An Interview with Melissa Cantor of Ethica

Ethica is an online retailer where you can learn about ethical fashion, discover emerging designers, and shop a high-style selection of ethical and sustainable labels. Read more about Ethica and co-founder, Melissa in our interview.

Shop Ethica’s Melissa and Carolina Cantor. Image Credit: The style line

Tell us about yourself – familial/personal story, education, and prior work.

I was born and raised in Honduras, which made me interested in using trade as a vehicle for positive economic impact. Prior to launching Ethica, I worked as an editor and a journalist.

How did you get interested in ethical and sustainable fashion?

One of the subjects I covered as a journalist was fashion, so moving into ethical and sustainable fashion was a natural next step that fused my professional and personal interests.

How did your educational/professional experience inform fashion work?

I’m trained to ask a lot of questions, fact check and communicate, all of which is very important in the ethical and sustainable field, where there is often a lot of misinformation.

What is the importance of ethical and sustainable fashion designers and companies?

There would be no ethical and sustainable fashion industry without them.

Who is a personal hero or heroine within the ethical and sustainable fashion world for you?

There are a lot of truly fantastic people in this space, but to pick just a couple, I’ve always admired Marci Zaroff and Carmen Artigas.

What is Ethica?

Ethica is an online boutique that launched in the fall of 2012 and helped usher in the concept of a multi-brand shop that is focused exclusively on ethical and sustainable fashion design.

What are some of its feature products?

We carry womenswear and accessories, as well as a small selection of natural beauty products.

What is your customer base – the demographics?

They’re mostly 18-34 year-old women, who are interested in sustainability, human rights and conscious consumerism.

There have been large tragedies such as the Rana Plaza collapse, which was the largest garment factory accident in history with over 1,000 dead and more than 2,500 injured. Others were the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (1911) and the Pakistan Garment Factory Fires (2012). What are the importance of human rights and worker rights in this new movement, and to the garment industry?

I think this is where the divide can exist between sustainable fashion and ethical fashion–for instance, fast fashion “eco” collections that do not make human and worker rights a priority and only focus on the sustainability of the materials used in making clothes. The environmental issues in fashion are hugely important, but for me personally, it has to start with human rights and grow from there.

Women and children are the majority of the exploited and violated work forces. What is the importance of te status of women’s and children’s rights in the ethical and sustainable fashion world too?

Of course, women and children are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, often due to deeply ingrained cultural forces. It’s an issue that requires more than an industry-specific approach, but one of the more encouraging aspects of the ethical fashion industry is that it can be targeted specifically as a tool for helping women. Because so much of the work is often by hand, many brands that we work with are able to create arrangements where women can work from home or nurture communities that allow them to support one another.

Child labour and slavery are problems, major ones. These include children throughout the world. Tens of millions of children in the case of child labour and a few million for child slavery. How can individuals get the word out about these other rights violations?

Unfortunately, many brands are extremely opaque about their supply chains, and are even unaware themselves if they are employing child or slave labor, so it’s difficult for consumers to sound the alarm. This is where there is a need for more institutional and government oversight and regulation.

How can individuals, designers, fashion industries, and consumers begin to work to implement those rights so that these vulnerable populations in many countries of the world have better quality of life?

I view this as the point of producing and shopping ethically–as consumers, we can choose to support only companies that protect the rights of everyone in their supply chains. It is the reason we launched Ethica.

What topics most interest you?

I really appreciate zero-waste and innovative new technologies, and I’m very passionate about true transparency, traceability and certifications.

Did you have a mentor in this work?

Not one specifically, but I have benefited from a great deal of friendships and collegiality.

Have you mentored others?

We have a small number of interns each year that we work with in a very hands-on way, and who I hope take away a lot from the experience.

What are the importance of mentors in the fashion world for professional, and personal, development?

Ethical and sustainable fashion is definitely a subjective field that is grappling with many internal debates, so the personal aspect can be helpful in nurturing critical thinking and helping people develop individual approaches to it.

From personal observations, more women than men involve themselves in the fashion industry by a vast margin of difference at all levels. Why?

I’m not familiar with any official statistics on that, but certainly there is no denying that our culture generally seems to view clothing and fashion as a more female pursuit. I do believe from personal experience that the sustainable and ethical fashion space might be less gendered than the conventional fashion industry in terms of who is working in it, perhaps because the initial appeal of ethical and sustainable fashion is more cause-based and thus more gender-neutral.

What personal fulfillment comes from this work for you?

For me, it was about realizing that, as someone with consumerist tendencies, I was part of the problem, and then choosing to become part of the solution instead. I’ve always enjoyed fashion and truly believe that it can be a force for good, and I’m thankful to have the opportunity to blend something that is fun with something that is meaningful.

Any recommended authors or fashionistas (or fashionistos)?

Elizabeth Cline’s “Overdressed” is a great read.

Any recommended means of contacting Ethica?

Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?

I’m just heartened to find more and more people interested in engaging in and reading conversations like these, and institutions raising awareness. Progress can feel slow, but it’s happening.

Thank you for your time, Melissa.


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