Fast fashion is a phenomenon that has recently gained a great deal of media coverage for its negative effects, but for Amanda Zehner M.A.’11, it’s something she’s been aware of for much longer. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, fast fashion refers to the mass production of cheap clothing that reflects the trends of the time. The clothing isn’t meant to last long (just like the trends) and is priced such that the average consumer can purchase new items each season. Yet there are costs to this practice, both human and environmental. Workers are often exploited so the items can be priced competitively, and both the production of goods and mass disposal of these clothes once they go out of style impacts the environment negatively. 

“I think that in this global economy that has really been focusing on getting cheaper and cheaper goods that it’s important to really educate people on why it’s important to spend more on something that’s going to last longer,” Zehner said in an interview with the Justice. “What are the positive impacts when you do do that and what are the negative impacts when you are buying a $4 t-shirt? What are you supporting when you do that?” 

In 2014, Zehner founded Living Threads Company, an organization actively trying to counter the effects of fast fashion. Zehner works with artisans located in South America and Asia and helps connect them to western markets. As a graduate student at the Heller School, Zehner spent one year studying on campus at Brandeis and another doing fieldwork in Honduras. Of her Brandeis experience Zehner said, “It was a wonderful personal experience. [The diversity of the student body] also really added to what I took away from the program … because everyone comes from a different perspective of how to address challenges and what different development challenges are.”

After graduation Zehner worked for a nonprofit in Central America. This, coupled with her experience in Honduras, exposed her to the struggles of the primarily female artisan community in South and Central America. “I was living down there, so I was able to get to know the cooperatives and these women really well, so firsthand I got to see what the barriers were to them progressing,” Zehner said. The primary issue she was able to identify was a lack of market access. As someone also aware of the environmental effects of fast fashion, she saw the potential for a business solution. 

Living Threads Co. sells a variety of woven goods on its website. All are created by artisan weavers. The goods are all made using traditional weaving techniques, though Zehner and her team “might change the design a little bit or the colors, and make the products more marketable for our market here in the U.S.” 

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TRADITIONAL WITH A TWIST: Zehner and her team work with the artisans to make their traditional weaves more marketable.

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LEADING LADY: Zehner has little experience in for-profit business, but she’s used her Brandeis connections to her advantage.

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THREADING A FUTURE: Zehner works to provide opportunities for growth to the artisans she works with.

If helping save the environment, supporting artisans and maintaining centuries old weaving techniques wasn’t enough incentive for the philanthropic consumer, Zehner’s company also donates 10 percent of their profits to investment in microcredit and training programs. This can help front overhead costs for artisans looking to expand or simply train artisans in business strategies to expand their market potential. 

For someone like Zehner with minimal business experience, she is able to recognize the importance of building a network. Of starting her own business Zeher explained, “It was really important to try and reach out to people who are different from myself … people who have different perspectives, different experiences [and] different expertise.” 

To those Brandeis students who may have entrepreneurial aspirations, Zehner said the most important step is to find something you’re passionate about and then to “pour yourself into it.”