Meet Brianna Kilcullen, Sustainability Consultant
I recently had the wonderful opportunity of meeting Brianna Kilcullen and interviewing her for this blog. Brianna is a supply chain and sustainability consultant and an entrepreneur in the textile industry. She’s worked with companies like PrAna and Under Armour, carving her way in the textile industry and creating new roles in sustainability at companies that didn’t have them. After gaining experience in supply chain and sustainability, Brianna began consulting as she noticed more brands like REI, moving towards a sustainable model. As a consultant she realized she could help other brands become more sustainable and she could save money to not only provide for herself, but to put money into her own sustainable venture, ANACT.
The vision of her company started with a few thoughts: “What do you do after you start seeing all the ethical dilemmas that exist within the supply chain?”, “How do we fix it?”, “What does that look like?”, and “I can consult and help other companies implement whatever they feel comfortable implementing, but they’re only going to do what they feel is right”.
So, a little over two years ago she decided to set the tone, standard, and what she believed the future would look like for how to make a product and how to run a company. It all began when she was working in China and happened to be there when they were working with hemp. She was amazed with the process and the plant and learned everything she could about it. She learned about the sustainability inherently grown into the plant because it’s a weed; it grows very fast, with very little water, and no pesticides. She soon started looking for more products that use hemp and found a huge gap in the market. After learning about the properties and history of hemp, and after discovering the lack of hemp products on the market, Brianna knew she wanted to work with it. All that was left was to decide what to make with it.
She began to notice that the towels she was currently using smelled. She remembered that hemp is naturally antibacterial and antimicrobial, so it seemed like a no-brainer to make things that get wet, like towels, out of hemp. However, after Googling hemp towels, she couldn’t find any that she liked. From that moment, she decided that she would leverage her skill-set, experience, and the current trend in sustainable products to not only solve her own problem, but help others with the same issues. She could make it exactly how she wanted. She could create an impact score for the towel, she could show you how it moves the company closer to the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, she could answer every question about the product you could possibly have, and she could tell you the story.
For now it’s just the hemp bath towel; however, Brianna has plans to expand to kitchen towels and places like gyms, locker rooms, hotels, and more. You will be able to buy your own towel when she launches via Kickstarter on September 3rd. Sign-up here to be the first to know. Follow @anactglobal. To learn more about working with Brianna click here and follow @strategicallysustainable.
Check out some of the questions I asked Brianna regarding the fashion industry and environmental sustainability below, and see what she had to say during our fun and enlightening interview.
Alane: On your website you talked a little bit about how you went and worked at the factories, was that a big moment in your career where it permanently changed the way you think about the industry?
Brianna: That’s one of my favorite things to talk about, the ‘why?’, because I think so often we just get hung up on the ‘we have to do this and we have to do that’ and I think it can be hard for people to understand ‘why?’ if you don’t tell them what your ‘ah ha moment’ was and your connection because then they could be like ‘well that could’ve happened to me’.
For me, I previously worked in countries outside of the U.S. and so I had this perspective that there’s different labor standards and so when I went to Under Armour I had originally said, ‘Hey, I really want to work in your social responsibility department and do this’ and they didn’t have that position available so they said ‘Come work in supply chain and sourcing and actually work with the factories and negotiate costs for products and manage production and you can carve your way in’. I did that and my first trip to the factories I said that I really wanted to see all the shirts and the shoes and the pants.
So, I started with the Under Armour base layer that they sold in an alter ego collection with Marvel characters that all the little kids loved wearing at the time. We flew down to Central America with my boss and a couple of other people. It was all Under Armour production, so it was very welcoming and friendly. I toured the factories and I was like ‘wow this is super wild. Nobody knows that this is how your clothes are made’. I feel like we have this complete disconnect and people literally think that they’re like sent off to Santa in the North Pole and it’s like ‘no, it is so complex, and your t-shirt is more well-traveled than you are’.
Clay, the owner, was like ‘do you want an experience?’ and I’m like ‘I’m 23 years old and I’m in El Salvador working for one of the top companies’ and he goes, ‘no, another experience’ and he wouldn’t really tell me what it was so I went along with it and he put me on the factory floor assigned to two women who set me up with fabric and a sewing machine and I had the thread the entire machine which took me over an hour, an hour and a half because it breaks and it’s so hot (in the factory) and there’s just loud music and the machines are going and a lot of things are going on around me and the whole experience is just stressful.
So, I keep breaking the thread and thinking that I’m never going to get off this floor and he basically told me that I’m not leaving until I’ve sewn my garment. They leave, and I’m on the floor for hours and the women are trying to help me so that I was finally able to thread my machine and then I’m struggling to lay the fabric perfectly and it’s a spandex material so I’m trying not to stretch it and I’m trying not to leave my fingers under and I’m so scared.
I made this garment, and I wish I still had it because it was atrocious, and that was my ‘ah-ha moment’ where I was like ‘there’s a complete disconnect in people between what they’re buying and where they’re buying it from, how much they’re buying, and the people who’re doing this work ’. In that moment I didn’t know, but now I know; which is basically, there’s something wrong. The system is broken. But I kept going and I had this pit in my stomach that I thought that if I went into sustainability it will go away, if I go to another sustainable brand it will go away, but it never went away until I started telling my truth and telling other peoples’ reality.
A: What are some environmental and human health risks that the fashion industry poses?
B: I’d say that first hand, the chemicals and dyes which are being released into our waterways. That’s pretty upsetting to witness because that’s affecting the drinking water of people and animals, depending on their proximity to the source. So, the wastewater is just really tangible when you see that. Another is flying and transportation. For example, in the US less than 1% of the clothing sold in the US is made in the US. So that means literally everything that is sold here is traveling around the world and that has a huge environmental footprint. That’s concerning to me.
Then there’s the chemicals used in farming and the impact it has on people and the soil, that’s very tangible. Also, in factories in other countries like in China; some still run off of coal. So, it’s not just the raw material but also the facilities and the footprint that they have. The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry behind oil.
A: Another thing with the fashion industry that I’ve noticed is that after we use the clothes, they are just piled up and shipped to other countries to deal with.
B: That’s another problem. We don’t design for end-use. We don’t tell or help people with where it should go or what they should do when they’re done using it. It could go to Goodwill or to another thrift store, but there’s no accountability for what the thrift store does with it in terms of going and messing up another country’s market by going and dropping off free goods. And then if people throw it in the actual trash, it’s not going to biodegrade, so you just have it sitting in landfill giving off emissions.
A: Speaking of the end-use of products, what do you think about all the companies recently that are making clothes from recycled bottles and plastics, as far as sustainability goes?
B: It’s a hard conversation to have. One of my good friends works in Haiti and makes these backpacks out of recycled bottles with a company called Thread, and she came to me and told me that she’s in the business of repurposing plastics/oil. I was a bit concerned with the whole microfibers thing, but then I challenged the issue because I don’t think the textile industry is the main contributor and I think about other industries; like the industry that makes washers, and about how the machines are connected to water sources in itself. Washing machines use to have filters that would catch microfibers; since even natural fabrics give off microfibers.
To me, that conversation needs to focus on the washing, treatment, and filtering, as opposed to looking just at microfibers from textiles. I’m not saying that’s not a problem, I just think that whoever makes machines should be in the conversation too.
But as far as the reusing of plastic, my friend who makes these bags says that if we start repurposing plastics and creating this circular economy around plastic, we can eventually stop and start a circular economy around more natural materials. That’s the end goal. So, this company, Thread, they work with the waste pickers in Haiti and give them paying jobs to pick up the landfill and create this circular business model. But then once they clean up all the waste they would move onto another waste stream and it wouldn’t have to be about plastic. I agree it’s not the optimal solution but I think we should use what we have and then restart from scratch.
A: What are some things that consumers can do to reduce their impact as far as the textile and fashion industries go?
B: There’s a great chart called the fashion buyerarchy based off of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The next time you need to buy something it gives you a list of all of the places to go before you buy new. I always recommend that to people to use as a compass. If you need something it says use what you have, ask a friend, host a swap party, borrow, thrift, make your own and last is buy new and then to buy new it has a list of what you should do there.
Fashion Revolution is a great customer facing website that explains a lot about the textile industry. That’s the best advice that I can give. Another thing is to look at the care and content labels. Look at the fibers and what your garment is made of and when you buy new you can ask about the country and the brand and hold the brand accountable if you buy new. Speak to the brand’s customer service team. You are buying from them. Ask them where are you manufacturing this, when was the last social audit, what are your plans for talking about tier 3 or 4 of your supply chains, etc. I think people are use to customer service as just returns and getting another size, but rarely is it accountability and saying ‘I purchased something from you and this is what I need to know’. It should be leveraged more in that capacity.
Below is a list of some brands and resources that Brianna recommends to help navigate the fashion industry:
Alane Ertel is a graduate from the MPH program at the University of North Florida, and was an Intern at their Environmental Center during the creation of this project. Alane’s goal in creating this project is to increase awareness of environmental issues, spread zero/low waste practices, and improve environmental and human health by utilizing her passions for the environment and for creating a healthier society.