Guest Blog by Bridget Thorpe, CEO of SOL VAE
Since working with Fortune 500 companies on sustainability issues, Earth Day has always felt like New Year’s Eve to me. It has a palpable energy to it — the time of year when organizations evaluate their progress and share human stories about their sustainability journeys.
While it can be a reminder of how far we still have to go, this moment of celebration matters. Because I’ll tell you, the work that sustainability champions and global leadership teams are doing isn’t for the faint of heart! I’ve never felt it more than in my entrepreneurial journey to build my company, SOL VAE. After years of supporting large organizations to make progress on their sustainability goals, I was ready to get in the game and do it myself.
With SOL VAE, I wanted to produce a sports bra that I could wear both on land and in my hometown Hawaiian waters. But more, I really wanted to feel good about it. I wanted sustainable materials, USA manufacturing, and a quality brand that took the same steps the big Fortune 500 players are taking to advance a more sustainable and circular economy.
It took a wee bit longer than I expected! Six years later, I’ve learned a few things I’m hoping can shine some light and direction on what it takes to be a responsible brand.
01 | Its Starts with the Supply Chain
At SOL VAE, we call our supply chain process Thoughtfully Curated. It is broken down into design, material, manufacturing, packaging, use and washing, and end-of-life categories. We built it this way thanks to trusted guidance from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a gold-standard resource if you’d like to learn more about circularity.
We start by working to design out waste in the first place. Then, we go through each category asking deeper sustainability questions. For instance, are material inputs regenerative? Are they certified? Is packaging conveniently recyclable for customers? Sometimes answering these questions is easy. Other times, we feel (and look) rather kooky as we get to the bottom of it or decide on compromises.
What it comes down to is building a family of partnerships. Women have an innate talent to bring people together and build relationships. If you are a responsible brand, kudos for taking the time to do the research and ask the awkward questions. And if you’re shopping one, know that the people by the brand poured their hearts and minds into bringing you the best family of suppliers possible.
02 | Quality Takes Time
I was resolute that SOL VAE’s hybrid bras would be manufactured in the USA. I wanted to support domestic manufacturing, as well as mitigate the carbon footprint of overseas production. It turns out, over 95% of apparel is now made internationally. I’m glad I didn’t know this at the time! We started with a few small batch cut-and-sew operations in Colorado. Each went out of business. Then, we got through prototyping with a handful more. I spent six months learning how to operate the industrial machines myself, worked with seamstresses, toured factories across four states, and finally earned my stripes to work with an incredible factory in Baltimore that survived the offshoring movement.
I’m sharing this because stories like this are not uncommon. But at the online checkout, they’re shockingly unknown. The journey to create a quality product from a quality team is circuitous (and not cheap). That value is worth fighting for, though. Because isn’t that what we’re all looking for? In relationships or in our closet drawers, it feels really good when you have something quality built for the long haul.
03 | Neutral Isn’t Just a Color Palette
At this point in the journey I had the supply chain, and I finally had the manufacturer. My next step was to address SOL VAE’s impact and move towards carbon neutrality.
A good sustainability expert will remind you that it’s best to minimize your impact upfront, because there are some things your product will not be able to avoid. For instance, your hybrid bra will not be shipped via sailboat or electric car; it will be catching the nearest USPS plane or truck to be delivered to your doorstep.
Until there is greater systemic change, our business partnered with Sendle to ensure carbon neutral shipping. Sendle helps to calculate the carbon impact of each shipment, then it purchases carbon offsets from third-party certified projects to offset the impact.
Beyond shipping, our team has a carbon footprint ourselves, so we work with partners to collect our data, measure our impact and offset it. This measurement process takes time, and we use tools from the WBCSD Greenhouse Gas Protocol for support when we have data gaps or a lack of resources.
Even after finding wins in the above steps, there is still a long way to go towards a fully circular economy. That is why Earth Day matters. Because this stuff takes heart. And passion. And a respect for nature that supersedes modern conveniences and expectations.
I alluded earlier that SOL VAE is based in Hawaii. Growing-up there, I appreciated how much of Hawaiian culture was built on a relationship with and responsibility to nature. This way of life goes beyond sustaining — it’s about thriving and creating nourishing relationships with the land. We’re honored to be a part of TheWMarketplace community that not only encourages us to continue these relationships, but also lights the way like New Year’s fireworks for other women entrepreneurs to do the same.
* * *
Bridget Thorpe is the CEO of SOL VAE, maker of a hybrid sports bra for land and water that is manufactured with sustainable principles in the USA. Learn more about Bridget in TheWMarketplace's Her Story Q&A.
TheWMarketplace is a nationwide e-commerce marketplace for women-owned businesses to sell their products and professional and personal services. With over 500 women-owned businesses selling 4000+ products and services ranging from home goods to coaching, TheWMarketplace empowers shoppers with a new way to find the communities they want to support, including Black-woman owned, Latina-owned, AAPI-owned, Veteran woman-owned, and more.