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This Digital Startup is Like Amazon for Sustainable Brands

The age of the online marketplace is undoubtedly upon us, and has been for some time, by the looks of Amazon’s consistently skyrocketing earnings. But as consumers look to become more conscious, they’ve been faced with the issue of researching and vetting sustainable brands on their own, without a one-stop shop for all their fashion needs. Amazon’s appeal—ease and convenience—is undeniable, and there are few Earth-friendly channels for browsing and buying that mimic the experience of the trusted web titan.

Luxury industry veteran Sunny Wu is aiming to change that with Our Commonplace, a virtual venue for the sector’s high-end, value-led brands that put sustainability and ethics at the forefront. The site’s carefully curated selection includes only labels and products that live up to at least two of its six brand standards: brands must be a combination of sustainable, woman-owned, BIPOC-owned, free of toxic ingredients, ethically sourced and cruelty free.

Wu, who got her start managing sales teams, operations, and merchandising for brands like Burberry, Gucci, and Lancôme, said the experience left her wondering about fashion and beauty’s willingness to take responsibility for its waste problem. The issue became glaringly clear in examining extraneous packaging for cosmetics and the fate of unsold apparel and accessories, which Burberry was fingered for burning, rather than discounting, in recent years. “It just didn’t really sit well with me,” she said. “I think it’s those experiences that got me thinking in terms of how we as consumers or brands can help reduce waste, and make purchases a little bit more people and planet friendly.”

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Founder Sunny Wu is a veteran of luxury apparel and beauty.
Founder Sunny Wu is a veteran of luxury apparel and beauty. Our Commonplace

Wu, who is based in Los Angeles, launched Our Commonplace in late 2019, just a few months shy of the all-consuming Covid-19 crisis that has decimated much of retail. She bootstrapped the effort on her own, working through an accelerator program with Grid110, an economic and community development non-profit that works to help the city’s early-stage entrepreneurs gain traction.

While the timing for the site’s debut was challenging, Wu believes that the coronavirus pandemic illuminated trends in consumption that already existed—namely, a desire for more sustainable clothing, footwear, home and beauty products. Social media allowed her to have a finger on the pulse of consumer appetites, she said, and it became a method for scouting trends as well as finding like-minded brands with whom to partner.

“I look to social media a ton to source brands,” she said, “and I also think it’s a good tool to see what people are talking about and what consumers care about,” she added, describing digging deep into Facebook groups’ comment sections about sustainable fashion. “You can be a fly on a wall or choose to engage in those different types of conversations,” she said, “but through engagement or just observance, you can really learn a lot from people.”

Many of Our Commonplace’s 80-plus brands are, like the platform, newbies. Wu characterized them as “indie brands” with founders like herself who are working to get their businesses off the ground. Most are based stateside, though some, like Miami women’s performance apparel brand Alana Athletica, operate overseas.

Alana Athletica's sports bras, leggings and more are made by women in Sri Lanka.
Alana Athletica’s sports bras, leggings and more are made by women in Sri Lanka. Alana Athletica

The company’s leggings, sports bras and other workout gear are manufactured in Sri Lanka, where its founders originated, and the company’s production facilities employ female garment workers who are survivors of abuse, working with humanitarian organizations to offer them job skills training and more. Each sale also benefits women’s education efforts in the country, according to the brand’s website. “They’re huge advocates of providing resources for these women and making sure they have dignified jobs, ensuring they have a better life ahead of them,” Wu said.

Meanwhile, New York City-based luxury footwear brand Seven All Around, helmed by Rag & Bone and Public School veteran Heesung Choi, features a range of flats, boots and heels, all knitted from yarns made from upcycled plastic waste. Even the shoes’ heels are wrapped in vegan leather made from recycled PET.

Seven All Around's footwear is made from recycled plastic waste.
Seven All Around’s footwear is made from recycled plastic waste. Seven All Around

Wu praised the brand’s efforts to “nail down” its sustainable sourcing while providing shoppers with an upscale aesthetic. “I’m trying to reach a consumer who could be a little bit more product driven than eco-conscious,” she said. “And I think that’s like how you usually bring about change—by tapping into the market as a whole.”

Describing Our Commonplace’s current target consumer as a Gen Z or millennial shopper with a stable income and able to purchase at a “contemporary price point,” Wu said that the growth of sustainably driven products, even at luxury MSRPs, is on the rise. “Loungewear, basics and things that are a little more minimalist” have performed well apparel-wise in recent months, she said, while home goods like bedding and linens also hit home with consumers looking to nest during a time of uncertainty.

The web has been a channel of choice for reaching these groups throughout the pandemic, she said, noting that Our Commonplace is likely to remain digitally native for the foreseeable future. Not only does e-commerce afford shoppers the unfettered ability to browse and buy from home, she said, it also gives the platform an ideal venue to engage and collect data for its forward-looking strategy.

London-based Aurore Lingerie sources deadstock and recycled materials for many of its products.
London-based Aurore Lingerie sources deadstock and recycled materials for many of its products. Aurore Lingerie

When shoppers are about to exit the site, they’re prompted to provide their thoughts in a customer feedback survey, Wu said, and the learnings from those interactions have been invaluable. “A comment they had is that they definitely want more of an educational resource platform for learning more about sustainability in fashion,” she added. “They’ve asked for blog posts, if we can share resources, podcasts and articles.” The request prompted Wu to build out a tab on Our Commonplace’s site that links to content about conscious living and sustainability.

The marketplace also lists its values on its product pages—a move Wu made after she learned that shoppers often land there first, instead of on the site’s homepage, where the mission is explained in detail. Emails are sent after each transaction, thanking consumers for supporting sustainable and ethical fashion. “We’re following up and really explaining who we are, and what it is that we do, and how they’ve contributed to this movement,” she said.

“Even though you’re seeing more in the media and on social now, with people talking about climate change and becoming more conscious of what they’re consuming and purchasing, the movement toward sustainability is still in its infancy,” she said.

“I think, and as it grows and more consumers are allocating their dollars to more socially responsible businesses, scale will come, and it will trickle down to businesses like mine,” she added. “It’s really just about being top of mind for all these different consumers, so that when it makes sense for them, they know that our platform exists.”