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Interview with Another: Get to Know Aileen Lee, Founder & CEO of Infinite Goods

Interview with Another: Get to Know Aileen Lee, Founder & CEO of Infinite Goods

 

Aileen, your journey from working on the sales floor at Lands' End to founding Infinite Goods is impressive. Can you share the pivotal moment or realization that led you to commit to sustainability and launch your own marketplace?

While working for a retail company, I was sent to a distribution center. I walked into what felt like a Costco, but with customers replaced with forklifts. 

Behind the back was the largest metal trailer I had ever seen. Into it, smaller trailers would dump damaged and returned clothing. To my horror, I learned it was a giant incinerator. 

The closing top of the incinerator disturbed me for years as we continued to over forecast inventory to ensure sales. I remember that moment vividly and it drove me to discover a way for our waste streams to be turned into value. I looked at how the plastics industry moved towards recycling, the electronics industry refurbishes computers, the grocery industry sells imperfect produce, and thought - why can’t we do this in fashion?

What are some of the key challenges you faced while building a platform committed to sustainable practices and a circular future?

Building trust is our biggest challenge. Many fashion companies who have put out eco-friendly lines or recycling bins are later accused of greenwashing, or false claims. Most consumers are distrustful and outright pessimistic that fashion can be sustainable. 

The optimism in me believes otherwise so we have developed a Sustainability Score with data for consumers to judge clothing for themselves. Developing the score was a year-long process where we talked to dozens of industry experts and 100+ consumers. 

While our system isn’t perfect, it is a start in measuring products on more than just style and price, but also our environmental and social values. 

How do you balance offering trendy and fashionable products while ensuring they meet your sustainability criteria?

Curation is an art and we see thousands of sustainable brands. We look for two things - first, a beautiful product and second, a powerful story behind the product. I also look for guidance from our customers. Our customers are currently gravitating towards vintage button-downs and hand-dyed silk dresses so I will hunt for more similar products.

For sustainability, there are certain things we look for that will build our confidence (green flags) or scare us (red flags). For example, a green flag includes information about where their factories are and a red flag would be using fossil fuel-based fabrics like polyester. 

As the founder and CEO of Infinite Goods, what steps have you taken to ensure better labor conditions within the supply chain of the brands featured on your platform?

I visited India this past year with the intention of seeing factories first-hand. What I learned was invaluable in developing our scoring system. I saw world-class factories that might not adhere to our “western” standards. I met artisans who preferred to sit on the floor with their shoes off rather than have their own dedicated working station and rural craftsmen who made pieces in their own homes. All of these people are provided decent work so I learned about adapting to local customs rather than applying what we think a good factory should look like. 

How does Infinite Goods promote circular fashion, and how do you encourage customers to participate in this movement?

85% of clothing today goes to landfill. Our Infinite Loop Bag encourages customers to recycle their clothing instead, and we provide them with a $20 reward to shop across sustainable brands. The bags are sorted for what we can send to our upcycling designers to be transformed into totally new pieces. Then, we share them with a recycler who will resell what they can to thrift stores and recycle clothing into new fabrics. 

How does Infinite Goods raise awareness among customers about the environmental and social impact of fashion?

We are spreading the world through our educational events and social media. Last year, I spoke to emerging designers at FIT on how to design for sustainability and at Columbia’s Youth Climate Summit about recycling in fashion. We also share educational material through our social media channel including what to look for when buying and sustainability facts. Follow us to learn more!

What are the key values and criteria you look for when selecting brands to be part of Infinite Goods?

We are looking for brands leading on 8 environmental and social issues. 

Planet

  1. Innovative raw materials
  2. Non-toxic chemical and dyes
  3. Renewable energy usage
  4. Waste saved

People

  1. Living wages
  2. Safe working conditions
  3. Workers’ rights
  4. Gender & racial diversity

The fashion industry has been criticized for greenwashing and vague sustainability claims. How does Infinite Goods ensure transparency and authenticity in the sustainability efforts of the brands it represents?

One thing we quickly realized is that the bar is so low. On the industry’s sustainability journey, our key advisor Michelle Gabriel often says: “We haven’t taken the first step, we’ve only picked up our foot.” 

The most sustainable brands today are excelling in two to three categories. Our job is not to find the perfect product, but to find best-in-class products and be transparent with the consumer on why we consider it sustainable. 

Throughout your journey at Infinite Goods, what has been the most rewarding moment for you personally, and what has been the biggest challenge you've faced?

The “first” moment something happens is defining - our first brand, our first sale, our first recycling bag. These are moments I cherish and why I love building a startup because we have so many firsts. 

The biggest challenge has been facing failure every day - at a pitch competition, a pass from an investor, a decline from an accelerator. Every entrepreneur has these and it’s so important to separate your own personal self-worth from the company. 

As the sustainable fashion movement continues to grow, what is your vision for the future of Infinite Goods, and how do you hope to inspire other fashion retailers to follow a similar path towards sustainability?

My vision has always been a circular fashion system. Imagine receiving a new stunning dress for an upcoming summer wedding. It comes in a reusable garment bag and at the end of the season, you pull out your fall clothes and send a few outdated pieces back. Those pieces become totally new pieces for the next season, and the cycle continues. 

My goal is to spark change in the industry and, of course, there is room for other retailers to follow the same path. It’s going to take decades to get where we want to go, but it’s a journey well worth it. 

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