Business with social conscience is all the fashion

Wandering off the tourist track in Borneo, a young Victoria couple found the inspiration for their ethical fashion line Kooshoo.

“We came across all these [western] clothing manufacturers and learned what we didn’t want in our lives,” said Jesse Schiller, describing an industrial area full of waste and pollution.

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He and his wife, Rachel Evans Schiller, both 32, vowed to do something about it. They had, after all, saved up all their money and left good jobs to travel and discover a better future.

“We came up with the idea to provide different options for fast fashion. When we got back we devoted ourselves to this,” said Jesse Schiller, who previously worked in international sales and marketing for a Vancouver meat-alternative company.

His wife freelanced in communication design.

The couple spent a month volunteering at Hollyhock on Cortes Island, scouring the retreat centre’s library on social entrepreneurship.

They launched their online business in 2012, working from various homes, including both sets of parents.

Kooshoo means “feeling good,” in the Norfuk language of Norfolk Island in the South Pacific — where Rachel’s family is from.

Their first idea was a flop. Turns out ethically-made Peruvian slippers are pricey to manufacture and the demand was not high enough to launch a brand.

“We decided to come up with products we’d be using in our lives,” Schiller said.

Both being yoga teachers, they got the idea to make headbands.

When they couldn’t find a place to manufacture in Vancouver, they went to Los Angeles.

There, a small family-run business makes their products using organic cotton from India, organic rubber elastic and batik from a solar-powered dye house.

They’ve also developed a multi-use traveller’s shawl — boosted by a $25,000 Kickstarter campaign — and created what they believe to be the world’s only fully organic hair elastics. “These have a fanatical fan base,” said Schiller. Hollywood actor and environmentalist Alicia Silverstone has championed them publicly.

Kooshoo is part of a trend in social enterprise, businesses that support social responsibility through practices or profits.

According to data released by the provincial government, B.C’s social enterprise sector has $500 million in annual earnings and employs more than 13,000 people.

Many of them are online businesses, where an estimated $136 billion in goods were sold on in Canada during 2013. The online marketplace Etsy has more than 500 Vancouver Island members who make and sell goods.

Evans Schiller said having an online business gave them financial flexibility and allows them to be together as a family.

“I’d rather be busy and working all the time here with my family than anywhere else,” she said.

The couple’s latest business venture is born from a personal one. Nearly two years ago they had a daughter, Dayva, and discovered the waste that can come from children’s products.

“There is a lot of stuff that comes with a new baby,” said Evans Schiller, noting boxes of hand-me-down clothing and the need to buy new sizes every three months. “I thought, ‘There has to be a better way.’ I want things that last. That align with my values,” she said. She researched kids clothing designs and started working on her own.

The pair figured if they could make a product to last more than a few months they could significantly curb the amount of clothing waste in a kid’s life.

They came up with a unisex kid’s pants that has an extendible waistband and leg cuffs to last three times as long as a standard pants.

An Indiegogo.com campaign is raising funds to help launch the new product.

Nearly $10,000 of the $25,000 goal is raised. Evans Schiller said the pants will be in stores and online by September regardless of the campaign outcome.

“The campaigns definitely help for a small business to put out new products,” she said.

While the majority of Kooshoo’s sales are online and to U.S. customers, they do have products in 20 stores, including Moksana yoga in Victoria.

spetrescu@timescolonist.com

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