Photo credit Romp Photography
Interview

Kate Black

01.07.16

In 2008, Kate Black founded the online resource for eco-fashion and sustainable living, Magnifeco. At the time, no single publication was producing regular content on this segment of the industry and sustainable fashion still had a long way to go to becoming a mainstream topic. Black brought it to the masses. And even more so with her recently published book Magnifeco: Your Head-to-Toe Guide to Ethical Fashion and Non-toxic Beauty. As an expert in the field of eco-fashion, Black presents the information to her readers as a guide, which is actually helpful and applicable. Her gentle approach to persuading consumers to think twice about their choices is virtuous and admirable; the retail industry, and consumers as a whole, need people like Black challenging the status quo.

Interview

How long have you been an ethical fashion writer? What first sparked your interest?

I started the Magnifeco.com blog in 2008. I was living in Tokyo and looking for an entrepreneurial idea. Vanity Fair had a green issue, and every now and then newspapers would publish a page or half-page of ‘eco-products’ and I thought eco-fashion needed more coverage, so I started Magnifeco as a ‘daily eco-fashion find’.

Your book, “Magnifeco”, is truly an A-Z guide to ethical fashion and beauty. How long did it take to curate all of the various brands that you included? How did you go about the process?

For beauty, in each category I interviewed what I thought was the top brand in each segment and then asked them ‘if you didn’t exist, what would you wear/use?’ This helped me find other brands that they each considered ‘competition’ or at their level. For the rest of the chapters, I wanted to include a wide variety of price points, styles and accessibility plus I wanted to make sure the book had longevity so tried to pick brands that had been around for 3-5 years. Ethical fashion is a tough business and I’ve seen some great brands not survive. Even in the 6 months since I did a final edit and check on the buying guide – 3 fashion brands listed in the book (with over 20 years of business between them) are no longer operating.

What does living a sustainable life mean to you?

‘Sustainable’ is such a subjective word, but for me, in my life, it means reducing ‘waste’. That means conscious buying decisions, being more minimalistic and trying to cut back on the incessant plastic that seems to cover everything and be everywhere.

Many people would be surprised to know that cotton is not only “the fabric of our lives” but also “the dirtiest crop on the planet”. With conventional cotton making up 99% of all cotton, is it difficult for consumers to find the comparable alternatives?

It’s true, we love cotton, but I think if we knew how many chemicals it takes to grow, process and ship cotton garments, we might not be so keen. The idea of talking about cotton in the book was two-fold: I wanted readers who are struggling with health issues to be aware of the increased toxic load from cotton and I also wanted to raise awareness about how little organic cotton is available. There’s also a great middle category for cotton called ‘sustainable cotton’ that is less chemically intense and my hope is that consumer demand increases the availability of organic and sustainable cotton – it’s better for both people and planet.

“Greening through the back door” is an interesting concept you developed in reference to organic and sustainable cotton. Why do you think companies are adopting this business model, in contrast to marketing their sustainable practices?

The fashion industry is a $1.5 billion industry and is producing 90 billion garments per year, most from virgin materials. Fashion brands have to make changes, it’s a business imperative. Greening through the back door addresses that many brands are making changes, whether it’s in working groups (like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition) or on initiatives that they aren’t really sharing with the public (like the Nike ‘MAKING’ app – a guide for designers to help them choose more sustainable materials). Hopefully by the time all consumers in all categories demand more ethical and sustainable fashion, brands will already be there.

In the book, you introduced your secret to buying eco-friendly is to shop for “V.A.L.U.E.” How did you create this acronym?

For years the blog had a one-page ‘guide to a conscious wardrobe.’ The first iteration had 23 tips, then I got it down to 13, but I still wanted it to be shorter and be an acronym so it would be easy to remember. I love word plays and jumbles so I just kept playing with all the words I associate with this industry and settled on v.a.l.u.e., where each letter poses a question to help evaluate the purchase. It starts with: Do I need to buy it and does it need to be new? Could I rent, borrow or buy it second-hand? (Vintage). Could my purchase help an artisan community in a developing country (Artisan), or could it help a designer or maker in my own community (Local). Is the item saving something from landfill? (Upcycled) And, lastly, does this purchase match my values? Does it support animal rights (vegan), human rights (fairtrade) or environmental rights? (Ethical).

With low priced, fast-fashion more popular than ever among consumers, how difficult is it to defend the ethical price tag?

To be honest, I think fast fashion brands should be the ones defending the price tag. How can a dress be sold for $9.99? Imagine how many people made mere pennies from that dress, starting with the farmer who grew the cotton, the weavers and spinners, the finishing, the cutting and dying, then the sewing and shipping to retail. The low price is artificially low, and in exchange we get: less ethics, less transparency, lower quality – no one is winning (except maybe at the c-level of those brands). We know that fast food is not a healthy choice, and the same is true, I think, of fast fashion. Ethical fashion comes at all price points, and is at a great stage where it’s usually really well made, with high quality fibers, so when you look at the ‘cost per wear’ (the price of the item divided by how many times it is worn) – ethical fashion offers lower CPW and better value.

You provide a shopping guide at the end of every section with some of the best options for sustainable buying. What is one of your favorite ethical purchases?

In my own wardrobe? I have a few – I have a pair of GreenBees Emma boots, that I have had since the first year of the blog. Two friends launched the brand (no longer in business) they were thoughtful about the leather and production and they used recycled tires as the soles. I’ve worn them endlessly for 6+ years and they still look brand new. Same too for a Freitag bag I carry all the time. For a brief time, they were making a good-size over the shoulder carry-all for women (maybe the Donna?). It’s made from recycled truck tarps and with recycled seat belts as straps. It’s also had nonstop use for over 6 years. Last year, I dropped it off at the Freitag shop in NYC and they sent it in for free repairs on the bottom corners which were developing tiny holes, and now, it’s just like new again and ready for another 6 years.

What do you think it will take to get consumers more concerned about the social cost as well as the monetary cost of their garment?

Because 97.5% of our clothing is produced outside of the US, I think it’s easy to forget that conditions aren’t what we expect. I think Rana Plaza shocked us all and reactivated the curiosity about who is making our clothes. And it certainly got the press to pay more attention, so now CNN International or BBC will often report on other factory disasters (sadly, there are still many). Plus, there have been some great movies and documentaries about these issues. The ‘True Cost’ is a great one and so is ‘Hazaribagh: Toxic Leather’. I think the more we know, the better choices we can make, as consumers.

Would you ever consider creating your own collection of sustainable products?

I’m in talks for some collaborations so we’ll see how that goes first. I’m so accustomed to being in the middle – Magnifeco.com supports incredible designers doing amazing work, and I want consumers to realize how accessible, affordable and widely available ethical fashion is – so I think I’ll stay here for a while longer.

What’s next for the Magnifeco brand?

The blog will relaunch with new content later this month and then we’re moving into e-commerce. It’s going to be an exciting year.

What are some basic steps that we can all take to begin living more sustainable lives?

The easiest way to be more sustainable, especially with your wardrobe, is to keep it. Modify it, tailor it, repair it – whatever it takes to keep the pieces you have for as long as you can.

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