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Starting a Sustainable Clothing Brand: An Interview with PER CEO & Founder

Starting a Sustainable Clothing Brand: An Interview with PER CEO & Founder

To get some behind-the-scenes insight, we sat down with our CEO & Founder, Tim, to chat about the process of creating a sustainable clothing brand.

1. What drove you to take the leap to start a brand?

I've really always had entrepreneurial tendencies; whether it was selling Pokemon cards at garage sales or stuffing my backpack with Jones Soda energy drinks and peddling them to kids at my junior high, I've loved the feeling of taking charge of the process to get things done.

Here's a quick story for you... My brother was sponsored by Jones Soda for surfing when he was in high school and he'd drive to their warehouse to bring back a literal car full of sodas, energy drinks, and juices. We would have enough to last us months at our house. So  I'd open a case of energy drinks, load as many into my backpack as I could, and walk around campus selling them for $2. I remember they were called 'Whoop-Ass' and that was really the main selling point for 12 year-olds. I'd come home with $50-60 any given day - which was a fortune to me at the time of course.

I think that's what ultimately drew me to a career in sales, too - being able to see a direct quantitative impact on my efforts of growing a book of business.

I had been really unhappy for a few years in a role that was the same thing every day of cold calling, demoing, and selling customers. I had known for 4-5 years that I wanted to create my own business, just wasn't really landing on anything. But I knew I wanted to see how I'd fare creating something on my own and putting it out in the world.

Clothing was the one idea that I kept circling back to for years until I said, 'Screw it, I'm doing it.' I was getting out of bed one morning and thought, that's it. I'm going for it.


2. How has the process been as a first-time entrepreneur?

In short, it's been great. Challenging of course, but super rewarding. I feel like I've learned more in the past 15 months than the previous 4 years combined.

From finding manufacturing partners, forming an LLC, trademarking a logo, building a website, creating social media posts, writing a ton, to doing a dozen photoshoots, I've been able to try so many different things and learn a ton about myself in the process.

The biggest eye-opener this past year has been how much progress you can make by simply just starting. Understanding that you don't know what you're doing when you start and it will likely be garbage work, but it's the act of starting that really matters.

One of my favorite quotes is 'Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.' Just a reminder that it's the process and act of doing that matters the most. I can't stress how true this has been working to launch a company.


3. Why clothing?

I grew up playing sports and have always had an obsession with training gear and my uniforms. I'm the guy that walks through a store with my arm out feeling every bit of material waiting for something to stand out to me - only then would I take a look at the item.

It was also a personal problem of having a tall, lengthy body and never being able to find great fitting gear. I had been burned enough times by crappy clothes that I bought off of Instagram that would fall apart after a use or wash.

I wanted to use the combination of my obsession for the feel of fabric, maniacal attention to detail, and passion for fitness to make something that I would wear every day.

My life still revolves around health & wellness and I understand the importance of having cues to get you motivated, make you feel unstoppable, or just give you the confidence to get out and become the person you want to be - I've always felt like great clothes do that for me.

4. What has been the most surprising thing thus far?

The challenges have been many, but it was shocking how hard it was to just prioritize making quality gear with sustainable material. What I mean by that is the industry is set up to make gear at the cheapest price. They prefer the minimum viable materials and process to get a product out the door.

Here's an example - when working with a partner on creating an item you will first get the questions "What are you going to sell this item for? What do you need the cost to be?"

This was so backward to me. I'd preface the call by saying I'm here to make ultra-high quality gear with great sustainable material... and yet these are the first questions I'd get. I wanted to start by focusing on making the very best of the best and tweak from there.

Of course, I understand a business needs a proper cost to price ratio and profitability to sustain the business, but in my mind, that's not the starting point for the gear I make. Sure I have benchmarks to hit, but I wanted to start with the best and work back from there if we needed to.

This is a conversation I've had I don't know how many times, but it makes me realize why fast fashion still exists and why there's still crappy gear being made. This also leads to another thing that shocked me - how many brands are selling the same items but have just added their logo to it.

It's so easy to go to a site like Alibaba, find an item you like for $2.50/unit (that's essentially white-labeled), and throw a logo on it. I started to see the same products pop up over and over on different brands.

There are a lot of players in the space and so much noise, but that actually motivates me more than it deters me. I see that as the opportunity.

5. Why has it been so hard?

As it turns out, you can't just Google 'Great sustainable athletic shorts manufacturer, haha.' Most of these factories don't even have websites and work strictly through referrals.

There's also just been a big learning curve being new to the industry. Learning new terminology, timelines, processes, etc. But I've learned I'm lucky to be so obsessed with details, organized, and have my background in complex sales projects.

And I think hard is a actually good thing. It's a good sign. It's shown me that we're doing the right thing by creating this way - as there's so much space for this to improve. 

Manufacturers want to make things as cheap and fast as possible. They're not really at fault for it because it's what the majority of the industry asks of them, but it's a hurdle for companies like ours. If it were easy, other brands would be doing it. I set out to make gear in a very particular way and have been able to stick to that commitment.

One of the things that was tough was finding sustainable material. It took 4 months before we could source our first piece of material from recycled plastic. And it was kinda junk. Because there's not a ton of demand for sustainable material, it's hard to find A. the suppliers, B. material that's kept in stock, and C. companies that work at the small order quantities that we could afford.

Sustainable material is anywhere from 3-8x more expensive than virgin material, typically is made to order which has longer lead times, and requires much higher MOQs (minimum order quantities). I knew it'd be an uphill battle when I started and it was a bit harder than I anticipated, but we were able to find a partner to custom make amazing material for us. It's been great to hear the feedback from the people that have tried our prototypes and the compliments on the fabric.

Then COVID affected the R&D process, delaying us by about 6-8 months. Shipping delays, skeleton crews in the factories, surcharges, etc all were trickle-down issues from COVID. But that's been pretty standard for businesses domestically and internationally.


6. Why do you think more companies aren't more eco-conscious or producing ethically?

Oh man, that's a great question... I think the easy thing to say is money, but I believe it's a bit more complex than that.

There is so much less friction when you go with the flow of the industry - and currently, sustainably focused companies are swimming upstream. Longer lead times, higher cost of goods, fewer options, and it's just tougher to find great partners at this point in time. So yeah, I think that all affects the bottom line.

For established companies, when you have predictable product cycles, seasonal releases, COGS benchmarks, and established relationships, it's hard to just upend those and throw a wrench in the process. But you're seeing some great brands taking the initiative to do that.

I think it'll pay off in the long run for us to start our business this way and have it as our foundation.

In terms of ethical production, I think it comes down to the same thing. Luckily, we have so much more transparency now with facilities just due to the internet and you see brands like Adidas and Patagonia really leading the charge to make sure we're doing things the right way.

It's really a non-starter for us though and we've pushed it from the very beginning, but with travel restrictions due to COVID, it was challenging to get information from factories about their employment policies & standards. Luckily, we were able to find some partners that have been super transparent and great to work with.

7. What do you see in the industry/in your niche right now?

There are some great brands right now, but there's still an awful lot of noise. There's a bubbling focus on sustainability, though a lot of it is still used as an eco-washing marketing tactic. I think we're beginning to see consumers demand great things from brands. Sustainability, transparency, ethical production, a give-back model, etc.

More and more, people want to know the brands they buy from align with their values. Even if it's not always a part of their conscious effort while purchasing, it affects people’s decision-making. There are beginning to be too many options in the space to just go with a brand that has a catchy social media ad and a cool logo. People want to deeply align with a brand's purpose.

I think our sweet spot will be the intersection of men's health, amazing gear, and sustainability. My passion to get people healthy + making great gear + operate sustainably + give back to Mother Earth has melded this ven diagram of a space in which we can live.

8. Where do you see the industry going in regards to sustainability?

Customers need to do lots of research now, it's so easy for brands to eco-wash. But it's hard to find facts on their sustainability approach and consumers are not sure what to trust. I see it becoming much more transparent and for the brands that don't, consumers will opt to go elsewhere.

Change in the industry really only comes from one place - the consumer and their decision to purchase with certain brands. That's the only way to get widespread change to reducing the apparel industry's impact on our environment. We need to get back to the basics and eliminate fast fashion by focusing on creating intentional, sustainable, and long-lasting purpose-built gear.

We're definitely getting the freight train moving in the right direction, but it's a slow-moving beast and takes time. 

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