Meet Christian Black, Co-Founder of HALF UNITED
Having been raised by two entrepreneurs, it should come as no surprise that brother and sister, Christian and Carmin Black, decided to launch their own business. What is impressive is that they’ve managed to do it together and remain best friends while building a successful social enterprise. Christian Black was a creative college student working on his own t-shirt business when his sister convinced him to launch HALF UNITED - a fashion company that feeds children in need. This is his story.
Launched in partnership with your sister, HALF UNITED is committed to ending global hunger through fashion. What is the story behind the brand? How did you decide to go into business with your sister?
Growing up, Carmin and I were raised by our father, who was a pastor and owned his own carpentry business, and our mother, who owned her own interior design business and restaurant. So we were constantly around people in need, the stresses of owning a business and good food. It was the perfect storm that moved HALF UNITED into motion. We started our own fashion business that helps people in need by providing them with food.
Initially, I never wanted to go into business with my older sister, mainly because she has always acted like my second mom. I started my own “business” my freshman year of college, a t-shirt line called 1989. Really the only things I ever had printed were a few designs for a band I played drums for at the time. At the same time this was happening, Carmin was working with TOMS Shoes as an intern, traveling the country, spreading the word about TOMS new give-back model. That experience inspired the idea for HALF UNITED. So she called me while she was on the road and convinced me to change my t-shirt company, 1989, into HALF UNITED, a jewelry and apparel brand that provided meals for children in need. I was immediately on board.
HALF UNITED has a diverse line of clothing and accessories, from shirts to earrings. How would you describe the design aesthetic and what inspires it?
Carmin, my sister and co-founder, does the majority of our product design. Carmin has always been inspired by city life, timeless fashion, the ocean, artists like Matisse and Kosch & brands like Loeffler Randal, Jenni Kayne and Cynthia Rowley. We try not to lean too far into being “trendy”. Our goal is for people to still love their HALF UNITED purchases 10-20 years from now. Our aesthetic is constantly re-shaping and evolving as we grow but we’ve always leaned more to being clean, classic and simple.
The fashion industry has historically been defined by human rights abuses and environmental degradation. How have you balanced ethical production, high quality design, and competitive pricing?
This is a challenge! People want to pay lower prices for products but for a company to pay its people living wages and cover all of our bills and manufacturing, you have to be making money, real money. After all of our expenses and giving, our margins are so small that it has certainly forced us to consider having our jewelry manufactured overseas, at questionable facilities, but at a fraction of the cost. As tough as it has been, we have stuck to our guns and made it a point to keep the manufacturing of our jewelry in the USA, paying fair wages to hard-working Americans! We work with A&R Casting in Los Angeles, Aetna Inc. in Rhode Island, Garlan Chain in Massachusetts and do a lot of assembly here at our HQ in Wilmington, NC.
While fashion is your medium for change, HALF UNITED’s impact reaches far beyond that. What impact can your customers expect to have when they purchase clothing or accessories?
This is true! And thank you for bringing this up. For marketing's sake, we have made our messaging as simple as possible but the truth is, our customers are doing far more than providing 7 meals for a child in need with every product they purchase. A lot of what we do has more long lasting, sustainable effect. In Fiji, we have funded bee-keeping programs that provide Fijians with pollination for their gardens (that our customers also fund), and honey and wax to sell all while increasing the ever-important bee population. Since beginning this project, our partners in Fiji have multiplied our initial investment of 5 Honeybee farms into over 250 farms!
In the U.S., along with volunteering for and donating to the Food Bank we are working with local chefs to provide healthy and delicious weekend meals for an all-girls charter school in Wilmington, NC. In Haiti we fund the construction of bread ovens along with providing fresh grain to bake fresh bread for school children and villages. This initiative is teaching Haitians a new trade that they can utilize to boost their local economies.
Hunger and malnutrition have pervasive effects on an individual’s ability to grow and thrive. With so many opportunities to give back, why were you inspired to contribute to the fight against hunger?
Simply put, we love food and the thought of a child not having enough to eat is devastating. Statistics aside, no one likes being hungry. We’ve all been there and have felt that pain, if only on the most fleeting level. Our goal is to take that burden away from children, most of whom have no control over their situations.
And what do you personally look for when you’re trying to purchase clothing and accessories responsibly and ethically?
One way I help is by doing the majority of my shopping at thrift shops (Goodwill/Buffalo Exchange). The environmental impact of a thrift shop is actually quite great, reducing the production of clothing (which produces toxic gases and chemicals) while also decreasing its chances of ending up in a landfill.
OK, we have to ask - what is it like running a business with your sister? What are your tips for maintaining a bit of balance when you work so closely with family?
This is the most challenging part of my life. Haha! The thing about working with family is that you can be completely honest with each other, raw and vulnerable, to a fault. No feeling is hidden between us and sometimes it should be. We really try to pick our battles and be respectful of one another but sometimes we fail, and by sometimes I mean almost everyday. As we grow older and do this longer our battles have become less frequent but that doesn’t mean World War III isn’t just around the corner.
We have found that we really need to respect each other, especially in front of our employees and mentors, and stick up for one another. We call this having a “United Front.” On the flip side of this partnership being so challenging it is also the most rewarding thing that we could have done. Carmin and I are fortunate that we get to be together everyday. We’ve traveled all over the U.S. and Haiti with one another and have really grown to be best friends. The truth is, at this stage of the game, this business cannot function without what she and I bring together and I wouldn’t have it any other way.