Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. As an environmentalist and a perfectionist, this one is a hard one for me. Ideally, I would have been able to eliminate every area of waste and virgin product use from day one. But in reality, this is not possible. So you need to focus on continuous improvement and honesty about what you are doing to get there, otherwise you’ll never get started.
As part of my series about companies who are helping to battle climate change, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marianna Sachse. Marianna is the founder of the triple bottom line enterprise Jackalo — an industry-changing line of durable and organic children’s clothes that accepts the used clothes back to be repaired and resold or responsibly recycled, thus reducing the environmental impact of the children’s apparel sector. Prior to launching Jackalo, Marianna spent nearly twenty years helping individuals and communities improve their health and wellbeing. She worked with and for such noted organizations as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Whitman Walker Clinic, the Aspen Institute, and the Federal Reserve Board.
Thank you so much for doing this with us, Marianna! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
As a mother and a maker, I was always frustrated by how poorly clothes stood up to my active son. Within weeks, there would be holes in the knees of his pants. He often found more durable items stiff and uncomfortable, and I found that the companies that made these items lacked the environmental and social standards that I wanted to support. Whenever we did find companies that use organic materials, they often focused on little kids or only on items that weren’t intended for heavy play. I started Jackalo to find a way to meet the needs of families with active kids, in an environmentally and socially conscious way.
What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?
At Jackalo, our aim is to make kids fashion circular. We want to see clothes with high environmental and ethical standards that will last long enough to be quality second-hand items, and to create a pathway for families to get these pre-loved items and give them a new life. This not only reduces clothing waste, but ensures that new items are produced in an environmentally sound way — so from cradle to cradle we see a positive impact.
Can you tell us about the initiatives that your company is taking to tackle climate change? Can you give an example for each?
The first area is in the use of organic cotton for heavy-use items like pants and jackets. Organic t-shirts are readily available for individuals of all ages, but it is much harder to find organic pants, especially for big kids. We focus on the use of organic materials, because when properly produced, they reduce water and pesticide use and preserve the usability of the land. And beyond that, organic cotton production is better for the workers’ health. As someone with a public health background, it is really important to me to always keep in mind the upstream impacts of the choices we make, and organic is better for people and planet across the lifespan of the product.
Second, we focus on durable design so that the products have a longer lifespan. It’s a vicious cycle: big kids are tough on clothes, so well-loved items get holes, and then parents feel like it is a waste of money to invest in clothes that last, because they haven’t found anything that does! We focus on designing for durability and backing that up with a guarantee, so that if something doesn’t last we’ll repair or replace it. And we then encourage families to send back outgrown items so that they can be renewed and resold in exchange for a discount on future purchases. This way we keep products in use for longer, resulting in fewer virgin resources used to make clothing.
Third, we aim to complete the cycle. When clothes can no longer be resold, we upcycle them into new products or responsibly recycle the textiles. Our hope is that eventually we’ll be able to use our own recycled fibers to make new garments.
What was the most difficult thing you faced when you first started your company/organization? Can you share how you overcame that. This might give insight to founders who face a similar situation.
One of the biggest challenges was finding companies that were willing to work with small minimum order quantities that startups need. Clothing waste is a huge environmental problem, and the last thing I wanted to do was produce a lot of a style that wasn’t going to sell. To work around this, I found a company that makes organic cotton fabric and keeps certain colors and styles in stock, allowing smaller minimum fabric orders. I then found a manufacturer that would allow smaller production orders. From there, we produced samples in a range of colors and styles and did a crowdfunding campaign. This campaign allowed me to see which styles and colors were of interest, and to limit the size of my first order.
Many people want to start a company to tackle environmental issues, but they face challenges when it comes to raising enough money to actually make it happen. Can you share how were you able to raise the funding necessary to start your organization? Do you have any advice?
As previously mentioned, I crowdfunded my initial production order. This was a great way to limit the amount I had to bootstrap, keep equity, and avoid maxing out credit. Crowdfunding is a great way to test a concept inexpensively, and rally your personal network to support your vision. For female-identified founders, I highly recommend using the iFundWomen platform, as they provide coaching support and have a higher campaign success rate than most other platforms.
Do you think entrepreneurs/businesses can do a better job than governments to solve the climate change and global warming issues? Please explain why or why not.
This is such an interesting question! I definitely don’t think it is one or the other, both are desperately needed if we are to avoid climate catastrophe. Governments are often slowed down by bureaucracy and political winds. When this is the case, entrepreneurs and businesses can be a great place to prove concepts that can positively impact the environment. That said, there are many places where regulation or policy can help the uptake of an innovation with positive environmental and social impacts. Solar is a great example of this. Businesses develop the technology, and governments provide incentives for consumers to take advantage of it.
What are some practical things that both people and governments can do help you address the climate change and global warming problem?
There is so much that both can do. For governments, I’d love to see a carbon tax that really forces businesses to take account of the impact they are having. For individuals, we need to think about the big and little changes we can make. Across the board, buying less and buying better will have a huge impact. Where can you eliminate disposable items in your life? From a clothing perspective, this includes cheaply made products that won’t last or the whims of trend. Finding items that are produced with minimal impact and designed to last, repairing them when needed, and buying second-hand will all go a long way to reducing your environmental impact. And as consumers, we need to know the impact of our voice. We can ask businesses about their practices and vote with our dollars when they don’t live up to what we need them to do (and tell them that!). And we can vote for politicians that have the best interest of the planet (and therefore our own best interest) at heart. Better yet, run for office and enact the change you want to see.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
For me, the most important person to have in my corner is my husband. We’ve been through it all together — truly living up to the vow of “in sickness and in health.” As a cancer survivor, I know how precious our time is, and when I felt like I needed to pursue this more creative and entrepreneurial path, he was 100% behind me. He is my greatest champion, and when I’m struggling with a decision or weighed down by impostor syndrome, he helps me find my true North. And, as someone who also works to fight climate change, he’s a great sounding board for concepts on how my business can make positive change. I love that together we are a force for good in the world in different but complementary ways.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
I learned a lot of these quite early on, so perhaps before I really “started.” But, they have been critical lessons learned that I always come back to.
- Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. As an environmentalist and a perfectionist, this one is a hard one for me. Ideally, I would have been able to eliminate every area of waste and virgin product use from day one. But in reality, this is not possible. So you need to focus on continuous improvement and honesty about what you are doing to get there, otherwise you’ll never get started. For example, in all clothing production, even if it doesn’t arrive at your door in one, products are shipped in individual plastic polybags. Smaller factories (especially ones that are willing to work with small minimums) are less likely to have recycled or compostable/bio-based bags for shipment. This places the burden of finding a more environmentally friendly option on the brand, and until very recently, none of the companies that made biobased bags would sell in quantities of less than about 20k. That’s a lot for a startup that may be producing only a thousand items (or less!) in their first run. I joined lots of other startups in contacting the manufacturers of such bags asking for these items to be made available in smaller quantities, and now more are coming forward with startup-friendly options. But our first production run was completed before these were available, so we ended up having to use the unfortunate virgin plastic bags. As a compromise I asked our factory to use larger bags that could fit more products. Was it an ideal solution? No, and I’m excited to use the more sustainable options that are available now. But I would have never been able to get started without compromising here, with the full intention to improve going forward.
- Starting a business is a marathon, not a sprint. Can we talk about the sleepless nights entrepreneurs face? They are plentiful! Weeks and months of 2 am wakings, making lists in my head. This just isn’t sustainable, if I kept that up I’d burn out quickly. After our launch, I made a commitment to myself and my family to readjust and focus on letting go of work at the end of the day, and doing what I could to foster a good night’s sleep. To me, this is a critical piece to ensure that I can stick with this for the long haul.
- Know your audience. Knowing who you are speaking to is so important in any business, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Sure you can pay thousands for large-scale market research, but a quick survey distributed in social networks and some informational interviews can help you define your audience clearly. Obvious this is important to help you speak their language, but it also helps you know who NOT to listen to.
- All advice is not good advice. Maybe it’s from your uncle or high-school friend. Maybe it’s the nay-sayer on social media. If they don’t fit in your audience, it’s fine to tune them out. See the importance of knowing your target audience above? If they fall outside that group, they may not be the first person you want to listen to.
- Share your authentic voice. If you’ve got a strong voice and point of view that speaks to and connects with your target audience, use it. It will resonate with the people you want to reach and sound better than anything canned. And, as best you can, drill down what that voice is. Is it funny? Serious? Authoritative? Approachable? Share how you would describe it with anyone who supports you with writing, and be clear with your edits about why something is not in the brand voice. Straying from this will sound inauthentic and make it harder to connect with your audience.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring a great amount of good to the world, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Buy less, buy better, and make it last — with clothing and everything else! When we support businesses that are doing business differently (and better), we support the change we want to see in society and the protection of our limited environmental resources. When we normalize repairing our clothes — which can be beautiful — we show that making quality items last isn’t just something you do out of economic necessity, but something that adds value to the world. When we do more with less, we create more space to enjoy the things in life that provide more meaning — our families and the fragile bounty of the natural world.
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This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!