Unstuck Heroes: How to shop for a better world

November 3, 2014

Two years ago, David Dietz and Jesse Ayala were wrapping up their assignments as conflict journalists covering the Arab Spring in Egypt. Both were deeply affected by the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square who were calling for change. As they planned their return to the US, they knew they wanted to bring back that same energy for change, that same desire to right what’s wrong.

So if you’d told the then-24-year-olds that a year later they would launch a fashion retail site, no doubt raucous laughter would have ensued. (“I have dress shirts in my closet that my dad has had since 1980,” David confesses.) But passion for change can be a funny thing, taking you places you never imagined.

Fashion’s dirty little secret
Modavanti, David and Jesse’s fashion platform for change, is far from a whim. Upon returning from Egypt, they researched different ways to create a movement. What they uncovered is that textile production is the third largest industry in the world (after oil and gas, and agriculture), valued at $1.7 trillion and employing 75 million people. It’s also the second dirtiest industry in the world (after oil and gas).

That means what we choose to wear (or not wear) — whether a handcrafted leather bag bought from its maker online or a $15 dollar “fast fashion” t-shirt imported from a Bangladeshi factory by a big box retailer — has implications worldwide.

“All most people see is the end product, and how much it’s going to cost them,” Jesse says. “But many people in the US don’t understand the depth to which fashion production is problematic. We want to create transparency. And we want to engage people who wouldn’t otherwise be engaged.”

Shop your values, buy cool stuff
When we’re clothes shopping, the questions on our minds tend to be: Will it fit? Does it look good? Does it fit my budget? Will my girlfriend be embarrassed if I wear it to dinner? Only afterward — if at all — do we ask if the person who made our new blazer got a fair wage, or if any toxic dyes were released into local rivers during the production process.

Modavanti aims to raise and satisfy both sets of questions.

“To be successful, we knew we needed to make a statement in the larger fashion community, not just the sustainable fashion community,” David explains. “Sustainable fashion brands often carry the negative stigma of being crunchy, granola, or uncool. We prioritized being fashion-first, in order to counteract that stigma. We wanted to do something cool, stylish, and sustainable.”

And they are. They found plenty of designers who are sourcing fabrics and materials from traditional craftsman in villages across Asia, Africa, and South America; or recycling rubber tires for shoe soles; or reclaiming wood for eyeglass frames. The products are beautiful, the values uncompromised, the recognition little to none.

That’s the Modavanti difference: Create a platform for these brands and make it simple for consumers to buy stylish and sustainable products while consciously supporting values they believe in. Every product on the site features a story of its provenance, and its social and environmental impact on the larger community. “We make it easy for sustainable fashion brands to focus on their style and not have their lead message be about sustainability, because we do it for them,” David says. 

Core to the mission is the site’s signature badge system that helps shoppers filter products by eight different “wellness” standards that also serve as the site’s guiding principles. Every item sold must meet at least one: Made in the USA, Fair Trade, Recycled, Vegan, Eco-Friendly, Organic, Zero Waste, and Artisan. For example, the Fair Trade badge guarantees that the maker of the product was given fair wages and safe conditions, while the Organic badge promises that no toxins were used in production.

But no matter how much Modavanti sells, David and Jesse are painfully aware that 85% of textile waste ends up in landfills, so they created their Modacycle recycling program: Send them your old clothes for recycling (email for a postage paid shipping label), and receive a $20 credit toward your next purchase.

Eyes on the mainstream
The site adds designers each month, many of them small, independent brands eager for greater visibility. The goal is to “do what Whole Foods did, and go from a bigger version of a farmers’ market to a nationally known brand,” David says.

A recent online marketing push has sales rising. Still, the impact can feel slow. “Sometimes, you worry that you’re not creating change on a big enough scale,” David says. “Seeing it is hard; your clothes don’t glow or whisper ‘Sustainable!’”

That’s when they take a good hard look at how far they’ve come. “We’ve seen governments toppled and societies thrown into chaos, and we’ve seen social media as a tool to get people to engage,” Jesse says. “We’re seeing the potential and constantly testing new things. None of us is satisfied yet, but we’re using what we learn to fuel the next step.”

Just as they did when they were two travel-weary journalists trying to figure out what to do when they got home.

 10 Modavanti favorites for the holidays
Girlela’s No. 217 speckled Japanese Twill dress (Made in USA)
George & Laurel’s chunky Fresno Ring in black leather and gold (Artisan, Made in USA) 
Georgie & Elaine’s understated Carol Peacoat (Eco-Friendly, Vegan, Zero-Waste) 
Angela & Roi’s elegant Mud Gray Tote (Fair Trade, Vegan) 
The Sway’s Byron Biker Jacket from luxe, reclaimed leather (Artisan, Recycled) 
Heidi Merrick’s versatile Kubo Stripe Knit Dress (Made in the USA)
Line Dry Apparel’s Rista Slouchy Pants, perfect for day-to-night (Made in the USA)  
Bohten’s timeless Barklae Sprayed Bamboo Glasses (Artisan, Recycled, Zero Waste) 
Amour Vert’s black and white Jordan Top (Made in the USA, Organic)
Bourgeois Boheme’s classic Amanda boot (Eco-Friendly, Vegan) 

Founder David Dietz launched Modavanti.com in early 2013. He is also currently a contributing blogger for the Huffington Post where he writes about his experiences creating social impact through business and as an entrepreneur. David comes from a background of Arabic Language and Economics at Georgetown University, which he used to cover political uprisings in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, and Bahrain for Mic.com as a conflict journalist.

Brooklyn-based artist Jesse Ayala Jr. is the co-founder and Creative Director of Modavanti.com. Ayala comes from a background in social entrepreneurship, media production, and urban design. Prior to Modavanti, Ayala was stationed in the Middle East documenting the digital youth movements of the Arab Spring, as well as producing historical fiction hip-hoperas to the music of Rihanna and Kanye West. Ayala has also previously worked for Teach for America, The Clinton Global Initiative in HIV/AIDS programming, and the United Nations in conflict assessment.

Photo credit: Andrew Boyle, originally appearing at annikatibando.com.

Read previous Unstuck Heroes stories:
How a grilled cheese sandwich saved the day
Because everyone deserves to live with dignity

Next week: How to take the fear out of feedback
Last week: 6 steps to defuse a drama queen and get your life back

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