Interview with Derek Sabori of Kozm
Derek, you have quite an impressive background in the sustainability world. Can you tell us a little more about how you got involved in sustainable fashion and why it is important to you?
I got involved in it by chance. I was a studio art major who had just graduated and was looking for a job in the graphics art department at Volcom in 1996. My first job there was as the Raw Materials purchaser. Their purchasing was done stateside at that time, and we had to piece our supply chain together on our own - what a great learning opportunity that was. I ended up managing the raw materials department, which led to a role in the production department and eventually led to my being the design room manager. I then became head of Men’s Merchandising and Design for the brand and worked my way up from there. In 2006 the brand started to offer products that featured Fabrics of a more sustainable fiber portfolio and I was both irritated and excited - irritated I hadn’t heard of these before, and excited to be doing something I knew was better. We formed a sort of Green Team we called the V.Co-logical Society - and one of our first events was a screening at a lunch-n-learn of the movie An Inconvenient Truth. That changed my life, and literally, that day, I knew what I’d be focusing the rest of my career on.
I (thankfully) was nominated for, and thus became, the head of the V.Co-logical Society, and the more I taught myself, the more I was looked to as the expert. The more I was looked to as the expert, the more I learned; it was a snowball effect. I took it and ran with it and, years later, realized the role I wanted at the company was one that would be dedicated to responsibility and sustainability. I made that pitch to the then president, Jason Steris, and within a year or so, I was the director of corporate social responsibility - a role that evolved into the Vice President of Global Sustainability.
You were the Sustainability Director at Volcom for over 10 years. What does a sustainability director in the fashion industry do? Do you think the fashion industry is becoming more sustainable as a whole?
It's a great role that interacts with almost every department. My job was to develop and implement sustainability initiatives, strategy, and actions, in all parts of the business: product, events, operations, marketing strategy, and more. I was the liaison to their parent company, Kering and had the opportunity to work alongside them while they built out their world-class sustainability program. Luckily for me, my background was on the product side so it was a natural fit for me to lean towards sustainable fashion, as opposed to clean tech, zero waste, sustainable infrastructure, etc.
Do I think the industry is becoming more sustainable? I think there is more awareness now than ever, and there are so many organizations, brands, and people committed to a better future and so, yea, we are seeing a more sustainable approach. However, there is still so much that has to be done. It is such a complex situation and a problem that runs deep, is systemic, and is complicated and impactful at every corner that you turn. The global supply chain is very complex and it is often tangled and untraceable for many brands. And since our impacts are largest the further back back in the supply chain you go, the harder it is to control them. There are great efforts and innovations taking place; plenty of collaboration, and interest and commitment from some of the biggest and most recognizable brands in the world. So I think it’s becoming - or at least leaning towards becoming - more sustainable.
Derek, I loved your TEdx talk on Destroying the ‘Old Way’ tower. How can we create a new tower within the sustainable fashion realm?
Sort of like the old saying, one brick at a time. That was my point with that talk; there is so much that you can dive into and be overwhelmed with so it can be easy to be frozen in fear. However, each of us plays a role, big or small, to help build this new tower. Each of us has at least one brick to lay in the foundation of it all. That means educating ourselves, committing to being a part of a new movement of consumerism, branding, manufacturing, and business in general, and then sharing the information we learn with each other. Start small, remain committed, and let people know you are excited and inquisitive about it. I love this space because it is constantly evolving and there is so much innovation and opportunity on the horizon. Just to know we are pushing for businesses to do things in a way that will benefit us as humans in the long run, that is just exciting and fulfilling.
You currently teach a class on sustainable fashion, correct? What is the single best piece of advice you would give to your students and “everyday people” to help them on their eco-fashion journey?
Well, I guess my answer here is a phrase that I tell my students and is my most often used and favorite reply. That is: “it depends.” I teach them this because I often get asked which is better, option A or B? And, the more you know, the harder it is to answer that question because it really does depend on a variety of factors. Unless we have a full analysis of that product’s entire life cycle, an LCA, then it's going to depend on where our biggest concerns are. Waste? Water? Emissions? Hazardous chemicals? Social responsibility? The list goes on and on. So my advice to students is to commit to being lifelong learners and not just look at products at their face value, but really dive in and consider the long and tangled supply chains that are associated with nearly every product in our lives. Try to take it all the way back to its root material that was extracted, most likely from the land. Where was it extracted? How was it extracted? What were those impacts? Simply put, my advice is to question everything and to know that everything has impacts that need to be considered and that we cannot tackle them all with one quick answer. Do your best, be informed, make conscious decisions, and offset decisions in your life that you know are not ideal (specifically when it comes to consumer behavior).
You co-founded a new sustainable fashion line called Kozm that looks awesome and the men’s clothes look so comfortable! Can you tell us a little more about the brand and what makes it eco-friendly and ethical?
When we started Kozm, we took everything we had learned in regards to responsible branding, responsible manufacturing, and sustainable fashion, and applied it to our products. All the best practices were our roadmap. We formed the company as a benefit Corp, received our B Corp certification, and made sure that every product was made from fibers that would sit well in any sustainable fiber portfolio. We offered a transparent (every stage, not just sewing AND costs too!) and traceable supply chain, and implemented a social impact program with each purchase.
All of our products are made from fibers that are either upcycled, recycled, organic, or that have known lower impacts such as hemp. We also wanted to take an approach to athletic and lifestyle products that didn't have a high synthetic value. Typically yoga shorts in the market are made of polyester or nylon. We wanted a cellulose-based fiber and chose to make our yoga short of an organic cotton and hemp blend. Our t-shirts, beanies, hats, totes, and fleece items are made with Recover - a Yarn system out of Spain that uses upcycled cotton scraps and recycled polyester and that doesn't need to be died at the fabric stage. We don't package in plastic (we do ship, however, in a recycled plastic mailer that is also recyclable), and we use our cutting room scraps to wrap our goods in paper, and we keep the plastic trim items on our goods to a bare minimum. Additionally, we manufactured everything here in the US, mostly local so that we could be present, and create strong relationships with our factories. We tried to design consciously, and minimally, to create goods that would last and be relevant for longer than just this season.
You have an amazing blog called Underswell that helps “Everyday People” really understand more about sustainability in their “Everyday Lives”. What type of information can “Everyday People” find on your blog that can help them live more sustainably?
I launched the Underswell podcast and blog really to highlight the stories of my friends, colleagues, and connections who are doing amazing things in the space. These are stories of people who are committed to using business to drive change, and who are committed to either responsible manufacturing, sustainable goods, stronger sustainability strategies, innovating for our new economy, fairly made products, or giving back in meaningful ways. I wanted people to know about these companies and brands and see what was behind them. Often people start to learn about sustainability and become overwhelmed with the problems, and feel like there aren't enough solutions. There are, however, many brands, big and small, who are moving in the right direction and so I wanted to to highlight them, share their stories, and connect them with consumers, or as you said, “Everyday People.”