Taking fashion back to basics: this Copenhagen company is rethinking what it means to be a fashion brand
A conversation with Christoffer Immanuel of Organic Basics
If there’s any industry that could use an overhaul, there’s no doubt that the fashion industry is long overdue. As many of us wake up to the destruction of fast fashion and the trap of overconsumption, Christoffer Immanuel and his two co-founders, Alexander Christiansen and Mads Fibiger Rasmussen, saw an opportunity to make a difference. They created Organic Basics, a clothing brand that emphasizes quality and simplicity and rejects the current model of cheap labor and quick trends. From the certified factories they source from to the low impact fibers they use, the Copenhagen based startup is rethinking every part of what it means to be a fashion brand today and refashioning it with sustainability at the core. We talk to Christoffer about their journey founding Organic Basics, how they approach the design process and why, for them, starting a clothing brand was a vehicle to make a positive impact.
Back in 2015, Mads came up with the initial idea for Organic Basics after he felt dissatisfied with the underwear options available to men — all of us didn’t really feel connected to any of the current fashion brands, and we started to examine why.
We’re three guys who truly believe that the climate is in deep trouble, and we wanted to build something that could have a positive impact. We had that insight, but coming from a very modest and humble place in Denmark, we had no idea how to actually do it. We just took one step and then another, and that’s essentially been the whole methodology throughout Organic Basics. We started with base layers, because that’s what’s worn closest to our skin, and in general, underwear is a pretty low involvement product. We saw that there was a chance to create something of value there. To test it out, we launched a Kickstarter, because we wanted to build a tight relationship to potential customers, and we were eager to learn about sustainability and fashion. We wondered, “What do people think when you talk about organic underwear?” This was before the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Back then, when we talked about organic underwear, people were like, “Is this something I can eat?” So, it was quite different, and I’m super excited by how much has happened in just five years.
Our Kickstarter was successfully funded in about 24 hours. It was a small amount — I think around $20,000 — but it was enough to do the first production run, and we built from there. Around 2017, we knew that we needed to raise some capital if we wanted to scale Organic Basics and make the impact that we wanted the business to have, so we moved to San Francisco and studied the direct to consumer businesses that were thriving in the US at the time. We met with a lot of people from Reformation, Everlane, Outdoor Voices and others. It was great for us to meet with the people behind the brands that we were looking up to in terms of business model. We’ve always been motivated to make Organic Basics a full wardrobe kind of brand, but we aren’t in a rush and we want to learn from the body out.
What was the main driver for focusing on sustainability? Was it personal interest or was it more that you saw potential in the market?
For us, it really came from the perspective of how we can have the most positive impact on the fashion industry. When we started Organic Basics, we were first looking at if we should potentially become grassroots activists. Should we start an NGO and point fingers at the bad guys? We never like to point fingers, so we thought if we could join the industry and show them that there’s a different way that can also be a viable business, then we might be able to inspire some people to follow our path. So, I would say that it was a mix. We definitely saw that we could build a business with a positive impact and merging the two to make sustainability a growth driver rather than a cost, was something we found super interesting. We’re also just three big nerds. So back then we also looked at what the quickest path to change was, and the capitalistic system is by far the most efficient way of creating huge changes in our society.
How does impact guide the decisions you make at Organic Basics, especially when things aren’t black and white? For example, in your A-Z guide, you mention the case of how synthetic clothing isn’t great because it’s made from plastic, but then recycled synthetics have a lesser environmental footprint in production. In cases like these where there’s a gray area, is there an internal framework you follow to weigh the impact of your choices?
We don’t have a framework per se because we learn every day and would outdate a framework too quickly. One rule of thumb we have though is that we always create our products from a fiber-first mentality, where we look at what the different fibers are capable of and how we can use them in the smartest way. I think sustainability has been dumbed down too much in the fashion industry. For example, with synthetics, I don’t think it makes sense to say, “Ok, this is a bad fiber.” It’s really in terms of how you use it.
“I think sustainability has been dumbed down too much in the fashion industry.”
You go a long way to measure impact at Organic Basics, from your Impact Index to your design-forward Impact Report. Has measurement been important from the beginning?
Ever since we started working with the phrase “sustainability”, we’ve learned that this word is becoming more and more meaningless. There were fashion companies banning plastic bottles in the office and calling themselves sustainable, and then you would have a company like ours that works with the Impact Index and only uses certified fibers, and all of a sudden, we’re in the same category. We really feel that by measuring things, we’re able to learn how to have a greater impact, and I think the Impact Report is a great example of that. With the Impact Report, we asked, “How do we make a CSR report interesting and something that people actually want to look more into?” That’s been a challenge from the get-go of Organic Basics. We wanted to make sustainability cool, because we believe that in order to be successful, you need younger generations to embrace it.
Judging by your website and media, it seems that both design and sustainability take an equal role in the ethos of your brand. Do you know what drives purchases most for your customer?
I think initially people become curious from the style and look of the brand, but when they get a chance to learn more about the purpose of Organic Basics, that’s where we build a long-term relationship. So, the first drives interests and the second drives retention.
What does your design process look like, considering that you don’t follow traditional fashion cycles?
We take an engineering type of approach to building products, and as I mentioned before, we have a fiber-first mentality. Firstly, we need to understand what the different fibers can do, and then it’s about fit, especially since we’re selling online where fit is super important. In terms of how we design the products, we keep a very tight relationship to our customers and look at customer data — sometimes it’s the bigger data that points to where to go next like our product review scores, but it can also just be qualitative data where people let us know what kind of styles they are interested in. We also send out a lot of surveys and test products with target groups here in Copenhagen who give us feedback. Since we don’t create new styles every season, we actually have a chance to improve the products we make.
You experiment a lot with new textile technology. In the example of the SilverTech™ and Polygiene® fibers you developed, recycled silver salts are used to stop the growth of odor-causing bacteria, helping tackle the problem of over-washing in the consumption phase of a garment. This kind of innovation is something we’re not used to seeing much of in the fashion industry. Why do you think the industry has been so slow to innovate in terms of new fabrics and how do you guys maintain that drive to keep innovating within your company?
Traditionally, clothes were made by tailors and made to last for many, many years. You didn’t really have trends — you had style. People had one style in terms of their job or where they were living, etc. On top of that, people would take really good care of their clothes and fix them when they ripped or got worn out. But over the course of the last 30 years, fast fashion took hold, and all of a sudden, you had an industry that tried to make clothing a consumption product. If we look at the current COVID crisis, we’ve seen that spending for people’s basic needs hasn’t gone down much but spending in the entertainment industry has decreased a lot, and I think fashion can be included in the entertainment industry. The whole industry has optimized itself to be as profitable as possible, constantly driving prices down and consumption up. So, in short, companies are looking for the cheapest fabrics, which is not a great motivator to innovate.
Our approach looks at sustainability as a tool. Constantly optimizing for better impact is more fun for me as an entrepreneur and also more fun for our employees because you feel the bigger purpose. Compared to optimizing for profit, optimizing for impact drives a lot more creativity, better product and better consumer relationships. We didn’t have any idea in the beginning that sustainability as a development process would be so great. It turns out that it really is. We feel very good about that because hopefully a lot of other businesses will realize that soon.
“Optimizing for impact drives a lot more creativity, better product and better consumer relationships.”
The COVID crisis has further exposed the issues of the fashion industry as demand has plummeted and the current model has proven to be unsustainable. What’s your vision for the future of the fashion industry post-corona?
It’s a good question. It has been a bit strange to see how all of the fashion companies are struggling with their stocks dropping in such a short period. I even read about a Danish company that said, “Hey, you should think about our products like fruits — they’re just sitting on the shelf going bad right now.” I understand why, from a business perspective, it’s good to make fashion products pass as consumer goods, but from a sustainability perspective, it makes no sense. We’ve always focused on acknowledging the fact that people need clothes, and there’s definitely a less impactful way of making clothes. We just hope that there’ll be more companies forced to rethink how they’re doing things.
What’s next for Organic Basics?
I would love you to tell you about one really big project, but we believe that it was a million bad decisions that got us where we are today and it’s a million better ones that will get us out of this industry’s crisis. One of the things we’re working on is making our Impact Index open source so that businesses can use it to calculate their own impact. We’re doing it in the interest of improving the industry rather than just sitting on all this great knowledge ourselves. We’re also developing an open-source chemical tool because we realized that a lot of the time when our designers were deciding on fabrics, colors and treatments, they weren’t even aware of all the chemicals involved in the process. Now we’re working with a Danish technical university to develop an open guide for people to understand the chemicals that go into their clothing. It’s directed to designers, but consumers will be able to use it too. We’re also introducing a denim program where we design jeans that can be taken apart again. That means looking at new styles of buttons that you can unscrew and recycle — it’s this whole idea of closing the loop and designing to be regenerated.
“We believe that it was a million bad decisions that got us where we are today and it’s a million better ones that will get us out of this industry’s crisis.”
How do you ensure that purpose remains the guiding force for Organic Basics?
By staying in control and being involved with the company ourselves. There’s been a lot of interest from venture capital companies to invest in Organic Basics and while we have taken a little bit to scale the company, we don’t want to go down that path. We have no dreams of making a big exit. We’re trying to build an evergreen company. Actually, we say that we’re not even a company, but an organization with a purpose, because what we’d love to do is make a positive impact and not necessarily run a business. We want Organic Basics to be our life work and for it to hopefully exist many years long after we’re gone.
> Learn more about Organic Basics.
> Learn more about this project at moments-of-impact.com.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.