How Mara Hoffman Transformed Her Supply Chain
Yesterday evening I walked into 181 Fremont in downtown San Francisco. It was still seriously under construction through one door I walked into on accident, but I was pointed towards a shiny white entrance way bedecked with gossamer chandeliers and looming fresh flowers where I was zipped up to the 39th floor to meet with Mara Hoffman's team on how she transformed her business into a sustainable business.
Mara Hoffman is a contemporary fashion brand known for her bold prints. Mara Hoffman is also a tenacious, fearless leader here to serve her own higher purpose. She started the brand out of her NYC studio apartment in 2000, dyeing the garments in her bathtub and going from boutique to boutique asking them to carry her pieces. She did not start with sustainability in mind. She was designing clothes that she would like to wear. Clothing with a bold spirit that celebrated the feminine.
11 years later, she became pregnant with her first child, Joaquin. Bringing her son into the world made her perspective shift towards the long term. It hit her very suddenly that her garments were not made sustainably. She considered closing the business.
Together as a team, they decided to pause and start asking around about sustainable fabrics. A first step. Much to their surprise, many of their vendors carried recycled versions of the fabrics they had been using. So they started there.
Then, they tackled the printing. Mara's garments had been wet-dyed from the beginning, a very water intensive process. They had known about a technology to print the patterns onto their fabrics but had always thought it was too expensive. However, it required much less water so they decided to make the investment. They found it actually reduced their fabric wastage so much they ended up saving money.
They switched to compostable packaging for their swimwear. They began donating fabric scraps to a place that could use them. "Less, less less!" became the new mantra. They began designing garments with longevity and no-waste front of mind. Focusing on one garment at a time, they hit the road asking to visit every place and person involved in making the garment. Most people were welcoming of their curiosity, but there were some factories and businesses they had to part ways with.
At the start of Mara Hoffman's journey into sustainability, they did not tell their customers. They feared they would be called out for greenwashing or that perhaps people would not care. This was in 2015, when sustainable fashion brands were few and far between. So they just kept producing clothing like they always had, except it was secretly sustainable. A few months into this, Mara held a company meeting and finally used the sustainability word. As a team, they began talking about sustainability. They added a section to their website and where it was relevant, to the clothing descriptions. Almost all of her team understood and was on board, as were her customers.
Not everything was perfectly smooth though. Their cost of production went up and initially they just accepted that loss. Now it's built into their pricing strategies. Some of the fabrics, particularly one handwoven one they purchased, were not durable enough. If clothing does not last for awhile, they don't consider it sustainable. The team had to end some collaborations they knew would be profitable but no longer fit into their new set of values. They also weren't able to find some components, like a sole to make a shoe, so they had to give up some design ideas for the time being. There were also some sustainability projects they wanted to take place in that were operating but were not able to get involved because they weren't a big enough company.
In all of this, Mara knew people's buying decisions were motivated by an emotional connect to a piece and the sustainability aspect was seen as more of an added bonus to the majority of her consumers.
Mara's team emphasized a surprising degree of collaboration and openness with other brands. With an attitude born from truly wanting to make a big shift in the sustainability of the whole fashion industry, they encourage budding designers and other companies to reach out to them about any aspect of their supply chain offering to share what they could.
The future is green for Mara Hoffman. They will be testing out a re-sell program later this year and are committed to bringing their clothing closer to a truly circular design with each innovation. If Mara Hoffman pivoted her business towards sustainability after it had already been running for 11 years, anybody can.