Can Fashion Respect Both People & Planet? Scott Leonard, Co-Founder of Indigenous Clothing Shares His Insights

Meet Scott Leonard of Indigenous Clothing

The story of sustainable fashion doesn’t end at local artisans and small-scale production. As Scott Leonard knows, that’s just the beginning. Building a responsible fashion line means doing the right thing for the people and the planet. Working with organic fibers, avoiding dyes, and connecting consumers to natural products are just a few of the values that Scott has built into Indigenous - a fashion line that is inspiring a consumer revolution. We sat down with Scott to learn more about his commitment to supply chain transparency, the impact his customers can expect to make, and the ways he is teaching his daughters to consume more consciously.

You have built a successful and beautiful line of clothing and accessories. What was the inspiration behind Indigenous?

Although I was the first employee of Indigenous, over the years I have surrounded by a truly great team of people who continue to inspire and help me build the line. This includes my partner and Indigenous co-founder, Matt Reynolds.  

The idea for Indigenous came while I was traveling in the Peruvian Andes. I was fortunate to be introduced to the area’s rich culture of textile design — the oldest continuous history of textiles in the world. To this day, there is a wealth of skill and knowledge among Peruvian weavers, knitters and fiber artists. Yet poverty in Peru is impossible to ignore. My ultimate goal was to better the lives of women knitting in rural areas of the Andes by elevating their skills and providing fair pay for their work. The idea from the very beginning, some 20+ years ago, was that we could demonstrate doing the right thing for people and planet and still be a profitable fashion company.  

You’ve thought a lot about fashion, it’s flaws and impacts. Talk to us about the social and environmental impacts of the traditional supply chain as well as what Indigenous has chosen to do differently.

The fashion industry is the 2nd most polluting industry globally, outdone only by the oil and non-sustainable energy industry. Fashion’s huge impact on the planet is due to the sheer volume of clothing production, as well as the chemicals and waste involved. Chemicals, harsh dyes, pesticides and defoliants pollute our environment, waterways and oceans. The sum of that impact is devastating, but the devastation of fast fashion doesn’t stop at the environment. The fashion industry has been a huge violator of human rights, implicated in bonded labor, inequity, and issues of gender injustice. There is a vast amount of improvement that needs to happen.

Indigenous is different in every way. Our clothing is soft on the environment. We use 100% organic cotton and sustainably raised alpaca, and color our clothing with low-impact dyes — or in the case of our PURE product line, no dyes at all. Our workers, both in the United States and in Peru, are treated as respected and valued human beings.

While fashion is your medium for change, your company’s impact reaches far beyond that. What impact can your customers expect to have when they purchase Indigenous clothing or accessories?

We constantly strive to better the lives of all who make our clothes, not only by providing fair wages, but also safe and clean working environments. Through programs such as heavily subsidized daycare, training programs and no-interest community loans, we give our artisans a chance to thrive. Many of our knitting artisans are small business owners, employing and training their communities, and bringing much needed income to some of the poorest regions of Peru.

Along with our various partners in Peru, we invest in programs that have a positive impact on the environment. This includes promoting biodiversity in organic cotton plants and the Peruvian alpaca population. Our customers can support these programs in particular by purchasing clothing in our PURE collection. Each piece is completely undyed, made with naturally colored cottons and various natural shades of alpaca fiber.

Furthermore, Indigenous is a B-Corporation, so we are always evaluating our impact as a whole and striving to be a beacon for sustainability in our industry, and in others as well.

That’s not a short list of positive change and we suspect it ripples beyond your business into your daily life. How have the values you’ve built into your business influenced other areas of your life?

As we continue to dive deeper into sustainability, I connect with more and more people in the sustainability industry at large — people involved in alternative energy, natural consumer products, and organic food production, among others. Access to higher levels of information inspires me to be a better consumer, homeowner, gardener, and overall human being.  

Initially, my belief and focus on environmental issues laid the groundwork for the business. But building Indigenous has forced me to more thoroughly explore and expand those value sets. The business has inspired me to find new opportunities to have a positive impact through my daily actions. My wife and I have installed solar panels on our home, and are currently pursuing a gray water system. Soon we will be participating in permaculture programs that give back to our community through local Sonoma County organizations such as FEED and the Ceres Project. We drive hybrid cars, and we encourage our employees to do the same through green incentive programs.

Running an international business with production in multiple countries and customers in so many more is no small feat. What does a day in the life look like for you as a traveler and entrepreneur?

As a CEO, I spend my time in two different camps. One is fixing things when there’s a problem, and the other camp is looking out into the horizon, trying to navigate and forge a path to a scaled vision. Daily, I’m checking in with the executive team to make sure their respective areas are running smoothly — that we always have our eye on deadlines, key performance indicators (KPI’s), budgets, and cash flows. Our executive team has built up a solid organizational foundation so that when I travel my teams are still functioning at a high level. 

I travel not just for fashion events, but also to meet with sustainability professionals focused on global supply chains. I have enjoyed setting an example of an equitable supply chain and it’s been rewarding collaborating with the Sustainable Working Group, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and the C&A Foundation. That travel, and those relationships have helped to keep Indigenous at the forefront of promoting sustainability and organic clothing globally.

With so many options available to us, the choices and considerations for any consumer can be very overwhelming. Tell us, what do you look for when you’re trying to purchase clothing and accessories responsibly and ethically?

I love looking at a label and identifying that it is made with wholesome, natural materials. I look for certified organic cotton, and natural fibers like Alpaca or Merino Wool, or man-made/natural fibers like Tencel. I encourage consumers looking for ethical, eco-friendly clothing brands to go to or their publication, The National Green Pages. There you can look for lists of companies that are fair trade—brands that are doing things the right way. I like to do my homework on the brands that I purchase from. I even like to shop secondhand stores like Goodwill, or vintage shops, and I’ve enjoyed sharing my buying habits with my daughters. My daughters enjoy it — they see we can get good value for our money while being softer on the environment. I point out to them the value of a garment’s construction (stitching, materials, construction) hoping to teach them to identify certain brands by the quality of what they make, not the label.