Our Founder's Story
One evening, as a teenager in high-school, I was on the phone with my best friend discussing our entrepreneurial aspirations. We wanted to launch our own ethnic-wear brand for girls like us in Bangladesh; both of us regularly donned outfits we had designed for ourselves, and we’d often get complimented on our ability to create beautiful, intricate, and high-quality products. We grew increasingly excited and proactive, getting as far as coming up with a name for our business, designing a logo, pitching to our parents for funding, sketching designs, and even sourcing fabrics. We were ready to take on the fashion space in South-Asia and position ourselves as serious entrepreneurs at the tender age of 14. Long story short, we didn’t ever officially launch (school ultimately took priority) but it was thrilling nonetheless. The experience sparked my curiosity in exploring entrepreneurial ventures and I’d developed a unique appreciation for fashion since.
In November 2019, my sister-in-law and I were walking around her parents neighborhood in Cary, North Carolina, and I expressed to her something I hadn’t shared with anyone other than my husband. I told her I was deeply frustrated by how exploitative and environmentally-damaging the fashion industry is and that I sometimes felt guilt for choosing it as a career path. I’ve spent almost a decade in fashion in various roles including design, marketing, and product development. It wasn’t until I entered the garment manufacturing industry in Bangladesh that I fully grasped the magnitude of the systemic problems that exist within fashion. I had experiences where I was in meetings with buyers of large fast-fashion brands who blatantly exhibited their indifference in contributing to the economic wellness of the humans who are truly the backbone of their companies. Garment workers are underpaid, exposed daily to deadly health and safety hazards, and the current system is designed to keep them and their families in a cycle of poverty. I left every single one of those interactions feeling angry and disheartened, but I guess the silver lining is that those experiences helped me discover the fire I have inside of me.
Regardless of who one thinks should be held responsible (corporations, governments, factory owners, or even consumers) for the enslavement of impoverished communities, it’s inevitably those communities that are detrimentally impacted. Bangladeshi garment workers, made up of 80% women, bring home about $3 a day with usually no paid overtime, and the industry supply chains are notorious for hiring child labor and turning a blind eye to the sexual harassment of women workers. As I bore witness to and learned more about how little the lives of garment workers are valued, I found my sense of purpose then became unwaveringly dedicated to challenging the status quo. I continued to tell my sister-in-law that I’d been thinking about ways in which I could create impact at scale and revealed that I had an idea I was prospecting but hadn’t yet fully fleshed out how it would manifest.
Less than a month later once I was back in San Francisco, I had gotten seriously ill. So much so that there were moments I feared, “This is it.” From December to April, my body stopped functioning properly. My PCP feared multiple-sclerosis or a brain tumor and immediately referred me for a brain MRI which was followed by several more neurology appointments. Turned out there wasn’t a brain tumor and it likely isn’t multiple sclerosis, but there are lesions in my brain. At the time of writing this, I still have pending neurological tests to undergo. My reason for mentioning this and wanting to be transparent about my health issues is because it plays a critical role into why I finally took the leap to build Consciously. My sense of purpose only strengthened when I feared disability, or even death, was on the horizon. Nothing scared me more than not being able to make a difference in the world in ways in which I recognized over time was my calling.
In May, once I started to feel well enough to somewhat resume daily activities, I began ideating on how to turn my vision into reality. I picked up from where I had left off in 2019 conducting market research. Customer discovery was especially significant as during the process, I was not only able to clearly identify who and where our customers are, validate my assumptions, hone in the value proposition, and distinguish the pain points Consciously would ultimately be built to address, but simultaneously spark the creation of an engaged and curious community. The more I talked to people, both customers and sustainable fashion leaders, the clearer the need for Consciously became and the excitement around it began to gain momentum.
This wasn’t totally surprising. Consumers are increasingly motivated to be more environmentally and socially conscious, and are exercising their power through the products they buy. They’re even willing to pay a premium for it. According to a 2018 Nielsen study, the U.S. sustainability market is estimated to reach $150 billion in sales by 2021, driven mainly by Millennials. Markstein and Certus Insights surveyed 600 participants in October 2019 and found that 70% of consumers want to know what brands they support are doing to address environmental and social issues, and 46% look into a brand’s social responsibility efforts when they buy from them. The same Markstein and Certus Insights study highlighted that people are skeptical of companies that claim they’re environmentally and/or socially responsible. Just 9% said they believe corporate claims about social responsibility “all the time” and 67% said they believe corporates “some of the time”. Almost 75% believe companies donate to charities and help with community projects to improve how they’re perceived by the public, rather than authentically wanting to help those in need.
The countless conversations I had with members of the Consciously community, and beyond, aligned with the data market trend reports were presenting. I recognized that the archaic ways in which fashion operates is unsustainable and that consumers have grown to expect better. Navigating the complexities of sustainable fashion can be confusing; consumers have a keen interest in supporting brands who are doing good in the world but don't know how to accurately identify them, especially with all the greenwashing that happens. Consciously, the digitally-native sustainable and ethical fashion marketplace I launched in October 2020, is on a mission to democratize sustainable fashion and makes this possible by sourcing and vetting apparel and jewelry brands based on their environmental and social impact.
Consumers can feel confident when they visit our site that the brands have already been assessed and gone through a system of checks and balances. We currently have 8 values in our sustainability criteria that a brand must match with in 2 or more ways in order to be eligible to sell on the platform. The sustainability criteria is our true north when on-boarding brands and we have tight guardrails around the types of products that can be sold on Consciously. Telling the story of each brand and how they fit into our mission is an important part of what we've built as it provides visibility. This is why we have a brand directory that customers can use to browse a brand's profile and easily identify the values it matched with, and relevant information on its treatment of workers, sourcing of materials, about the brand owners/makers, etc.
Our goal is to provide transparency to consumers who can then make informed purchasing decisions with ease as they discover thoughtfully designed and ethically made fashion goods on the marketplace. We emphasize the value of quality over quantity and that there shouldn’t have to be a compromise on aesthetics when opting for sustainable brands. Our curation strategy prioritizes elevated, beautiful, and timeless products. When someone shops on Consciously, they're championing women, small businesses, artisans from around the world, and family-run factories. We currently house products from 32 brands in our office (i.e. my humble San Francisco home) and everything is packaged and shipped by me personally. Our team is small but mighty, and providing a seamless, pleasant, convenient customer experience is of utmost importance to us.
As a small, bootstrapped, mission-driven business, scrappiness and budgeting are an absolute must, as is tenacity and the willingness to be vulnerable. Running a startup is all-consuming so you really need to be obsessed with the problem you’re solving and comfortable with getting your hands dirty. You’ll get knocked down and mess up, but must believe in yourself and the mission enough to get back up each time. Launching in the middle of a pandemic resulted in unavoidable setbacks of course, and as the Founder, the circumstances taught me early the significance of being adaptable, resilient, and not letting perfection hinder progress.
As the world was forced to slow down, individuals and organizations across the globe started to think about how to reopen the world in a better way instead of going back to exactly what we had. We had a chance at stillness and a moment to reflect. This crisis has shun a light on issues many of us have been talking about for a long time, and this is the time to double down and prioritize innovation and interlink it with sustainability. It’s this conviction that gave me the courage to move forward with my launch plans, with the help of an amazing support network consisting of brand partners, mentors, community members, friends, and family. Our launch response has been incredible, beyond what I had anticipated, and as we continue to grow, one thing that won’t change is Consciously’s commitment to making it easy for women to look good while doing good. Our mission to democratize sustainable fashion is just getting started and I hope you’ll join us on this journey.