Impact. So powerful, yet so nebulous. The definition is fluid - the leniency of it allows any action to be labeled impactful, the solemnity of it makes it seem unattainable and makes many small efforts seem insignificant. Sometimes, I worry that we can’t find the middle ground for actual impact to occur.
As a design student, I explored sustainable impact in fashion, hoping to find ways to apply it to the larger and complex industry - the factories, the extensive supply chain, brands. I looked to experts who I thought would be excited at the idea of including these larger industry stakeholders, but I was soon proven wrong. Several players in the sustainable fashion industry have a powerful vision, but on their journey, along with their sometimes justifiable expensive products, they have also picked up exclusivity (only willing to work with suppliers who already check off their boxes), a little arrogance (I am sustainable, you are not, therefore I am better than you) and maybe even some easy tricks (creating a list of things that can allow you to be stamped “sustainable” or not, much like the organic food industry).
TRMTAB began mostly because I was, fortunately or unfortunately, among New York’s yuppie startup clan. To be a part of them, I also wanted to be “co-founder.” Through a business class in grad school, I began to work on a product line through my existing resource base - my father’s leather goods factory in Kanpur. We prototyped simple sleeves for tech devices. But, I was quickly inspired by my thesis work in sustainable fashion, to appreciate impact through the idea of small incremental changes while being also inclusive. Lucky for me, I was already working with a factory that hadn’t been stamped ‘approved’ by the sustainability overlords, so there was work to be done.
We began an excruciatingly long prototyping process, one in which neither I nor the factory craftspeople were aware would be their longest (who thought it would take 8 rounds to make a tech sleeve!). Mostly, I had confused them profusely because they couldn’t understand 'why madam is only interested in using scrap or discarded leathers for her products?' Scraps that would usually end up in landfill. I mean, understandably so , factories don’t care about upcycling. They have a large list of other things to care about - audits, customers, perfectly priced perfect products to sell to the customers, fair wages to name a few. But yes, my first small incremental change would be upcycled leather products working with a factory that was outside the sustainable fashion bubble. And my team at the factory would successfully, after many many tries, come up with beautifully woven and chevron-stitched patterns that would become inspiration for our further collections.
As the prototyping process continued over a 10 month period, I went back and forth on my moral standards. I was going to be calling a product 'upcycled', but half of the product (anything minus the leather) would be brand new. Upcycling felt like the low hanging fruit - each leather sleeve was heat embossed with the words ‘Made from upcycled leather’ which wasn’t false, but I felt uncomfortable thinking that I was using the easy tricks myself. Was I just using these words as a marketing and brand differentiation tactic? Maybe, but wasn’t incremental change important? After all, TRMTAB, the name, was inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s powerful message 'Call me trim tab', encouraging all of us to make small changes. More confusion. But who said making impact was easy and clear?
I settled on transparency as my answer and launched TRMTAB on Kickstarter. I would tell the entire story and let the buyers decide. With my second collection, I did the same — I told the buyers exactly what the upcycled leather in TRMTABs consists of. Sometimes, I’m still anxious that my solution is too small, not good enough, insignificant. It’s the doubter in me. But the doubt is a small price to pay. Because it’s totally worth it.