When we were visiting Siem Reap, Cambodia, I noticed a curious phenomenon. I saw a cart selling fried ice cream. Hmmm, that looks good! I’ll have to come back after lunch and try some, I thought. Then I saw another. And another. There must have been 10 fried ice cream carts on the three touristy blocks in town. Ironically, I never ended up buying any fried ice cream in the end, because it ceased to be special or interesting. Same for those fish pedicures, where you stick your feet in a fish tank of hungry little fish and they eat off your calluses. There must have been three on each block! With all that competition, you can now buy a 10-minute fish pedicure for $2. Probably less if you inquire and then pretend to walk away to try a different spot.
What happened, obviously, is that one person had a bright idea to sell fried ice cream, and had some success, and then everyone else got in on the game, the prices were driven down, and now none of them are probably making much money at all. I tut-tutted the Cambodian entrepreneurs. Don’t they know you need to differentiate your offerings?
Of course, this is not confined to Cambodia fried ice cream sellers. This is a huge problem in the world of sustainable and ethical fashion and beauty, too.
The Key to Being a Successful Ethical Fashion Entrepreneur
A little known fact about me is that I actually hold two degrees: a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and a Bachelor of Science in Business Management. (It sounds more impressive than it really was – I did them at the same time and needed, like, three extra classes over the normal amount.) I’ve totally forgotten how to do an accounting ledger. But a certain lesson that has stuck with me in the decade since I graduated. It’s the concept called White Space.
Before most (smart) entrepreneurs launch a brand, or brands launch a new product, they sit down to do this type of analysis, either consciously or unconsciously. Consciously, it means doing an in-depth analysis of the range of competing products with a dozen intersecting axis of your choosing – luxury to cheap, sustainable/ethical to conventional, minimalist to maximalist, modern to traditional, trendy to classic, edgy to conservative, fancy to casual, and so on and so forth – plotting all the brands in your space on those axis, and then looking to see where the gaping hole is in that crowded marketplace.
Unconsciously, it goes like this: “I was looking for an X product that looks like Y and does Z, but I couldn’t find it, so I created my own!”
This is actually also how I analyze brand pitches that come into my inbox. I consider whether it’s authentically sustainable and ethical, whether it’s cute, and –– most importantly –– whether the product is something new and fresh. Most of the time, it’s not.
It’s possible that the differentiator for your product is the fact that it’s sustainable. But beware of putting all your eggs in that basket – research shows that way more consumers care about the uniqueness of a product than whether it’s sustainable. So also has to look and perform different than other items, rather than just have a unique ethicality proposition.
If I’ve seen similar things before, that isn’t a death knell – I’ll happily feature something that is a slight improvement on the alternatives – but it makes me less likely to share it with my readers out of authentic excitement with exclamation points. And even if I do decide to share it, my readers don’t click and my followers don’t heart it. So it’s actually an act of kindness when I pass on something that has been done before. I don’t want to take your money for a sponsored post when I don’t think my readers will actually click through and buy.
True brand new concepts are really rare. I think I can probably count the ones I’ve discovered on one hand:
- Ethical, direct-to-consumer luxury leather leggings
- A new plant-based regenerative rainforest material that’s lighter and stronger than cotton canvas
- Cork and felt bags done well
- Artisan-made, colorful luxury cocktail dresses
- Super professional, beautiful, and ethical work jackets
When these things popped into my inbox, I was like, “You read my mind! I’ve been looking for this!” And I will promote it forever and ever, amen. Well, until five other brands come along and do the same thing but better. Always gotta keep on your toes! But the point is, you need to make something that someone else isn’t already making.
The World Does Not Need More…
It seems that a lot of people who pitch me haven’t even gotten this far yet! Instead of pitching me something from the white space, they pitch me something that is in such a crowded area of the market that it’s it’s like looking at a grocery store shelf full of toothpaste.
I think it’s because well-meaning social entrepreneurs are doing it all backwards. They look at what an artisan can make or is making already, make a couple of obvious tweaks to make it more suitable to Western tastes, and then put it on a website, convinced that the fact it supports female artisans is enough to make everyone go, “Wow! No way! I want one!”
Well, that may have been a white space in 2008, but those days are long, long gone. And white spaces fill up super fast. Three years ago, sustainable bathing suits were a rarity. Now there are at least 20 brands of bathing suits made from recycled fishing nets, and 30 brands of yoga wear made from recycled water bottles, and a 20 organic cotton sheet brands… You’re going to have get creative and innovative if you want to stand out in today’s oversaturated market.
I mean, just think of the SEO challenges! How will you ever show up on the first page of search results when there are hundreds of thousands of other items on the market just like yours?
Of course, that is not to say people won’t buy these things. They will! But only on a whim or as a gift. Building an entire company on the objects I’m about to reveal to you will be endlessly frustrating, because no one will care and you won’t win brand loyalty. They’ll probably end up KonMar-ing it later with a shrug.
I should emphasize that there are the rare designers who enter a crowded market and who manage to draw attention because they have an innovative message, technique, or story that makes them stand out. Celine Semaan of Slow Factory makes scarves with strong political messages and gorgeous NASA space images. Natural Nuance does clutches in deer leather. But that brings us back to the same advice: really put thought into what you want to sell and make it different, instead of thinking you can just throw it on a website with a story about artisan makers.
So, if you are casting around for a thing to design and sell, let me save you some time and frustration. Without further ado, here are the 9 things that have been already done in the sustainable, ethical, and artisan world:
Clutches and Pouches
Look, I get it. Clutches are so simple and easy to make. You take two pieces of a small, artisan-woven rug, sew them together, and then add a zipper. Voila: clutch. But, well, everyone else who has every visited any developing country ever has had the same idea. Furthermore, clutches are no longer in style and – quite frankly – annoying. If you have a clutch under your arm, you can’t hold a drink while also grabbing a passing hor d’oeuvre without looking like T-Rex. I mean, yes, popular influencers look cute with a clutch held primly against their side. But then again, influencers also wear high heels everywhere and have personal assistants to lug their laptop around.
Find that white space: Put a removable side strap on it and make it a bum bag.
Oh, so you make a soy scented candle that comes in a jar? No way! I will absolutely pay $55 plus shipping to order yours off the internet, especially when I can buy one for $8 at my local Whole Foods.
Find that white space: We need more natural perfumes that stick around for longer than 10 minutes. Please work on that.
Scarves have got to be the absolute easiest artisan thing to have made. It’s a square piece of fabric. I mean, if you are Muslim, then you must be thrilled with your selection. However, I personally very rarely wear silk scarves, and I only need a couple of winter scarves and maybe one or two pashminas. Yet every eco-friendly boutique has a selection, not to mention the overflowing bins of scarves at vintage and thrift shops.
Find that white space: Hosiery. There’s only one eco-friendly hosiery brand I can think of, and a little variety would be nice.
When a New York Magazine editor asked me to tell her about the best eco-friendly white t-shirts, it took me 20 minutes to come up with five recommendations (she asked me to narrow it down to one). Other experts added in several more. If I had a dollar for every time I got a pitch from a company who is making “the perfect white t-shirt,” I could have bought a whole t-shirt factory by now. The point is, we don’t need more eco-friendly white t-shirts. We’re all set.
Find that white space: On the other hand, more office-appropriate basics would be amazing.
Every handmade fair. Every hippie beauty boutique. Every natural foods store. They all have organic soap. And I don’t even use soap! My husband does, and we literally grab some cheap bars from a bulk bin at grocery store. That is how little brand loyalty we have in this category. I will spring for some charcoal face soap, but that’s only every six months, and even that category is pretty filled now.
Find that white space: I’m really into micellar water these days, and there are very few nontoxic brands doing it. Or just nontoxic skincare products with scientifically-proven effective ingredients in general.
Colorful Beaded and Pom Pom Jewelry
When I find myself at an online boutique featuring necklaces made out of seeds and bracelets made out of colorful beads, I ex out of it. I didn’t even buy these things when I was visiting South America and could buy it from the artisan herself in the Amazon jungle for $5. I’m not going to buy it on the internet. Pom poms? I can find that for $3 in any artisan market ever. And don’t get me started on rolled paper beads.
Find that white space: I’ve been searching for ever so slightly mismatched delicate hoops and studs made of recycled or Fairmined gold that I can decorate all the holes in my ears with (which benefits Peruvian Amazon people as well, but in a different way). Please someone get on that. Or, take those artisan skills and stop trying to cram it into a “everyday wear” box, and instead make some flamboyant festival/Burning Man fashion with it! Headpieces, ear cuffs, breastplates, arm bands… the more creative and outrageous, the better. (And the more you can charge for it.)
Groan. I get one of these brands in my inbox a day, and I haven’t said yes since 2014. Sure, they look good on skinny cool girls, but they make me look like walking pillow case, sort of like I’ve given up.
Find that white space: Sharp tailoring that makes me look like an expensive French woman – that is hard to find.
They’re the clutch of home decor – so easy to make that literally everyone makes them. And really, everyone only needs two or three throw pillows. Six, if you’re from the South.
Find that white space: Curtains! Curtains would also be so easy to make, but for some reason, no one thinks to make cute and sustainable ones. They’re so rare that I actually asked my mom to sew all the curtains for my apartment, and spent an hour dip-dying my living room ones. I would throw shower curtains in there, too, while you’re at it. And a cool bath mat.
What else are you totally bored of seeing, or pining to see, in the ethical and sustainable space? Let me know in the comments!