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How a teen girl started her own sustainable fashion brand

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Hannah Yang is a 17-year-old and a senior in high school. She lived in Shanghai but she recently moved to Santa Clara, California to graduate from high school. She attends Stanford University’s Online High School, a full-time synchronous online program. Her startup, Amarewear, is a clothing brand that uses sustainable and eco-friendly methods.

Question 1: What is your project? When did you start? Why did you start it? How did you start?

Starting Amarewear has been a crazy journey. It’s been through a lot of changes since its start around 4 years ago in October of my 9th-grade year. Amarewear originally started as a dancewear line. I've danced recreationally for around 6 years, but my body type is not exactly the ideal dancer body type, so I always felt really uncomfortable wearing the leotards that were available in Shanghai at the time. This led me to design my own.

Shortly after producing my first collection of five designs with help from manufacturers in Beijing through Alibaba (an online marketplace for manufacturers), I managed to get my line carried in a physical boutique in Shanghai called Numero. It definitely took off from there, but at the same time, I was learning more about the fashion industry and thinking “could this be a future for myself?” This was when I started to learn about sustainability and changed course.

Question 2 : How were you able to come up with Eco-friendly products? What action can businesses take to become more sustainable?

The reason why I chose t-shirts, which may seem kind of random after dancewear, was that as I was learning more about sustainable fashion, I was thinking about how I really wanted to spread awareness about eco-friendliness. Dancewear was not really the avenue to be doing that because not everyone dances and not everyone needs a leotard. Also, dancewear does not really contribute to the problem of consumerism because a lot of dancewear is custom made, not mass produced. I was thinking about situations where a lot of clothes are mass-produced and how my school would have events and there would be hundreds of really cheap cotton t-shirts, or companies on retreats that also make a ton of shirts, hoodies, etc. If I could replace those with sustainable designs, then that would make a bigger impact.

As for how companies can become more sustainable, it’s a really complicated question because there are so many aspects of sustainability; a lot of people focus on the environmental side and that’s what I do. This is probably more focused towards choosing better materials, so that could be anything from organic materials— like organic cotton, which uses less water— or dead-stock fabrics, which is basically the scrap fabric from producing other things which can be re-purposed into clothing.

"So like recycling?"

Yeah! Options like deadstock are good for the company because it’s cheaper than sourcing new fabric— and environmentally, you are not making anything new; you’re just turning something that already existed into a fabric. Beyond organic and recycled materials, people are coming up with these new fancy fabrics that are made of pineapple fibers or milk, which are supposed to be biodegradable. There are a lot of options available now, and they are becoming more affordable, so there’s really no excuse for companies to shy away from biodegradable materials. You can also consider ethics and fair trade products, which is when employees are paid fairly and treated well. There are certifications for companies to make sure that they’re actually being sustainable. For example, OEKO-TEX 100 is a widely-recognized certification for making sure that the fabric is not made of chemicals that are harmful to the people wearing the garment. A good step that companies can take is to invest in suppliers that are internationally certified.

First collection of leotards that Amarewear sold

Question 3 : What actions can everyday people take to become more sustainable?

One of the things I wanted to emphasize with Amarewear was placing the burden away from the consumer. There is this book called This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, which I recommend to anyone who is interested in sustainability. She talks about how a lot of the people dominating environmentalist messaging have been saying that consumers should be investing in sustainable products. "If you can pay for eco-friendly products, then that’s what we need for a more sustainable world. This is true: it's better to buy things that are made well and long-lasting. As far as fashion goes, people should try to discard their clothes less and wash their clothes less often to save water. All those practices are good, but it is ultimately still the corporations that are producing and emitting the most, and it is the government that needs to highlight the importance of environmental/sustainability issues in its policies. It isn't necessarily fair or effective to try and force consumers to change or invest in more expensive things just so that they can feel less guilty. One of the biggest problems is that

Consumers aren’t being told to consume less— they’re just being told to consume more of a sustainable product; which is not getting at the root problem of people repeatedly buying stuff that they don’t need.

So really I would say for consumers who want to make an impact is just to buy less and reuse. One way to start is to participate in a challenge such as, “No New Clothes November” where people stop buying clothes during the month. Another really important tip could be to reduce your consumption of meat. Factory farming is really ethically devastating, and there are all sorts of documentaries available showing how poorly the animals are treated for their short lifespans. Throughout their lives, animals like cows produce byproducts like methane, which is a greenhouse gas, and factory farming doesn’t take care of that environmental aspect either. There’s so much you can talk about with sustainability— the whole concept of sustainable development is relevant to every industry and there is so much consumers can do in different aspects of their life. The answer will always be somewhat complicated. For example, not using plastic is useful, but there’s also a tradeoff because, “sure I could not use a plastic bag at the supermarket, but if I buy a cotton bag, and the cotton isn’t well made, then that’s also contributing a lot to water usage and perhaps unfair labor.” It is challenging to have every individual consumer balance that.

Question 4 : What is the Sea Leaders Training Program? How does it work? What was the development process like?

I’ve been working on a new project of Amarewear, called Sea Leaders, which is an online course for teenagers. My goal for this course is to pull together a lot of resources and information about environmental issues, specifically about climate change; air and water pollution; and over-consumption, overproduction, and overwaste. These are the three I’m really focusing on. The reason why I thought a course would be helpful is that while I was learning about all of these topics, it was in a sporadic and scattered way. It’s really hard to pull together a ton of resources that are useful and presented in a clear way because there’s all sorts of conflicting narratives around the sustainability, as I've discussed earlier. My goal for the course is to show teenagers ways to take action towards sustainability without inadvertently contributing to the issue. I think that nowadays, a lot of teenagers are starting projects and non-profits to try and raise awareness for environmental issues, which is great. But, they’ll also produce merchandise featuring their nonprofit name or an environmentalist slogan, which ends up harming the planet more than it helps. I think it's important to educate more teenagers to consider more carefully the impact of the projects that they’re taking on.

It’s hard to describe [how the course works] since it hasn’t been released to the public yet. There’s a platform called Thinkific and it lets you create an online course. It will have 8 weeks of lessons, which would include lectures, articles, texts, and I’ve pulled together some PDFs, along with some extra resources for those who are interested in learning more. There’s going to be a weekly quiz, which will be graded automatically. Although I’ve come up with reflection questions for each week, I can’t really enforce them as it is an online course and people can take it whenever they want, and I’m obviously not going to have time to look over every single response. But there are discussion forms and reflection questions for people who do feel interested and want to talk more with the people taking the course. The course ends with a final project where students will either create a short-term project, or a student-led lesson. Students find an issue in their community that’s related to sustainability and they’ll talk about what they learned on the issue and how people in the community can work towards addressing it. Finally, they submit a reflection on the project to pass the course.

Creating the course has been really fun because it’s probably been the most collaborative part of Amarewear. I’ve had a lot of support along the way from people: Numero (the boutique), people that have bought leotards, and my friends who have bought leotards from me, as well as all sorts of people that have encouraged me along the way. But the course was when I really started working on creating things with other people. My main help has been teachers at my school. I’ve had two professors, who worked on the course with me by giving me readings that they’ve found helpful and just looking over what I’m doing to make sure that it stays correct and interesting and relevant. I also worked with a teacher at my old brick-and-mortar school, who acted as an adviser; she showed me the syllabus for a class of hers that was similar and helped me to structure my own. I also recruited some friends who are gonna be the beta testers for the course —I want to make sure that it’s not boring, especially for people who aren’t as familiar with environmental subjects! So I have a cohort of teenagers who will be taking the course.

Question 5 : How were you able to fund your business? Do you have any tips on acquiring funding?

I have honestly been very privileged. My parents helped with the first round of making the leotards and with some of the t-shirts. So I would say that I definitely had “angel investors.” But it ended up turning over a profit! I was originally going to donate my profits to various organizations, since the business side of things was never really my goal. And now of course, I’m choosing to donate my profits to environmental organizations.

Since I didn’t really go through the process of pitching and fundraising myself, I can’t really say anything from experience. But before I even told my parents about this whole endeavor and got their support, I did some research myself. There are several grants online that you can apply for even as a kid. One of them that I recall is the Crimson Youth Fund. It’s a really small grant that students can apply for— I think up to $1500, maybe. It may not be enough to start up a business, but it could be helpful. Then there are other larger grants like Impact Austin.

The main things for acquiring funding is to be able to commit to your project, be able to summarize what your project is about, and have a value proposition.

A lot of teenagers nowadays are being increasingly entrepreneurial, which is great, but I feel like I’ve seen a lot of the same projects. So it’s really easy to not be able to differentiate yourself. If you can show why your project matters, that’s really important. Amarewear tries to differentiate itself by claiming that there is a lot of sustainable fashion out there for adults who can afford to pay $200 for a well-made dress. Most teenagers cannot just shop for those kinds of investment pieces, but we still want to be environmentally friendly and we still want our clothes to look trendy and nice. And so that’s the niche that Amarewear was trying to fill.

Selling leotards at a local Christmas Bazaar

Question 6 : Throughout the process of starting Amarewear, what have been some challenges you have encountered? What lessons have you learned from them?

I think the main challenge was that one year process of turning Amarewear from a dancewear brand into a sustainable t-shirt brand. The main thing was learning how to make my brand sustainable and finding the manufacturers who could work with me in my journey to make a sustainable clothing line. The manufacturer that I work with now uses recycled-fibres. Throughout this whole process, I’ve found manufacturers to work with through Alibaba. And a lot of the listings on there say “eco-friendly fabric” but you look more closely at it and it’s cotton, it’s not organic, and it’s not certified. I spent a lot of the time doing research and figuring out how I was going to come up with a business model that would be sustainable, and finding the manufactures that met my standards for certifications. The manufactures that I work with now are Global Recycled Standard certified and OEKO-TEX 100 certified. It makes me feel a lot better knowing that they have this kind of international certification and that they're willing to show us videos of their factories and their processes.

I wasn’t able to go to their exact factories but I did visit similar fabric factories that were closer to where I lived, about an hour outside of Shanghai. I got to see the whole process from fibre to fabric to dyeing. It’s a really unique experience. I think what wowed me was how “good” it all seemed. I went into the day expecting to think, “wow, production is so awful; there are so many horrible bi-products, look how gross the wastewater is.” When I visited that dyeing factory and looked at their waste-water treatment plant, they talked to us about how 70% of the water they use for dyeing is actually able to be recycled and reused. It goes from this muddy, brown, really gross looking water into water that’s completely clear and able to be used again in the dyeing process. I was just so impressed, and I think that it actually gave me a lot of hope for the future, seeing that there are definitely people working on making production more sustainable and it is something more achievable now.

And there are so many lessons I've taken away from Amarewear. It has been the biggest part of my life for all of high school.

I think the number one thing I can think of is that is that creativity is not linear, and that entrepreneurship is not just an egotistical pursuit.

There’s this really great quote from The Fault in Our Stars by John Green— which is maybe not the most respectable source for life advice— but it’s at the end of the book where Augustus Waters is talking about Hazel, the main character. He says “she walks lightly upon the earth” and goes on this whole grand speech about how all these people are trying to be heroes and trying to be remembered for all the great deeds that they’ve done throughout their lives, but the people who are actually going to help the world rather than hurt it are people who pay attention and notice what’s wrong. People who seek to have a positive influence on the people who are around them, who don't feel the need to leave this big, grand legacy on the world. I don’t entirely agree with it; I still think you should try to make as big of a positive impact as you can. But I do think that there are a lot of people nowadays who are pursuing good projects for some kind of self-benefit. I think a lot about in middle school, when I was a Girl scout, and we had this project where we were helping an orphanage to sell cookies. The man who ran the place was really kind of sad when we approached him. He was like, “I’m so glad you guys are helping with this. In the past, we’ve had a lot of people say that they want to help us and sell our products for us, but most of them, once they graduate, stop helping us." So that just doesn’t really feel like a long-term commitment to doing good.

I feel like my main takeaway from Amarewear was that creativity should be used in a way that actually helps to solve the problems that the creator is trying to solve. It’s less about creative prowess and self-expression, and more about doing research and really learning about the issues so that we can find the best ways to solve them and not just provide a band-aid solution.

Selling 100% recycled plastic bottle t-shirts at school graduation event. (For some clarification on the process of how t-shirts can be made of plastic bottles: The company starts by removing any of the labels on the plastic bottle, washing all of the plastic and crushing them into plastic flakes, which are melted and polymerized into plastic fibers that can be spun into yarn, which is then woven or knitted to become fabric.)

Question 7 : Do you think that being a teenager gives you a different perspective on sustainability and how we can combat planet waste?

I guess the cynical answer would be yeah, of course, some older people are just denying climate change, which I find baffling. As far as being a teenager goes, this topic is something that I have a love/hate relationship with. I think our current generation, Gen Z, is very activist on varying social issues. We’re also statistically more and better educated, which is great because more of us do care about these issues and are trying to combat things like climate change and to protect those that are more disadvantaged than us.

But I feel like a lot of the teenagers that I see fighting for these issues have become a bit disillusioned about them or are facing these issues more with anger than other motives.

I feel like a lot of people have an attitude of, “Wow, the older generations don’t care about us. They’re so unreasonable, etc.“ Although I sometimes completely sympathize with that kind of reaction to the lack of action that is going on policy-wise about environmental issues, I do think that there needs to be a space for hopeful news and a more optimistic outlook for the future. There’s been research on how looking at more apocalyptic news that focuses on how everything is a catastrophe actually just turns people away from the subject. It makes people feel like, well there’s nothing we can do at this point.

But I think that it is our job as teenagers to be the more optimistic voice and to fight for the future, to say, “yeah, we can make good changes, we can make good difference in how we live our lives, in how corporations work, etc.”

I also think that teenagers have a better idea of how technology could be used, at least to mobilize our voices and to raise awareness of the subject. It amazes me how much activism goes on on Instagram, nowadays. I think that’s something that we have as a tool maybe more so than older generations do.

But I would rather see the generations collaborate and cooperate rather than come up with a dividing line like, “we teenagers do it better.”

Visiting a dyeing factory / wastewater treatment plant

Question 8 : What advice do you have for teenagers who aspire to start their own initiative?

1. Do it— believe that you can and you’re halfway there

2. Research before you start anything

3. Work with others

The first thing is to do it. Honestly, when I was younger, I was always very creative and started all sorts of initiatives. But, they never really stuck because I didn’t have that many role models of teenagers who had started their own long-term, legitimate businesses. Then I came to OHS, my current school, and there are all sorts of cool teenagers doing all sorts of cool things and I was like, “Wow, there are people my age doing things” and I think that was really what gave me the push to start what I wanted to do. That's also why I think ChangemakerZ is great for showing all these stories because it's other teenagers that really made me believe I could do something. So, the first tip is to just do it— believe that you can and you’re halfway there.

The second, my personal tip, is of course, to research before you start anything. Really try to understand the issues you are dealing with, and don’t feel pressured to conform to “startup culture.” A lot of people now want to start something new, and to start something of their own, which is very understandable and valid, but there are also plenty of great organizations that already exist. You can help these organizations and still be making just as much of a positive difference. If there’s something out there already, you can work with them, and advocate for them. If you feel like you can come up with something new that will contribute a new value or a new message, then I would obviously advocate for you to try it out.

Another important thing that I’ve learned throughout this whole process is to work with others. I’ve always been a very independent person. I wanted every creative project of mine to be only mine so I could say that "I did this and it was all up to me." However, that’s just not how entrepreneurship and initiatives work You need a team of people and you can create so many better things when you have other people’s input. A lot of good ideas that I have implemented came about from talking about Amarewear with my friend; they would say, “oh, why don’t you do this,” and I would think, “yeah, you’re right, I should do that.” You can learn a lot from other people and working with them.

Question 9 : Outside of Amarewear, what other interests do you have?

This is related to Amarewear, but fashion has always been an interest of mine. I’ve always loved to express myself in terms of cool outfits that are affordable and fun. I run the Fashion Club at my school and we’re trying to do all sorts of cool things. We tried to put together an online fashion show— which did not work out quite as much as I would have liked— but you know, we’re getting there. We design school meet-up t-shirts. It’s fun. Another big one is writing— I’ve loved writing since I was in elementary school. My teachers started an extracurricular creative writing class for me because I enjoyed it so much, and now I’m also the editor-in-chief of my school magazine. It is a point of pride for me because I feel like a lot of the things I’ve accomplished over the years have been me starting things up— with Amarewear, and founding Fashion Club— but PixelJournal, my school magazine, is something I joined as a sophomore. I churned out a bunch of articles and I was really eager to interview people. And the editors-in-chief at the time were like, “Wow, you’re doing a lot of cool stuff. We’d like for you to be on the editing team.” It was a really big honor. Besides being involved in writing as a school activity, writing has always been important to me because it's the main way I express myself. I’m introverted, so public speaking is not my forte. I feel like I'm always able to put my thoughts into words better when I write them down, compared to when I speak out loud.

I would also say reading is one of my hobbies. I feel a little bit hypocritical when I say that I’m interested in reading because because I haven’t had a lot of time to do leisure reading in high school. It’s so hard to be the bookworm in high school because you’re like, “I have so much homework, but I also want to read this book.” I like to think of a book as a conversation where you’re entering into a dialogue with the book and you take something away from that each time. I can reread my favorite books as many times as I want, and I still get something new from the experience every time. I learn things that I can use to apply to my own life, including things like the quote from The Fault in our Stars.

Another big interest of mine that really enabled me to pursue all of these creative projects is programming. When I was younger, I wanted to be a programmer. I started doing HTML and CSS web design in fourth grade, so I’ve always loved creating my own websites. I’m really proud of the Amarewear website I’ve designed, and web-design has been a priority for each of the projects I pursue. Sometimes I feel bad that I don’t want to pursue programming anymore, and the feminist part of my brain is like, “I need to be a women in STEM.” But I feel like my interests and general talents lie more in the creativity department than in the computer science department, so I will be vouching for sustainability as a creative rather than a programmer.

Question 10: How do you manage to balance everything and what keeps you grounded during hectic times?

I think I have an easier time balancing my entrepreneurship with school because online school obviously allows for a much more flexible schedule. I only have like maybe 3 hours of class a day. Although we have plenty of homework to compensate, I do have more choice in when I do things. My main tool is a planner, which sounds so basic, but I think it’s important to plan out what you’re going to do everyday. It helps me sometimes to plan by the hour if it’s a really crammed, stressful time, so that at any point in time I can , “I know I’m going to be working during this time.” I try to block out leisure time as well: talking with friends, working out, that kind of thing, so that I don’t burn out. Another thing that helps me is going on walks outside. I live by a park right now and there’s a nice lake with adorable ducklings. So I like going outside to refresh my mind. It gives me a chance to step away from my work and just take time to think about what I’m doing and regain a sense of control.

There are such high expectations for teenagers nowadays. We have to balance increasing amounts of schoolwork.

There is so much pressure to take college-prep classes, college level classes, and also do a ton of fancy extracurricular stuff on the side. And I think it’s also worth reminding yourself that at the end of the day, that’s not all that matters in life.

Recently, what’s helped me a lot is just to think about my relationships and work on building strong, meaningful friendships with people and having good conversations. That way, if we’re all being super stressed together, it’s something that we can kind of enjoy and look back on as “remember that time when we were all dying and super stressed about that essay? Look at us now.”

Sometimes it’s not as much about not feeling stressed but working through it with a support system.

Question 11 : What is your favorite store to shop at?

Theoretically, if I could have anything from any store, it would be Reformation, which is a sustainable fashion brand. They have such gorgeous clothes and are super transparent about their production process on their website. But everything is on the expensive side, so I don't actually own anything from them; it’s just aspirational eye-candy. For the stores I do actually shop from, my favorite is probably Urban Outfitters. It makes me feel guilty to say that since they’re not a sustainable brand, but they admittedly have cute options. My goal in shopping is not always to look for the most sustainable thing because obviously those options are limited, but just to make sure that I’m conscious when I’m shopping, so I buy clothes that I really like. There are things I have from H&M, which is not ideal, but I’ve owned them for 5 years.

I feel that keeping clothes, wearing them a lot, and making sure that they’re something you love and not something you'd want to discard so soon is also part of having a sustainable shopping mindset.

Follow Amarewear on their platforms!




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