Heart Stock Radio’s recent guest, Violeta Villacorta, is a former senior designer at Patagonia, and now she’s partnered with Purse for the People to create new styles that are both beautiful and good for the planet. We wanted to share her story and the story of her sustainable fashion brands. Heart Stock Radio is a production of KBMF 102.5 FM and underwritten by Purse for the People.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in NYC, after moving with my family from Peru at age 12, where I was born. We actually first went to Madison, Wisconsin, for a year, where my mom was working on a book about Peru with a renowned sociologist from the University of Wisconsin.
My dad died when we were very young. My mom is a demographer, and while we were in Wisconsin, she got a position at the UN as the civil registration expert at the UNDP. This completely changed the course of our lives.
What influenced you to become an eco-entrepreneur?
We went to the United Nations International School in NYC, also known as UNIS. It’s a K-12 school. Since a young age, we were taught about global issues, aside from our school curriculum. I was involved in environmental, anti-apartheid, anti-nuclear movements and encouraged divestment to drive change.
When I left home, after attending the Fashion Institute of Technology, I worked for a few apparel companies in New York. None were sustainable; none were back then. I was also a part of the CityKids Foundation, an inner city youth empowerment organization, where I helped steer environmentally friendly practices in printing and recycling.
Working for the fashion industry at that time, in the late 80’s, was disappointing for anyone interested in helping shift the industry to environmental and ethical practices.
The need to create something that was aligned with my values inspired my first entrepreneurial venture. The term ecopreneur would come much later.
In 1993, I started designing slow fashion; the term hadn’t been coined yet. But that’s what it was. I developed a small collection of handcrafted garments and accessories made with the most earth friendly materials that I could find at the time. I found Sally Fox’s Vreseis organic cotton fabrics, color-grown in a variety of colors in earthy green, grey, camel, and ecru. Her company is still around. Another company that I used back then was Hemp Traders, which is also still in business. I would embellish jute burlap and all eco-fabrics with natural raffia straw embroidery and lined them with recycled silk, lightweight hemp or organic cotton. My aim was to make these very earthy fibers more luxurious. The clothes were mainly made to measure and had a notable clientele. Some media outlets including magazines and television took notice. But it was ahead of its time.
What did you learn while working at Patagonia?
Patagonia values were aligned with mine from the start. I found out that my slow fashion line and Patagonia were sourcing from the same companies back in the 90s.
Patagonia is a community, an extended family, not just a corporation. They thrive to keep happy employees. It is mission driven, which gives employees a higher purpose. Founder Yvon Chouinard, who wrote “Let My People Go Surfing” prides himself in seeing his employees taking a surf break. When the surf is good, many can be found in the water.
There’s an organic cafeteria with vegan options. A day care center, started by co-founder Malinda Chouinard, is subsidized for families with two kids; any extra kids, the parents pay full price. Patagonia is aware of the need to slow down population growth and encourage small families.
You would hear a baby cry through the intercoms around campus, and the mom or dad would recognize their kid and head down to daycare.
I also became aware of how the company rarely advertises products. Instead they choose to run ad campaigns on causes and issues the company cares about. Their authenticity always shows a profit in the end.
On the product side, Patagonia has a dedicated materials development department where I worked closely to create sustainable fabrications and trims. But what was most inspiring was seeing the inception of its Common Threads Initiative. It was the beginning of producing in a circular fashion. It goes beyond making products with environmentally friendly materials. It encouraged customers to recycle their old garments that would become part of new garments. They’d also tell customers not to buy what they don’t need, to reduce, repair, pass it on and recycle as a last resource.
What is sustainable design?
Real sustainable design is the making of products with the entire life of the products in mind – from its birth to rebirth – Cradle to Cradle (William McDonough, Michael Braungart) instead of cradle to grave, with the least negative impact on planet and people, and within environmental, socially ethical and safe practices.
Plastics vs Plant Sourced Biodegradable Materials
The discovery of oil, dirty fossil fuel, gave birth to plastics at the beginning of the 1900s. Plastics were a great invention that spread into every aspect of our lives. Medical tools were made of it, as were electronics, trims, fabrics, car parts, toys, etc. Yet, time has shown that plastics are one of the biggest culprits of ecological devastation, polluting oceans, sea life, wildlife and people.
83% of all drinking water in the world is contaminated with microplastics. Synthetic – petroleum based fabrics continue to shed fibers throughout their entire life and contaminate waterways every time they are washed. Synthetic fabrics are also full of carcinogens. The fibers and chemicals used in its production are unhealthy for people. The fashion industry needs to shift away from using petroleum-based materials.
Innovators are coming up with promising solutions. Circular Systems start-up has three technologies that uses waste to make materials for the fashion industry, including Agraloop Bio-Refinery that uses food waste to produce new fabrics.
Natural latex, cork, pineapple fibers, mushroom, organic cotton, hemp, kapok tree fibers and others are available now for the apparel, accessories and shoe industries.
Plant based and biodegradable alternatives are being used in the disposable utensils and container industries. This may seem like a solution. But they can only be composted at very high temperatures in commercial facilities. If they are tossed in a recycling bin, they are not sorted out and the whole batch of recycling is sent to the landfill. Another drawback is that compostables are made with conventional corn that uses pesticides and lots of energy and water resources to produce something that is then thrown away.
If you must use disposables, use instead bamboo, leaves, hemp or recycled paper plates, utensils and straws. Some companies are making edible options. There are also stainless steel and copper straws, plates and containers that we can have at hand in case we need to take food or drink to go.
Recycling is not an end solution either. Ultimately, we need to produce less waste and consume less. The key is to stop the disposable economy.
What type of materials did you develop while at Patagonia as a senior designer there?
I helped develop recycled plastic synthetic fabrics for outerwear, swim and sportswear, recycled plastic fills and trims. I also introduced seamless technology that was still new at the time. In hindsight, I wish I’d known the damage synthetics would cause in the long run.
I also helped develop organic cotton blends with tencel yarns and woolens for sweaters and sportswear.
What are some of the unique characteristics of your products?
My slow fashion clothing line (www.violetavillacorta.com) is made with handcrafted techniques, using earth friendly materials. Each piece is carefully made with love care and precision.
The jewelry brand ORG BY VIO (www.orgbyvio.com) that I started back in 2010 is handmade by talented artisans in the Amazon rainforest with materials that are sustainably harvested from the wild or grown in small plots in their homes. All of it is plant-based, beaded, knitted and strung with locally available fishing line for strength. It is fair trade and helps them keep their artistry alive. Every piece aims to adorn, save trees and empower. One of the most exciting things of this work is that the young are inspired to learn artisanal traditions from their elders.
I also run thesageandthebutterfly.com with a selection of ethical and sustainable lines by a list of talented artists and designers that I’ve known through the years.
Conscious consumerism: How can we do better at this?
The first thing is that we have to consume less, period. We gotta buy less seasons; companies need to reduce their offerings. We must buy better, long lasting, well-made, high quality products that can last a lifetime or repair when needed.
We need to read all the labels, research the companies, chemicals, ingredients, materials, where and how things are made from food to clothes, electronics, cars. We must be informed and find out how things are made. Modern day slavery is alive in fashion manufacturing and most industries.
We need to ban fur. Fur is still being used in apparel and many other products. Peace starts with each of us. We cannot expect harmony in the world if we ourselves don’t care if animals are abused for their fur, skins and wool.
We have to be mindful in every aspect of our lives. Not to say we have to be serious and take the fun out of our lives. But we have to be informed citizens and choose mindfully.
What we eat also makes a huge impact on our planet. Choosing a vegan diet to reduce land, water and energy use, lower greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere. The UN has called for a global shift to a vegan diet wherever possible as the most effective way to combat climate change, world hunger, and ecological devastation.
If we talk about water alone, a Vegan diet uses only 300 gallons, while a Meat diet uses 4,000 gallons and a Vegetarian diet uses 1,200 gallons of water. It takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat. Farmed animals consume 70% of grains and cereals grown in the US.
Large-scale, industrial agriculture is often seen as the solution for feeding the world’s growing population. But small farms—with about 25 acres or less—along with family-run operations produce over 70% of the world’s food.
Animal agriculture is the single greatest human-caused source of greenhouse gases, land use, and land degradation; the number one source of freshwater pollution, and the leading driver of rainforest destruction. It is also a major cause of air pollution, habitat loss, and species extinction, and is a highly inefficient use of limited natural resource.
We also need to outfit new homes or retrofit old buildings with sustainable materials and renewable energy, recycling water catchment systems.
We need to use public transportation, bike or walk where possible and drive electric vehicles that are powered by renewable energy.
How did you fund your enterprise?
When I did my first fashion show in the early 90s, friends and family pitched in in every aspect, including investing in it financially. Since then, in between working for other companies, I’ve done made to order projects. It was never about scaling up, but making beautiful handcrafted garments for direct clientele – real slow fashion.
For ORG BY VIO, I initially did a Kickstarter and GoFundMe campaigns to raise money for the artisans and buy what they needed. The jewelry brand is also small scale, as it is dependent on manageable numbers that the artisans can make and that will not deplete the forest.
I recently heard a guest on Wardrobe Crisis podcast say that we can’t dismiss small companies that are making a difference. Don’t question how to scale up. But how can big companies scale down and out. Lean manufacturing needs to be the goal – produce to order, not in excess.
Best advice you were ever given?
I love listening to Gregg Braden and he reminds us that we are co-creators of the word we live in and the world we want to see. Our true feelings aligned with our thoughts and visions create our reality. And we just need the square root of 1% of the population to shift consciousness.
Is there anything else you would like to talk about?
We need to focus on the good that is happening in the world. And remember that the breakdown of all systems as we’ve known them, is bringing forth a new world. We have the potential to build a healthy world for all species and generations to come.
How might listeners reach you?
They can connect through my websites: