building a business, we're still walking through all of that.
[00:17:37] Adam: I love what you're doing and I think one thing that is very difficult is to start a B2B social enterprise, but I think the opportunity there is so great.
[00:17:48] Donna: It is. And we just keep, we keep seeing the potential, that we can help others. Help divert from landfills. And that just keeps us motivated because there's no other solution right now for this waste.
[00:17:59] Adam: And that seems to be a really hot topic. Like it's just something that is on the mind of designers that are coming out and they're looking for solutions. Having an original solution is this fantastic.
[00:18:11] Donna: It is a real grassroots effort so far because it's not something that companies have heard of. So we have to, it's a very personal. Onboarding experience at this point.
[00:18:21] Adam: What can people do to help support the Sustainery?
[00:18:24] Donna: Let's see. That's a great question. We are in the process of building suppliers. So anyone that has connections with companies that use texts. We'd be interested in speaking with them and that is not just apparel. So we are we're talking to interior, decorating companies, furniture, making companies, any company that uses textiles in the production of their.
[00:18:46] Adam: Oh God. So it could be somebody like the furniture bank coming along and saying, Hey, we need materials to be upholster, couches or other furniture.
[00:18:55] Donna: Yes. On the buying side, yes. And on the supply side, it could be a company that's making furniture. And they have leftovers or an interior decorator that has leftovers any companies like that that use textiles. Making connections is.
[00:19:09] Adam: that's wonderful. And if you're listening, you can find out more at shopthesustainery.com. Are there particular ways that people can get in touch .
[00:19:16] Donna: Please visit the website and the contact information is there. You can email us at email@example.com
[00:19:24] Adam: fantastic. Thank you so much for joining me today. It's been a fun journey around sustainable fashion and what's going on
[00:19:31] Donna: Thanks, Adam. I love talking about this topic. So it was very nice to speak with you today.
[00:19:37] Adam: thank you.