How a teen girl started her own sustainable fashion brand

Hannah Yang is a 17-year-old and a senior in high school. She lived in Shanghai but she recently moved to Santa Clara, California to graduate from high school. She attends Stanford University’s Online High School, a full-time synchronous online program. Her startup, Amarewear, is a clothing brand that uses sustainable and eco-friendly methods.

Question 1: What is your project? When did you start? Why did you start it? How did you start?

Starting Amarewear has been a crazy journey. It’s been through a lot of changes since its start around 4 years ago in October of my 9th-grade year. Amarewear originally started as a dancewear line. I've danced recreationally for around 6 years, but my body type is not exactly the ideal dancer body type, so I always felt really uncomfortable wearing the leotards that were available in Shanghai at the time. This led me to design my own.

Shortly after producing my first collection of five designs with help from manufacturers in Beijing through Alibaba (an online marketplace for manufacturers), I managed to get my line carried in a physical boutique in Shanghai called Numero. It definitely took off from there, but at the same time, I was learning more about the fashion industry and thinking “could this be a future for myself?” This was when I started to learn about sustainability and changed course.

Question 2 : How were you able to come up with Eco-friendly products? What action can businesses take to become more sustainable?

The reason why I chose t-shirts, which may seem kind of random after dancewear, was that as I was learning more about sustainable fashion, I was thinking about how I really wanted to spread awareness about eco-friendliness. Dancewear was not really the avenue to be doing that because not everyone dances and not everyone needs a leotard. Also, dancewear does not really contribute to the problem of consumerism because a lot of dancewear is custom made, not mass produced. I was thinking about situations where a lot of clothes are mass-produced and how my school would have events and there would be hundreds of really cheap cotton t-shirts, or companies on retreats that also make a ton of shirts, hoodies, etc. If I could replace those with sustainable designs, then that would make a bigger impact.

As for how companies can become more sustainable, it’s a really complicated question because there are so many aspects of sustainability; a lot of people focus on the environmental side and that’s what I do. This is probably more focused towards choosing better materials, so that could be anything from organic materials— like organic cotton, which uses less water— or dead-stock fabrics, which is basically the scrap fabric from producing other things which can be re-purposed into clothing.

"So like recycling?"

Yeah! Options like deadstock are good for the company because it’s cheaper than sourcing new fabric— and environmentally, you are not making anything new; you’re just turning something that already existed into a fabric. Beyond organic and recycled materials, people are coming up with these new fancy fabrics that are made of pineapple fibers or milk, which are supposed to be biodegradable. There are a lot of options available now, and they are becoming more affordable, so there’s really no excuse for companies to shy away from biodegradable materials. You can also consider ethics and fair trade products, which is when employees are paid fairly and treated well. There are certifications for companies to make sure that they’re actually being sustainable. For example, OEKO-TEX 100 is a widely-recognized certification for making sure that the fabric is not made of chemicals that are harmful to the people wearing the garment. A good step that companies can take is to invest in suppliers that are internationally certified.

First collection of leotards that Amarewear sold

Question 3 : What actions can everyday people take to become more sustainable?

One of the things I wanted to emphasize with Amarewear was placing the burden away from the consumer. There is this book called This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, which I recommend to anyone who is interested in sustainability. She talks about how a lot of the people dominating environmentalist messaging have been saying that consumers should be investing in sustainable products. "If you can pay for eco-friendly products, then that’s what we need for a more sustainable world. This is true: it's better to buy things that are made well and long-lasting. As far as fashion goes, people should try to discard their clothes less and wash their clothes less often to save water. All those practices are good, but it is ultimately still the corporations that are producing and emitting the most, and it is the government that needs to highlight the importance of environmental/sustainability issues in its policies. It isn't necessarily fair or effective to try and force consumers to change or invest in more expensive things just so that they can feel less guilty. One of the biggest problems is that

Consumers aren’t being told to consume less— they’re just being told to consume more of a sustainable product; which is not getting at the root problem of people repeatedly buying stuff that they don’t need.

So really I would say for consumers who want to make an impact is just to buy less and reuse. One way to start is to participate in a challenge such as, “No New Clothes November” where people stop buying clothes during the month. Another really important tip could be to reduce your consumption of meat. Factory farming is really ethically devastating, and there are all sorts of documentaries available showing how poorly the animals are treated for their short lifespans. Throughout their lives, animals like cows produce byproducts like methane, which is a greenhouse gas, and factory farming doesn’t take care of that environmental aspect either. There’s so much you can talk about with sustainability— the whole concept of sustainable development is relevant to every industry and there is so much consumers can do in different aspects of their life. The answer will always be somewhat complicated. For example, not using plastic is useful, but there’s also a tradeoff because, “sure I could not use a plastic bag at the supermarket, but if I buy a cotton bag, and the cotton isn’t well made, then that’s also contributing a lot to water usage and perhaps unfair labor.” It is challenging to have every individual consumer balance that.

Question 4 : What is the Sea Leaders Training Program? How does it work? What was the development process like?

I’ve been working on a new project of Amarewear, called Sea Leaders, which is an online course for teenagers. My goal for this course is to pull together a lot of resources and information about environmental issues, specifically about climate change; air and water pollution; and over-consumption, overproduction, and overwaste. These are the three I’m really focusing on. The reason why I thought a course would be helpful is that while I was learning about all of these topics, it was in a sporadic and scattered way. It’s really hard to pull together a ton of resources that are useful and presented in a clear way because there’s all sorts of conflicting narratives around the sustainability, as I've discussed earlier. My goal for the course is to show teenagers ways to take action towards sustainability without inadvertently contributing to the issue. I think that nowadays, a lot of teenagers are starting projects and non-profits to try and raise awareness for environmental issues, which is great. But, they’ll also produce merchandise featuring their nonprofit name or an environmentalist slogan, which ends up harming the planet more than it helps. I think it's important to educate more teenagers to consider more carefully the impact of the projects that they’re taking on.

It’s hard to describe [how the course works] sinc