Over the past few years, the word 'sustainability' has become quite the buzz word but what does it actually mean when it comes to fashion? Fast fashion and mass-market brands are producing extremely large quantities of apparel and accessories as quickly as they can to keep up with the latest trends. Consumers are accustomed to instant gratification and the opportunity to purchase fashion week trends the second the model steps off the runway. In order to meet such high demands, brands have to make sacrifices. Unfortunately, that sacrifice is often related to the quality of the garment the brands are producing, its impact on our environment, and the human lives involved in the production process. Sustainable brands, like Bergen County based, footwear and accessories company, Salt + Umber are committed to the fight against these practices and are doing their part to offer their consumers on-trend items while minimizing their environmental impact.
I sat down with the Founder of Salt + Umber; Susie Bergquist to get a behind a scenes look at what it really takes to launch a sustainable product, get insight into how she navigated the challenges of a global pandemic and learn about why buying from sustainable and ethical fashion brands is so important.
What inspired you to start Salt + Umber?
I have always worked in footwear, so I was able to see a lot of behind the scenes in regards to production and manufacturing. I was able to see the ways many retailers over produce, and/or discard products that they’ve overrun or have a minor flaw- all in all, a ton of waste is involved. Having insight to the bottom line cost of the product versus the final cost to the consumer boggled my mind- insane profit margins that were passed down to the end consumer. All of these thoughts flowed through my mind for years, and after a lot of burn out at work, I decided that I needed to take a break from the industry. It was during that time that I felt more clarity and was able to re-evaluate the market and what I truly wanted; which was to create a brand that was ethical, sustainable, and yet still accessible to all consumers. I wanted the designs to be trendy and timeless at the same time, and our handwoven style LILY was the style that really put us on the map. To this day, LILY is our best seller.
I know that sustainability is one of your brand's core values. Why should consumers care about buying ethically made/sustainable fashion? Why is it important?
If you care about the future of our planet and our humanity, then you should probably care about making a conscious effort to buy ethical and sustainable when possible because everything is connected and tied together by our planet and its people. Buying ethically and sustainably are two totally separate values, but they are both very important. Buying sustainable (in regards to Salt + Umber) means that we are using less harmful chemicals during our tanning process, we are working with tanneries that use water-based power, the same power they use is then recycled, leaving zero impact on the surrounding environment and also reducing energy consumption.
We also produce in small batches and in turn there is little to no overproduction or excess. “Handmade" is a term people often associate with quality; which is true, as each piece is crafted by an individual person with care- giving you a long lasting and quality piece. There is also a sustainability component to this because handmade requires no large machinery to produce like it would in mass-market footwear. The traditional large factories utilize heavy machinery that uses up our Earth’s fossil fuels and energy consumption for these factories is very high (in turn harmful emissions are emitted into our atmosphere). With small batch and handmade, you do not have those harmful effects and there are no heavy machines used to manufacture our shoes and handbags.
Buying ethically is important as well because it ensures the people who are producing the products you wear are treated fairly, are paid a minimum wage, and have a clean and safe work environment. Unfortunately, a lot of the fashion industry can exploit garment workers, so being careful about buying from an ethically approved brand (one that has proof of an independent and up to date audit is a way you can know for sure the company you are purchasing from is in compliance and fair-trade).
What are some tips/words of advice you’d give to someone looking to start a product-based business?
I’d say make sure you are really good at one of these 2 things: A) Product Development/Design and Supply Chain or B) Marketing.
Have a good understanding of both of those, or be opening to learning them, then take the plunge. I personally feel that having a combination of both A and B is the key to success of a launching a brand. Personally, I knew I had a very strong Product Development side, but Marketing was my weakness (and still is!). Because I was strong with the development and design, I was able to have success with the product, because “the product sells itself.” I feel that good design and quality speaks for itself.
On the other hand, Marketing is such an important tool, that in a way, if you are a wizard at marketing, you could pretty much sell anything (like a pet rock for example). Marketing has been one of my biggest challenges. I’m learning every day. In this retail landscape (the slow foot traffic in Brick-and-Mortar retail due to the pandemic) marketing through all platforms (especially online) is more important than ever.
No doubt about it, we’ve had a tough year. What are some challenges you’ve encountered recently?
Like many other small businesses, COVID-19 has greatly impacted Salt and Umber. I had 80 percent of my wholesale orders cancelled by retailers in March of 2020. This left me devastated emotionally because of all the hours of hard work I had put in the year prior and it left me in a very tough spot financially due to the mountain of inventory I never planned to own. I still had to pay my factory, the duties, the taxes and the warehouse even though these retailers cancelled their orders. There are so many challenges that I encountered due to this, including having to work through 3 major retailer bankruptcies. I felt like I needed a law degree just to read through all the paperwork I was receiving. All in all, the disaster has cost me a lot of money, time, and energy. I’m so ready to close the chapter on 2020 and move on!
Being an entrepreneur isn’t easy and it definitely isn’t for everyone. What are your favorite parts of being an entrepreneur? And what do you dislike the most?
My favorite part is that if i want to work until 2 am, I do it. If i wake up one morning and feel like not working, i don’t have to. I like being able to utilize my creativity when it hits, because for me, it comes in waves.
I dislike that i need to do all the “boring” but necessary stuff like taxes, accounting, invoicing, etc. I find numbers a drag and a drain on my creativity.
What are some ways someone can support you and your business venture, even if they aren’t actually purchasing your product?
There are so many free ways to support and encourage an entrepreneur. You can simply ask them how they are doing and seem interested. Follow them and their brand on social media and try to cheerlead for them by liking, reposting and commenting on their posts. Entrepreneurs also really value feedback! So, don’t be afraid to give your input! For a product-based business this is so important to get outsider information and constructive criticism. Don’t be afraid to tell them how you feel about their product truthfully so they can adapt and improve. Any great entrepreneur will be appreciative. Let them know their success is due to their hard work, experience, and knowledge, not because they are “LUCKY”. Most of the time an entrepreneur is successful it’s due to hard work, not luck.
What are you most excited for in 2021?
I get so excited when I’m able to see customers wear the shoes I have designed. It is really the cherry on top, and the final step in my process to be able to see the product come to life and actually be worn. So I guess I’m most excited for warm weather so I can see my customers wearing our styles! I’m also really excited for our international launches. We will be sold in Canada (Holt Renfrew) as well as the UK, Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg. We have plans to expand to other European countries, as well as Australia and Israel by 2022! I love to travel and experience other cultures, so this is something I am really looking forward to.
To shop Salt + Umber's newest collection visit: www.saltandumber.com and use code WHYCARE for 20% off your purchase [ends 2.28.21]