Online marketplace Toward bills itself as “the Net-a-Porter of sustainable fashion.” Now, it’s moving into brick-and-mortar to reach new consumers.
First-time entrepreneur Ana Kannan graduated from University of Southern California during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic and quickly realized that the ensuing uncertainty was helping to reshape consumer values. “At the time, there was this renewed focus on the environment and sustainability,” she told Sourcing Journal.
Kannan began to evaluate her own relationship with her wardrobe. “As someone who was trying to be more conscious myself, I was struggling to find responsible and stylish pieces,” she said, noting a white space in the market for high-end, ethically and sustainably produced apparel, accessories and beauty products. “I was always really interested in designer fashion and luxury, and I know that a lot of people out there want to shop their values, but sometimes they’re limited by the selection.”
Toward launched in August 2021 with a curated selection of eco-conscious premium and luxury brands that’s grown to roughly 60 in apparel, footwear, accessories and beauty. Partners are evaluated on nine criteria in the framework Kannan developed: transparency, carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, material use, worker rights, water management, animal welfare, promoting biodiversity, managing waste and chemical output, and overall brand mission. Toward evaluates brand self-reporting, adherence to international standards, certifications and a survey with more than 100 questions (including a request for a full list of factories) when considering brands to onboard.
Each product page explains why that particular item deserves to be on Toward. The page for Ninety Percent’s organic cotton dip-dyed sweater features badges indicating the London Label’s knitwear is plastic-free, vegan, and made with responsibly sourced materials and socially responsible practices. “We really wanted to take a holistic approach to sustainability, and communicate responsible business and responsible shopping to customers,” Kannan said.
Last month, Toward opened a flagship store on Melrose Ave. in Los Angeles with the same focus on transparency that consumers will find on the digital marketplace.
Products are grouped based on their sustainability attributes, “so when you’re looking at certain racks, you’ll see that some that denote low waste or recycled materials, so that you really have an idea of what makes each product responsible,” Kannan said. QR codes throughout the store offers shoppers access to information about how each brand prioritizes sustainable sourcing and production.
“Given our mission and responsibility, it was really crucial that we incorporated this throughout the store, even with the furniture and the upholstery that we chose,” Kannan said. A staff member who works as a set designer for local television studios sourced furniture and décor for the store from items no longer in use. Even the mannequins are used, Kannan said. Toward is also offsetting the store’s carbon emissions and plans to try to calculate and account for the impact of consumers’ vehicular travel to the store.
“I think one of the main benefits of having a physical store is that shoppers can come in and really feel the products and understand the quality and the work that goes into these pieces,” Kannan said, noting that the Melrose store will focus on apparel and accessories. “Nowadays, the online landscape is so crowded.”
Kannan said the store features a “tightened assortment” versus the selection consumers can find on the Toward website. “It’s very curated,” she said, adding that Toward makes a habit of holding limited stock per item so it can make space for new brand partners. It also means that a product entering the secondary market still retains some of its cachet. “Once people have loved an item for long enough and it trickles down into secondhand, there aren’t too many pieces out there, and it still feels unique and special,” she said.
Kannan said the Melrose Ave. location should attract foot traffic from locals and others coming to shop the famous thoroughfare. While many area businesses closed during the pandemic, “there’s been a sort of rebirth, where over the past couple of months most of the stores been leased out again,” she added.
“We’re surrounding ourselves with new businesses that we can connect with, and hopefully spread our responsibility mission,” she said. “That really excites me.”