Categorized | Social Entrepreneur

Social Entrepreneur Turning White into Green

At the age of 20, Lori Del Genis saw a fancy party dress in a shop window and fell in love. But the price wasn’t too lovable. She decided that she could make it herself, for a lot cheaper. She had never sewn anything before apart from home economics project in 10th grade. It turned out that making that party dress was much more fun than she’d expected and she still has it.

Then Lori went to college and studied a Practical Trade, just like her mother taught her to do. She went to grad school and got even more practical (isn’t that what grad school is for?). And to de-stress from all the studying, Lori would head to the local fabric shop and get lost among the sewing patterns, dreaming dreams of dresses; the fancier the better. To justify her growing habit, Lori worked as a costumer for community theatres during the summers and started to make wedding gowns for her grad school friends; a welcome gift indeed since fellow grad students didn’t have any money either. And who didn’t want a custom-made dress?

And so it went, until it was Lori’s turn to get married.

She could make her own dress, sure. But how to narrow down the possible designs? Lori visited a few local bridal boutiques and was horrified by what she found: shoddy seams and scratchy, chemical-smelling materials that actually gave off fumes. You knew they would melt near a flame. And these cheap-looking dresses actually cost thousands of dollars! What a racket. Lori knew that she could do better; that she could offer beautifully-made dresses without the ridiculous mark-up. But she was to learn that the [horror] went much deeper than that.

While researching suppliers and fabrics, Lori learned the ugly truth about how the majority of first-world wedding dresses are made: overseas, often in dark, cramped, dangerous conditions. Some were made in factories where the workers might be chained to their sewing machines. Just as horrifying were the pesticides dumped on the crops that would someday become the fabrics: many farmers have been poisoned by the toxic chemicals that they are forced to use. And for what? For shoddy gowns that couldn’t be worn again, even if the bride wanted to? People and animals were literally dying for these dresses. There had to be a better way. A way that would give back to the earth and her people instead of robbing and exploiting them.

And so in 2007, to create social change in an industry not known at that time for its social innovation, Lori created ‘Conscious Elegance’. It was to be a completely green wedding dress company which would only source from small, independent businesses and use nothing but sustainable and no-toxic materials. The dresses would be well-made and sewn by local artisans for a fair living wage. The gowns would be wearable again in other incarnations rather than sit in a closet after one day in the spotlight.

Lori saved up $5k and bought bolts of eco-friendly fabric: hemp, organic cotton and cruetly-free silk. She found re-built second-hand sewing equipment and obtained as many of her materials from social networks as possible (e.g., local classifieds/free-recycling). [Note: Anyone starting a business should look into these networks; they are not merely better use of resources and can save you tons of money, but they are a great way to build community!]

And then Lori started creating some designs. She sourced reclaimed cast-off duvet covers and bed sheets from the local thrift store for her mock-ups (still does, in fact) and used every bit of office paper at least twice. She came up with dresses that could flatter many body shapes and would be adjustable without the alterations that many other dresses required. Lori asked some of her grad-school colleagues and women in her community to model the dresses and a family friend took the photos. Lori hired an engineering grad student with dreams of starting his own website-building business to help her create a website and she learned everything she could about search engine optimization.

But there was more to Green Business Practice. If it were to be done with a purpose there were more questions to answer:

What about a studio/retail space with its additional consumption of resources?

Conscious Elegance (CE) was started in a spare room of Lori’s house.

What about building materials?

Lori and her husband found eco-friendly carpet made from recycled soda bottles for the studio.

What about the thread?

That had to wait until someone in the quilting world created certified organic cotton thread that would work in a sewing machine. CE now buys all of their thread exclusively from this fellow green entrepreneur.

How to use a wedding dress again?

CE creates infant clothing out of client’s gowns upon request, such as for a baptism or naming ceremony. In this way, the dresses live again in the next generation (and the gowns are machine washable, which is very handy for the smallest clients!). CE will also shorten a gown into a party dress after the wedding at no extra charge.

What about the business cards?

CE uses recycled cardstock from post-consumer paper from a small green paper company and Lori prints her own using recycled ink cartridges.

What about packaging materials?

Lori went out and befriended local sewing and bridal shops to use their cast-off cardboard cores and boxes for re-use. The local shops were glad to do their part and claim that they were supporting local ‘green’ efforts. It worked for everyone: Lori got her supplies and the materials were kept out of the landfills.

It became clear that many other small business owners were trying to promote Green principles and they all could help each other. It was possible to find a sustainable option for every facet of the business and every decision could build community. Some of the other small business owners were working moms, trying to stay at home with their children while making a living. Some were social advocates working for Fair Trade and supplying dressmakers like Lori with locally-woven fabrics. People networked and referred clients to each other. Ties grew stronger.

Fashion students started contacting Conscious Elegance for advice and requesting fabric samples for their projects. Eco-designers got wind of what Lori was doing and started ordering fabric for their collections. The reputation for Lori’s gowns for being gorgeous and delightful to wear grew and people began to see hemp and bamboo as viable options for dress materials. Lori gave open-access lectures at the local library and small local community groups about green business principles, how sustainable fabrics made a much better product and how such fabrics supported everyone who produced the garments, from the farmers to the manufacturers. To spread the word farther and support their community, Conscious Elegance donated dresses to auctions for local charities and gave fabric scraps to local schools by the bag.

And the recognition started: CE won a local business award for being green and sustainable, beating out Nissan and a local printing company. ‘Green America’ vetted the company and included it in its directory. Clients starting coming from all sides, looking for a small, green company to create their gowns instead of supporting sweatshop garments. Dresses were made and fabric was supplied. And there was much rejoicing.

What next?

Lori is still having fun creating pretty dresses and supporting local art. ‘Green Weddings’ have now become a household concept and no one is wondering anymore if eco can be beautiful. And Lori is very happy to have contributed a small part to that.

What is the best advice you never got?

Keep present to each client throughout the course of your dealings with them; they will greatly appreciate it.

What is the one thing that you did right?

I taught myself SEO. Fully 90+% of inquiries come from search engines and for a heavily online business like CE, good SEO is the very best advertising.

What was the biggest transition you had to make ?

I had to learn html and how to build my website; until starting this business, I knew nothing about website development and the extent of my computer savvy was email and the odd spreadsheet.

What can you tell other entrepreneurs who are deciding to make a difference?

Never give up. Just don’t.

Lori Del Genis
Conscious Elegance
Consciouselegance.com

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