When a new sustainability-focused brand is founded by an industry veteran who has built their career at Gap, Victoria’s Secret, and The Limited, it is perhaps only natural to question the authenticity of the endeavor. Accusations of greenwashing have befallen many seeking to capitalize on sustainability as a trend rather than a mandate, and the responsibility of mending our industry’s ways has tended to fall on the shoulders of the new generation coming through who have not been conditioned to operate ruthlessly in the name of profit over people and planet. But can the corporate sector produce much needed figures of change in our industry? Allison Bloch CEO of recently launched underwear brand In Common makes the case that her background provides an essential “baseline” for creating ethical product that reflects our shared concerns and values.
For Bloch the pandemic changed everything. “Like most people, I was home and feeling very helpless. Not being a doctor or researcher, I didn’t have an outlet to help or support those in need," she tells FashionUnited. "However, the experience forced me to pause and reevaluate what I could do. I realized that I actually could make an impact by leveraging my 18 years of experience creating products that people know and love — but made better. My corporate fashion training gave me the expertise I needed on the standard practices in mass materials and packaging. From there, I set my sights on doing better from an ethical perspective and working tirelessly to figure out where there was room for improvement in the process."
Better manufacturing, responsible processes, sustainable fabrics, and fair-wage employment are all listed as core principals upon which In Common is founded. However, according to Fairify, a site which aims to help consumers buy more sustainably by auditing over 250 brands on criteria of transparency, climate targets, materials and sourcing, and philanthropy, Gap earns a D (Bad) grade and Victoria’s Secret an E (Terrible). The Limited closed all retail outlets in 2017. Former executive Bloch’s skills are in brand building and, as mentioned in the press kit, "capitalizing on the white space” but many sustainability experts now say that the world doesn’t need any more product and growth as a measure of success is essentially unsustainable. What does Bloch say to that?
She understands it and respects this point of view. Indeed, it motivated the specific product area she identified for her brand.
“There is a realistic lifespan for everyday, intimate items like bras and underwear," she says. "After 6 months to a year of use, no matter how well it is made and how carefully you wash it, it deteriorates. And once you can no longer wear your underwear, it’s not an item that most people want to wear second-hand.”
The concept of recycling, resale, or even passing items down through generations does not extend to underwear and, without this sense of value that we have begun to ascribe to our other clothing items, underwear occupies the unique position of being both essential but replaceable. Those were useful parameters for Bloch to work within because, she says, “'Vintage Underwear'” does not have curb appeal, unfortunately."
However she believes the process of creating underwear can be changed to align with our values, and In Common's proprietary technology in the brand’s Zero Bra uses the plant-based bioplastic EVA for padding. The ingredient is sugarcane whereas other mass produced bras use foam for their cups which is made from crude oil. Says Bloch, “I think it’s important to work toward educating women on what toxins and chemicals are in the bras they choose to buy.”
After almost two decades in the industry, Bloch admits that standard operational methods are hard to shed. She describes the most significant changes as follows: “Having a ton of resources and budget to work with. When starting a business from the ground up, every penny counts and it’s important to be extra thoughtful about how far each dollar will go. It’s definitely a shift from the big budget days of working with a multi-billion dollar brand.”
While the global pandemic pushed her to launch her own brand on one hand, it presented enormous challenges on the other. Supply chain issues, the likes of which she had never seen, combined with working remotely tested Bloch’s breadth of experience. “For me, the hardest part was not being able to interact with the team and the customers we were trying to serve, while also building the brand,” she says. “I am proud of how much was accomplished over Zoom; that said, some things are just not the same without having daily opportunities to collaborate in-person. However, we’ve made great strides, and I’m proud of how much we’ve accomplished despite strong currents working against us."
Bloch's sense of collaboration was in evidence at last month’s In Common pop-up launch in Manhattan’s Soho where she brought together other creators of ethically produced items. Displayed beside the soft T-shirts and panties was hand sanitizer by Noshinku, plant-based protein by Ora, laundry detergent by Dirty Labs, arrayed in a space filled with compostable greenery and biodegradable mannequins to emphasize the ideology of being at one with nature. Says Bloch, “At In Common we make clothes for the common good which means we applaud and respect all of our partners who are reaching toward that same goal of common good. Whether it’s a brand that’s promoting reusable packaging, eliminating plastic waste, or taking one small step towards working sustainably, we love this community.”
Her vision for the future is to continue to build and nurture this community, empowering the individual to make a difference through small steps. “By getting people to wear basics that are better for our planet, we hope to increase awareness on how accessible sustainable steps really are.”
So it is possible to shift from a corporate fast fashion mindset to head up an independent sustainability-focused start-up, but Bloch stresses it is a process rather than a singular move. The goal is to advance towards a holistic convergence of individual and environmental wellbeing. “In Common is still brand new and a small start-up, so of course there’s a lot of room for improvement,” she says. “But I’m excited about where we started and where we’re going.”