Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Filip Westerlund of ‘OUR CHOICE Fashion’ Is Helping To Change Our World
Take time off. I’m still struggling with this as I’m naturally energetic, but I’ve found people that tell me to relax and push pause on things. If you burn out your business won’t happen — it’s as simple as that. Honor your eat/sleep cycle and find time to do something completely different like hang out with your family, friends, exercise etc.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Filip Westerlund of OUR CHOICE Fashion, a plastic-free, fair, and circular sneaker producer.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I was born in Linköping, Sweden which is a not far from Stockholm. Like most Swedes, I spent my summers in the archipelago. My time by the ocean was really the catalyst for founding OUR CHOICE Fashion.
Growing up both of my parents were in the medical field, my dad worked in a clinical setting and my mom was in sales. We have traveled a lot, and my mom’s sales role took us to many exciting countries. I’ve been fortunate to have lived in Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Singapore and Luxembourg. Before I was born, my parents decided to start their own business selling medical supplies to the Norwegian market. This may have been what inspired me to become an entrepreneur!
You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
My company, OUR CHOICE Fashion, is a circular footwear company. Our mission is to educate consumers on the circular economy and sustainable fashion. We want to provide full transparency about our products and the manufacturing process. Depending on the source, fashion is either number 2 or 3 on the list of the industries that are the biggest polluters.
All our products are ethically manufactured in EU, in compliance with the labor law. Ultimately, we are trying to change consumer behaviors and increase awareness and transparency in the fashion industry. We want people to buy less, to repair their goods and use them for a longer period of time. We want to change the “fast fashion” mindset of buying new goods regularly, we want consumers NOT to buy but instead to purchase high quality goods at affordable prices that are meant to last for years. We also want to treat our workers fairly and pay them sufficient wages. It’s not an easy equation — but we are highly motivated to change the industry and lead the shift from a linear economy to a circular one.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I have always loved nature and respect every single part of it, I think it is in my DNA and engrained in the Swedish mentality. As I mentioned, I spent most of my summers by the coast one of my favorite places is the beach. There is a current in the ocean outside the UK and Ireland that dumps all of their ocean trash onto our shores. It really concerned me, that amount of plastic washing up on our beaches and I was determined to do something about it.
My light bulb moment was when I heard about vegan leather which was being marketed as sustainable. I had recently bought a pair of vegan sneakers and tried figuring out what they were made of and what I found out is that “vegan” is not sustainable and is predominately made from plastics. I started doing more and more research about plastics and the sneaker industry, only to find that 87% of Eco sneakers were made from plastics, and that 97% ends up in landfills. I took a look inside my closets which were filled with worn out plastic based sneakers that I’d been trying to mend myself, because I could never persuade any cobbler to do so (they argued I should get new ones). Connecting the dots after my lightbulb moment, combined with my psychology degree which has given me insights into consumer behavior has really fueled the passion and purpose that I feel today. This is my life focus now.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
After my light bulb moment at the beach, there were definitely triggers that made me step up and go the extra mile. I would say the final trigger was when I started cutting up “sustainable” sneakers at home, finding all sorts of plastics (foams, reinforcers, etc.) and estimating the lifetime, CO2 emissions and the money that I’ve paid for my now worn-out sneakers. I realized that the second largest industry is built on one thing and it’s marketing, a linear economy, short life cycles and greenwashing (brands claiming qualities they don’t have). I felt tricked. I started to worry about future generations and thought to myself “If I don’t do this, no one else will”.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
Network. Network. Network. Start with your family, friends and friends of your family. Go to events. No one can do it all alone. Networking introduced me to meet people that had ideas and views that I would not have even thought about. I networked a lot, but I will point out that I looked for people with a similar mindset instead of people that may have had experience or a degree in a field that would be beneficial to what I was trying to accomplish. I would say it’s more important to find people with the right mindset, energy and ambition who can energize you on the days you feel down or are tired. Everyone can learn a new field of business if they want to!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
There are so many interesting things that have happened, but by far the most interesting is the recognition of me as a leader and the company’s business model. When I started, I spent many hours answering the question “But you’re a psychologist, why would you enter fashion?”. To me, the connection was crystal clear, but many people were surprised and could not understand the transition. Over the last few months this has changed completely. Today I get contacted on a weekly basis by people wanting to hear more about the psychological aspect (behavior) of fashion consumption. It’s interesting because we are experiencing a shift right now from a linear to a circular economy. It is super rewarding and definitely fuels my passion even more. It’s an interesting feeling being “at the right place at the right time”.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
Last year I connected with a fashion icon in Italy. We we’re scheduled to meet at the well renowned restaurant COVA in central Milan. The restaurant is located in the center of the fashion industry near the headquarters of famous global fashion brands like GUCCI, PRADA and VERSACE.
I had brought with me a few of our prototypes to show at our meeting. I placed the prototype (fresh out of the box from the factory) on the table on a napkin. It took around 20 seconds before the waiters asked me to leave just as the fashionista was arriving. I could see her thinking “is this really the guy I’m meeting?!”
The meeting got off to a shaky start, but I did my best to make it a success. The fashionista did applaud our efforts and complimented our products. She noted that the timing was right as the era of the “super designer and models” had passed and the future of fashion was about entrepreneurs like me. She did mention that the “up and comers” like me could use a bit more polish.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
I’ve received amazing support from mentors, advisors and a network of cheerleaders which I think is essential for a start up business! Find your team and build your circle with those who believe in you and inspire you to do better, helping you to pull through the tough times (because they will come).
I’ve always been a “go getter” and have been advised to “turn it down a notch”, two people who have really had an influence on me and have made me realize that I should leverage my strengths and to keep it turned UP are two advisors of my advisors — both of which are American — Maria Rosati and Lynette Stoltzfus. Altogether, my mentors, advisors and cheerleaders have helped me become “more” of me, which I can’t thank them enough for.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I need to mention Pranjul Shah, head of the University of Luxembourg Incubator who with his team has gone above and beyond to support me and my team. As a mentor, friend and advisor, Pranjul is agile, fast to respond and quick to spot opportunities which is what we need as a start-up. Moreover, I now have 3 mentors via the University of Luxembourg Incubator (MIT program), all of which are senior executives and professional from the Luxembourg business world. I meet with them on a regular basis.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Politicians need to put higher taxes on plastic items and create financial incentives for companies to shift their business models from linear to circular. Society needs to educate on the perils of fast fashion! Stop hanging out at malls making shopping an activity or behavior, create incentives for other forums and initiatives. The community needs to support local start ups! Most start-up businesses are overloaded with personal debt from launching their idea. They need your money more than established brands. I urge everyone to support them instead of established brands.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Always ask for advice (and choose who you wish to believe in). I’ve always done this but I’m naturally a “pleaser” who says thanks and maybe listens too much sometimes. If you listen do everyone you will lose your initial idea and story. No one knows your business better than you but be humble. Someone recommended that I wait to launch my business and raise funds first. I listened and found myself in the midst of COVID19, deep in debt with no launch plans. I wish I’d gone with my gut and pushed play sooner.
2. Be yourself (it will shine through and make people believe in you). It sounds cliché but it is true. At the start, YOU are the brand — it is you they have to find credible and believe in — not your business plan.
3. Don’t wait for others. I’ve spent a lot of time waiting for people to respond and sometimes it’s worth it, but most times it’s not. If someone is not getting back to you or respecting your time — I’ve learned that it’s much better to move on and you’ll reach your target much sooner.
4. Social media. Start building your presence on every platform. It’s the age we live in it is a necessary part of doing business. The sooner you’re there, the sooner your customers will find you and generate sales.
5. Take time off. I’m still struggling with this as I’m naturally energetic, but I’ve found people that tell me to relax and push pause on things. If you burn out your business won’t happen — it’s as simple as that. Honor your eat/sleep cycle and find time to do something completely different like hang out with your family, friends, exercise etc.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Avoid buying new or single use products. Go thrifting. Mend your old stuff. Look at garments’ tags, be a detective and find out what brands are trying to sell you before you buy and stay away from low quality plastic fashion. Only you know your secret recipe to become more sustainable. I find pairing a sustainable impact with a hobby, event or something that you’re passionate about is often the key to make a more positive impact.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I’d love to meet with Imran Amed, the founder and CEO of the Business of Fashion. I would love to discuss circularity and the future of fashion with him as he’s been an inspiration from day one. He is leading with mission and purpose, and that’s what we aim to do — from a linear to a circular economy.
How can our readers follow you online?
We’re on Linkedin, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tiktok!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!