Holly Levow, Miller Center Advisory Board Member, in conversation with Brigit Helms

With the holiday season approaching and shopping on our minds, I sat down with my friend and trusted Miller Center Advisor Holly Levow to talk about conscious consumerism, a growing awareness of what and how we buy.

Holly Levow and Brigit Helms standing in front of Foundation boutique

Holly is a Santa Clara University alumna with a JD/MBA who brought together her experience as an attorney, entrepreneur, and non-profit advocate to cofound Foundation. Her Portland boutique combines fashion + philanthropy for fashion with a purpose. I hope you enjoy our conversation and that it sparks or reinforces your own thoughts and commitments about being a conscious consumer.

— Brigit


BRIGIT: Thanks so much for joining me today, Holly. Let’s start with what conscious consumerism means to you.

HOLLY: I see conscious consumerism as the ability for every person to vote with their dollars. It means making conscious decisions about how we’re impacting the world, how we’re consuming, and whose products we’re consuming. It also involves behind-the-scenes supply chain issues that most people aren’t aware of, so we need to ask our retailers to be more transparent. Because at the end of the day, the buck literally stops with us. We’re the reason companies are producing, and we get to vote on where we want to spend our money and what we want to support. And while there are definitely companies taking the initiative to be more ethical and sustainable from the top-down, I think it also needs to be bottom-up to impact the timeline for change in a meaningful way. And that’s where consumers have power.

BRIGIT: That’s very true. And I think it’s not just about whose products we choose to consume, but also whether we need to consume at all. It’s about thinking to ourselves, “Do I really need this?”

HOLLY: You’re absolutely right. In the fashion industry, we’re seeing some movement away from “fast fashion” — the throwaway $9 t-shirt, for instance. Of course, everyone loves a bargain. But at the same time, part of being a conscious consumer is thinking about whether you need these throwaway items and, instead, selecting products that are well made and will last. It means prioritizing quality over quantity, which produces less waste and provides margins for companies to create more sustainable goods.

BRIGIT: On a personal level, what are you doing to be a conscious consumer?

HOLLY: I’m definitely thinking more about supply chains, especially with clothing — both because of my business and because that’s where I like to consume.

BRIGIT: Ha! You and me both!

HOLLY: Right?! I’m just more aware, and I ask the questions: Where is this made? How is it made? And what types of sustainable practices is the manufacturer using? We’re seeing a wonderful trend in the fashion industry, with more and more businesses focusing on sustainability. But that means a lot of different things to different people. There’s not just one definition, which raises more questions.

One striking example is denim. Denim requires an unbelievable amount of water. The average pair of jeans takes about 1500 gallons of water to produce with all the washes. And because the process uses bleach, there’s an environmental impact from the water disposal. At Foundation, we carry jeans from DL1961, a sustainable brand that combines waterless technology with an in-house water recycling plant to produce a pair of jeans with only 10 gallons of water.

BRIGIT: That’s incredible!

HOLLY: Another company I love is CARE BY ME, which makes these beautiful cashmere sweaters and other sustainable products. They have production facilities in Nepal and India, and both focus on providing women with the skills and knowledge to secure their futures. In the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal, they train and employ young women to become socially and financially independent. In India, they also prioritize environmental sustainability. There they partner with a third-generation family business whose great grandfather started with three handlooms and four technicians. Now the factory is both GOTS (Global Organic Textile Certified) and Fairtrade certified, ensuring the highest standards for organic fibers, sustainable practices, and humane labor conditions.

BRIGIT: Those are outstanding examples! But for the average consumer, that information isn’t always easy to find.

HOLLY: You’re absolutely right. My view is that if you can easily find sustainable practices on a company’s website, that’s indicative of how committed it is. But if you have to dig around or can’t find anything, it’s probably not a priority for that business.

BRIGIT: It occurs to me that trends toward online shopping, which have increased even more with the pandemic, may actually support more ethical shopping. If you walk into a big department store, you may not know or think about the sustainability of your purchases. But if you’re online and you care, you’re more likely to find that information, creating more opportunities for socially responsible online retailers.

HOLLY: Yes, I completely agree because you can specifically search for vendors that are prescribing to practices you care about. And there are curated lists online that promote those companies.

BRIGIT: Well, it’s funny you mention that. As you know, we create a holiday shopping guide each year to promote retail shopping from the social enterprises we work with. In fact, we’ll be publishing our 2021 guide this week. Some examples in the guide include ethically sourced beauty products that support traditional Mayan cultural practices from Tierra & Lava, artwork from Roots Studio, which empowers rural artists in India, and 734 Coffee that provides livelihoods and education for Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia.

HOLLY: That’s fantastic! I always love Miller Center’s holiday guide. I can’t wait.

BRIGIT: So tell me more about your boutique, Foundation.

HOLLY: At Foundation, we’re striving to be a very sustainable store. We specifically focus on female and minority-owned brands that use environmentally safe practices and have their own give-back programs to support underrepresented communities in Portland. Currently, about 75% of the brands we carry fall into that model of sustainability. Our goal is to get to 100% in the next five years while still being true to our aesthetic.

In addition to sourcing sustainable products, we give 100% of our profits back to the community. As a business, one of our aims is to model social responsibility to other organizations. We realize we’re at the far end of the spectrum, but we believe that if we can do it at 100%, anyone can do some level of give-back and still be successful.

BRIGIT: And what does your giving look like?

HOLLY: Several times throughout the year, we select a community-based organization that we feel is doing great work and then vet them and do a site visit when possible. We choose between 2 – 4 impact partners per year and kick off with a special shopping event at the store where people can enjoy some champagne on our patio and hear from a representative about the organization’s work. It’s a terrific community engagement opportunity and an educational experience where people can support a local cause through their shopping.

BRIGIT: That’s so inspiring! Can you give some examples of the organizations you’ve supported?

HOLLY: Sure. Right now, we’re supporting the Oregon Environmental Council, which is an advocacy group working on environmental policy around climate, land use, clean water, and transportation solutions. And our next impact partner will be Raphael House, a domestic violence shelter that supports women and families. Some of our other partners have been the Latino Network, KairosPDX, a charter school focused on elevating underserved children’s voices in Portland’s historic African American community, and Period.org, which promotes menstrual equity. We intentionally bring in a variety of organizations to appeal to a broad range of interests. What’s great is that there’s no shortage of organizations doing phenomenal work. But, unfortunately, we don’t hear enough about them. We want to elevate that work and showcase all the good being done in our community.

BRIGIT: What about pricing, though? I think there’s a perception that it’s more expensive to shop ethically. And, of course, you want those profits to be able to distribute to your impact partners.

HOLLY: We sell our products at market rates, so we’re not raising them above the retail price. What we don’t do much is offer discounts or sales. So you may be able to find something that we’ve had for a while go on sale somewhere else. We don’t compete with that because then we couldn’t fulfill our mission. But we hope that people will choose to focus their purchases on supporting a socially conscious business, ethical brands, and worthy causes.

BRIGIT: Well said! I really admire the work you’re doing and the “fashion + philanthropy” model you’re promoting. It’s stunning apparel with a purpose! I wish you the utmost success.

Please watch for Miller Center’s upcoming holiday shopping guide to support social enterprises working around the world to end poverty and protect the planet.