Recently, I wrote about what we can each do to create meaningful change – including through our purchases. For a more in-depth look, check out my recent conversation with Sica Schmitz, founder of Bead & Reel as well as a frequent speaker, writer, and sustainable stylist. A former Hollywood Costume Designer, Sica now uses her love of storytelling to help women create more loving stories about themselves through their closets, focusing on fashion that honors people, animals, and our environment. She is also the Fashion Editor of Vilda Magazine and the founder of the Fair Trade Fashion Show
HF: Bead & Reel is such a unique company. What led to its inception and the ethical boutique it is today?
SS: It’s definitely been a long journey, but the simple answer would be that one day, several years ago, I was searching online trying to find a pair of shoes that was both vegan and ethically made (as well as a style that I would actually wear!) and it was so hard. I could find (limited) vegan shoes, and I could find (limited) fair trade shoes, but I wasn’t able to find anything that met with both my aesthetic and values despite hours of browsing brands and combing the internet. At the time, I was working in Hollywood with just about as much shopping knowledge and resources as a person could possibly ask for, and I felt that if someone in my position of privilege couldn’t find this kind of fashion, how could anyone? I wished someone would make ethical shopping easier. And then I decided to be that person.
HF: What does it mean to be an ethical boutique?
SS: “Ethical” is one of those challenging words because it means so many different things to so many different people. For me, it simply means leading with the Golden Rule (of treating all others the way I would want to be treated) and striving to make the best possible choices I can. I translate this ethic into my company by ensuring it is entirely vegan (so animals aren’t harmed), entirely sweatshop-free (so people aren’t harmed), and through an emphasis on sustainable processes and textiles that do the least amount of harm to the environment. I think a lot of people get caught up in “ethical” equating with “perfection,” but we live in a complex world. Most decisions are not as straightforward as they seem, and I have come to the view that having an ethical boutique is an aspiration, a goal, something to constantly strive toward doing better, and not a black-and-white-absolute way of being.
HF: When did you first make the connection between the health and well-being of people, animals, and the environment?
SS: I was raised vegetarian by very caring parents who always emphasized giving back and volunteering, so, in some ways, it’s been an on-going conversation and exploration my entire life. However, there are two main events that strongly shaped this connection for me. Through personal tragedy in my life – my father’s death – along with a global tragedy – over 1,100 people dying in the Rana Plaza clothing factory collapse in Bangladesh – I found myself forced to take a deeper look at my values, my actions, and the ways in which we are all connected.
The grief of losing a loved family member is absolutely devastating, and one morning I woke up with a strong realization that animals grieve the loss of their families too. I thought about the mother cows separated from their babies for the milk I was still consuming, and I felt overwhelmed with sorrow that my food choices could be causing other families to experience the same grief I was. And so, that day, in that place of connection to our shared experience of grief, I went vegan.
In the senseless deaths of innocent factory workers, I started to question my role as a consumer. I don’t know whether or not I had bought anything made in that factory, but I realized that I actually didn’t know where almost anything I had bought was made, or under what conditions. I hadn’t been thinking about how there was a human being – who had hopes and dreams and sorrows just like me – behind each purchase. It was actually an exciting realization: I had the power to choose what I buy and I could use my purchasing power to uplift others. In that place of connection to our shared humanity, I started focusing on fair trade.
I think both tragedies forced me to think more closely about my personal daily choices, as well as the fragility and unpredictability of life, and how I could best use my limited time on earth to live a life I could be proudest of. I still ponder this question daily.
HF: I ponder the same question. In 2015, you launched the first ever Annual Fair Trade Fashion Show. Why did you think it was important to create and invest in a fair trade fashion show?
SS: When I first launched Bead & Reel, I naïvely thought the problem I was trying to solve was that it was challenging to find ethical fashion. I quickly realized that most people didn’t even know they should be looking for ethical fashion in the first place, or they thought fair trade only applied to coffee or that organic meant shapeless hemp sacks (which definitely have their place in fashion, but just not for everyone!). I had been an intern at New York Fashion Week in college and knew the power and excitement of fashion shows. I thought it would be interesting to use this medium as a way to share a different kind of fashion story, one about how our fashion choices can uplift and empower others, and how gorgeous those kinds of pieces really are.
HF: Each year, you use the Fair Trade Fashion Show to draw attention to issues like modern slavery, other forms of exploitation, and the environmental impact of the clothing industry. What do you hope bringing attention to these issues will accomplish?
SS: Despite everything going on in the world, I am an optimist, and I truly believe that the two barriers to ethical fashion going mainstream are a lack of information about the many issues hidden in fashion (forced labor, environmental destruction, animal cruelty) and a lack of knowledge and access to the brands operating more ethically. The Fair Trade Fashion Show is trying to address both issues, first by introducing the problems (through our blogs and social media, and then eventually at the event), and then by offering a solution showcased as a beautiful runway show.
Call me crazy, but I really do think a fashion show can help change the world.
HF: Do you see a shift in the way people shop today? If so, how is the fashion industry responding?
SS: Absolutely! I see the shift happening in my business both as my customer base and the number of new sustainable brands launching every day continues to grow. And, across the industry, brands with a commitment to sustainability have grown more than 4% globally while those without the same commitment grew less than 1%. The resale market is among the fastest growing segments of retail, and organic cotton growth has been steady the past 5 years. These are all signs that things are shifting. Some members of the fashion industry are fighting change, of course, but many are joining in, and I think eventually it’s going to be essential for a brand to have some level of commitment to sustainability in order to survive.
HF: What can we do as citizens and consumers to demand more of retailers?
SS: Consumers don’t like hearing this, but we, as consumers, really have all the power. The first thing we can do is to vote with our wallets, which is our most powerful vote, and one we can cast every single day. When we give our money to local businesses, small businesses, businesses with a demonstrated commitment to ethics and sustainability, we support the growth of those kinds of businesses and show other companies that sustainability is a smart financial decision. The same is true for withholding money from exploitative businesses. Companies need customers in order to operate, and if they find out that people won’t shop with them until they clean up their supply chains, they will clean up their supply chains. Or start offering vegan options. Or whatever it may be that we’re aiming for (perhaps all of it!).
If you work for a company or own a company, you can also commit to bringing better practices into business purchases. If you wear a uniform, see if you can encourage the company to shift to an organic option. If you have coffee in your office, see if you can encourage the company to shift to a fair trade option. These company-wide shifts can have a big impact as well.
Beyond how we use our money, our words are important, too. Write to your favorite brands and let them know what you’d like to see more of!
HF: One of the things I love about your company, the Annual Fair Trade Fashion Show, and your blog is that you celebrate women, inclusive of all kinds of bodies and beauty. What more can we do to ensure girls and women feel comfortable, confident, and supported?
SS: Oh thank you so much for these kind words!
This is a very big and complex issue, and there isn’t one simple solution, unfortunately. There are many organizations working towards these goals (a few I love are Miss Representation, Yes Magazine, A Woman To Know, Gambia Rising). One thing that every one of us can do, regardless of extenuating circumstances, is work to empower ourselves. We do live in a patriarchal society, which deeply impacts both men and women. Doing the difficult work of diving in and uprooting our own embedded judgments and beliefs about ourselves and other women is absolutely vital to creating a society that uplifts and empowers women. We have to uplift, empower, and heal ourselves before we can do the same for anyone else. And this is not easy work – it may take a lot of time, and it may be very uncomfortable. But when we feel safe, comfortable, and empowered in our own bodies, choices, and lives, we can and will inspire others, and the ripples of change may be more powerful than any one-time ad campaign or monetary donation.
HF: Personally, how do you refuel and maintain your optimism and determination?
SS: It’s definitely a constant struggle to find balance. Entrepreneurship alone is extremely challenging, activism alone is extremely challenging, and when you combine the two together, burnout is a very real and frequent possibility. The first few years I was in business, I honestly didn’t take very good care of myself. I felt selfish if I took time off, or if I wasn’t giving every ounce of my attention and money to the company and the causes I was fighting for. But I’ve realized that in order for me to continue doing this work, I absolutely have to take care of myself. I have to create a sustainable lifestyle for myself in order to stick with the long journey of building a sustainable fashion industry.
Some of the practices I’ve put into place are meditation every morning (even though most mornings I really don’t want to – but, over time, even just 20 minutes of meditation a day is a truly transformative practice). I do yoga several days a week (again, even when I don’t want to or think I’m too tired or too busy), and I try to read inspiring books (next in my queue is this great book I’ve heard about called Phoenix Zones!). I’ve shifted my lifestyle to better meet my needs – for example, I recently moved out of Los Angeles and into nature, which has been incredibly refueling for me as well.
However, my biggest tool in maintaining optimism is in practicing forgiveness. The world can be difficult, and defeating, and even the people who should be our allies aren’t always. I regularly spend time (often during meditation) working to forgive myself for my mistakes, and to forgive others for everything from something they may have done to me or my company to something they may have done to other people, animals, or our planet. It helps me remember that we are imperfect, and yet all worthy of love, and all capable of change, no matter what we’ve done.
HF: That’s beautiful, Sica, and something we could each do better. (And thank you for the shout-out for the book.) Is there anything we should keep an eye out for in the coming year?
SS: I will be hosting the 4th annual Fair Trade Fashion Show later this year (which will be bigger and better than ever, of course!). I’m also excited to bring more wellness into Bead & Reel. This year will be very focused on self-care – tools, resources, practices, and of course fashion. Stay tuned!
HF: Thanks so much, Sica! In the meantime, where can people go to learn more about fair trade fashion that minimizes harm to people, animals, and the environment?
SS: Some of my favorite resources are Vilda Magazine, The Good Trade, the book Magnifeco, and of course the Fair Trade Fashion Show and Bead & Reel events and blogs. There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of sustainable blogs, magazines, and organizations, so it’s definitely worth spending some time finding a few that most speak to you and getting involved where you can.