Meet Erin Houston, Co-founder of Wearwell
As a consumer, starting into the world of shopping ethically can seem overwhelming at first. That's why Erin Houston and her co-founder Emily Kenney founded wearwell—a subscription service that connects women with ethically-made clothes curated specifically for them.
Each month, you get a box of clothing from brands that are transparent about their ethical production practices and that put sustainability and empowerment at the forefront of their business practices. Keep one piece or keep them all—wearwell aims to connect you to wardrobe staples you'll love for a lifetime. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Erin, one of the co-founders, about the career path that led her to start wearwell, what inspired the shopping subscription box model, and about what she looks for in the brands they include in their boxes.
Tell us about your background - from receiving a master’s degree in Social Enterprises to working on the senior leadership team at a global development media company, how has your journey led you to found wearwell?
There’s a common thread in my growth as a leader and my journey toward wearwell. That thread is not fashion, as many people first suspect, but rather women’s issues. I have always deeply cared about women’s access to opportunity—ever since I was a little girl. After college, I wanted to work in international development so that I could work directly on these issues. But after landing an opportunity at Devex, a media company that serves the global development industry, I quickly learned some of the challenges facing the industry behind development and wanted to be in a position of influencing change at a broader scale rather than in the field.
As I grew into a role leading the Partnerships division of the company where we were working with major multinational companies and Fortune 500s, I also began to pursue my Master’s in International Development (where I thankfully met Emily Kenney—my amazing Co-founder!). In class we’d discuss the challenges of global development, the industry, and really dig into the problems facing, for example, women in developing countries. My second semester, I took an elective in Social Enterprise and was immediately hooked. I fell in love with the ways the social enterprise community relentlessly searches for new solutions to age-old challenges and unfetters itself from dichotomies of non-profits versus for-profit, instead proving that you can indeed drive large scale change through business-focused solutions to poverty.
That same semester, in April 2013, the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Bangladesh. From my purview in my job, I noticed that there really wasn’t much going on among the giants of the fashion and apparel industry where workers rights were concerned. When I learned that over 80% of the world’s 12+ million garment workers are women, applying social enterprise to look for new solutions to positively impact the lives of these women suddenly became where my head spent almost every spare moment.
What has been the biggest surprise for you along this journey, and what has been your greatest challenge?
The biggest surprise by far has been just how supportive the conscious fashion community is. There’s no other industry I can point to and really say that we’re in this to put ourselves out of business at the end of the day. Most brands hope that we can get the industry to a place where people don’t even need to ask who made their clothes because why wouldn’t they be made ethically and sustainably? We’re an incredibly long way off from that, but you see founders supporting one another, and amazingly, would-be competitors helping one another grow.
The greatest challenge so far has been patience. I’m the type of person who just likes to run at an idea, test it out, and see what you can build. Emily and I worked on the concept behind wearwell for nearly 3 years before launching. We spent time saving up so that we could invest in and pursue this idea. We also wanted to wait until we felt like the moment was right. People, women in particular, are demanding sustainability, ethics and more across the board from apparel to consumer products, but it has taken a while for the ecosystem to arrive at where we are today.
Why did you opt to pursue a subscription service specifically, instead of an e-commerce store?
One of my biggest frustrations as a conscious consumer was not knowing where to begin when it came to purchasing my clothing. I was frustrated that I didn’t know which stores and brands I could confidently support, and I also felt overwhelmed that I might have to overhaul my closet all at once. Emily and I wanted to create an experience for customers where they felt empowered to make small incremental changes to their closets, and we want them to know the positive stories behind their clothes. So, we tell our customers those stories in a way that’s challenging to do if we had pursued a traditional e-commerce store front.
Our hope is that wearwell women fall in love with a piece of clothing they receive but that they also fall in love so much with the makers that they have a beautiful story to share the next time they receive a compliment on their outfit, whether that’s in the office, at brunch with the gals, or date night. The more she can talk about the positive impact she’s able to make, the more confident she is in herself and the more she’s sparking the people in her life to also think about who made their clothes.
What do you look for in a brand when choosing which brands to share in your box, and how do you ensure that they are fully transparent and their products are ethically made?
When we consider a brand, we look at their production—are they paying the makers fairly? Are they mitigating negative impact on the environment? Better yet, are they diverting would-be waste through their production and sharing profits with their employees? We take a holistic look at brands. We don’t, however, carry products that just give back (in the form of a charity donation, for example) without creating change in the creation of the item itself.
Ensuring transparency with our partners—which certainly goes both ways—is a challenge that we’ll constantly be addressing and improving, especially as we grow and mature. It’s cost-prohibitive for a start-up to fly to factories, meet with the makers, and see every aspect of our partners’ work, so right now, we rely on self-reported data and certifications that already exist. Above all else, we believe it’s critical to foster trust with our partners, and we do our best to put them first, mitigating pressure we might place on them that could trickle down to their employees, and more.
wearwell is not only dedicated to making ethical fashion more readily available to women, it’s also challenging the fashion industry as a whole. Why do you think the fashion industry has fallen behind when it comes to corporate social responsibility, and what change do you hope to ignite with wearwell?
I believe the fashion industry has so many challenges in front of it today because of us—their customers, the consumers. Businesses respond to their customers, and when their customers want to be able to buy something quickly and cheaply, fashion brands will change their manufacturing methods to succeed.
Too often we look to place blame in this space, but I believe the challenges in front of us are from an unfortunate confluence of technology that has changed consumer expectation and globalization that has removed the makers from our sight. When customers exercise their purchasing power to demand a brand behave differently, they will indeed change. But it goes far beyond the notion of corporate responsibility.
While this will take decades to realize, fashion brands should have sustainable and ethical supply chain practices built into their entire collection, not just a capsule and not just for a PR feature. We’re all about incremental change, so if a brand’s entry point into a more sustainable future begins with a small collection, it’s up to us—their customers—to support that small movement so that they can see a greater reason to move even deeper down that path. I hope that wearwell will ignite in many a simple desire to be more connected with the people behind the clothing they choose to purchase. Someone made it for you, and so it’s worth treasuring, treating it well, and thinking about the full life of your wardrobe.
You’ve had a fantastic response to your Indiegogo campaign - consumers truly are excited about shopping more consciously. What’s next for wearwell?
Thank you for that! It’s been a wild ride and far exceeded our expectations. Because of the overwhelming response, we’re only serving our crowdfunding backers right now. Next, we’ll be opening up publicly so that we can continue to serve more people and more makers. We’ve got big plans for growth, not just for customers to our service, but for ways to influence more people to use their purchasing power for good.