Helen Puistaja — founder of the first online slow fashion boutique Slow.ee — is on an altruistic mission of bringing eco fashion closer to the Estonian public, and make it more accessible in our half-Scandi land. She assures that the eco revolution hasn’t happened rapidly, but Estonians are more conscious about their consumption habits than ever before. I met Helen at a quaint cafe in my hometown, Tartu, to talk the present and future of eco fashion in Estonia. What an honour to exchange ideas with a brave woman pioneer dedicated to changing things one generation at a time…
Personally, I find your idea of a slow fashion concept store relatively unique in the Estonian market. What were the main concerns in this infinite fight between the fashion industry and the environment (large-scale and the ones you considered on a personal level) that informed the creation of Slow.ee?
The idea preceded already about 5 years, but I somewhat sensed that back then people were not ready for my vision as such. Originally, it started when me and my sister were facing an infinite dilemma of where to get the most basic clothes in Estonia — the most simple, ‘everyday uniform’ type clothes, such as black and white T-shirt, tight black jeans, the most basic sneakers, that would also be of good quality, and we felt like these items were impossible to find in Estonia at the time. So for a while we were playing around with the idea of a store specialising in wardrobe basic items, but then I went to Germany for a year and we somehow dropped it. After a year, though, my thinking had changed and I had also turned into a vegan, which had invoked another level of thinking — I was more concerned about the environmental impact of fashion-making than ever before, so I knew there needs to be an ethical twist to it. I wasn’t really contemplating the concept and its necessity, because I generally have this attitude in life that if an idea pops into my mind I immediately execute it, trusting my gut instinct. I don’t even bother to go into too much detail, but just consider the fact that ‘oh, there’s a gap in the market’, nothing similar exists in Tartu yet. So, Slow.ee was born.
“I generally have this attitude in life that if an idea pops into my mind I immediately execute it, trusting my gut instinct.”
Nothing similar existed in Tartu, but elsewhere in Estonia? How does your approach stand out?
There are actually three similar boutiques in Estonia, but they’re all located in Tallinn [our capital]. It seems to me that they are focusing on eco fashion and strictly certified items, but what was particularly missing from their approach was focusing on educating the consumer about the environment and the impact of fast fashion. They’re style direction — what I perceive as romantic and hippie — is also a polar opposite to mine. I didn’t notice too many classic, everyday basics within their selection.
What's your initial reaction to the cliche that perceives eco fashion as something not as glamorous, e.g. namby-pamby linen cloth products that look a bit outdated. On the other hand, we see fast fashion as something desirable — piling those fashion items high into our shopping basket offers us fulfilment, we are gaining immediate gratitude from simply buying those items. However, do you feel that people’s attitudes are starting to change?
Considering [the realm of] Estonian market, I truly understand where this perspective comes from — there are not many sustainable fashion alternatives on offer to balance it out. We still only have a choice of hippie dresses and those flowers and fairies, but a lot of excellent brands are out there and slowly cropping up here as well to offer balance to the market. I also hope to bring them closer to the Estonian public. You brought out the fast fashion issue and the satisfaction we gain from buying [new things], which could be related to psychology. By no means I am an expert, but I had a thought that, from an early age, we are being sold that idea of ‘shopping makes you happy’. So often we are just buying new things and new things, without focusing on our main problem, and [find it easier to] kill it with the good emotions we gain from the act of consumption. It is easier to show the audience that the other side of fashion has a lot of variety to offer than root out the necessity to constantly consume and crave and seize for new things. It is a deeply-rooted concern; addiction which takes years to reverse.
Where does this phenomenon come from that we see shopping as a reward — we subconsciously hide our true concerns behind conspicuous consumption and mindless buying craze, and also tell our children that ‘If you behave well, I will treat you to some goodies, I will reward you with a treat or two.’
It is the easiest way [to deal with it]! It is an easy way out, especially when it comes to kids, who see things and want chocolate and candy in the shop. If the kid wants something and is shouting in the store, then you cannot put up with [the unpleasant scene] in front of everyone. And when they get the treat, then they become completely silent immediately.
Perhaps it is to do with us spending too much time in those artificial environments these days — all our entertainment revolves around huge shopping centres, whereas it is inseparable that when the children drag along and see fancy things, they immediately want them too. How do we get out of that vicious cycle of consuming things and perhaps realise that there are other ways of spending our leisure time?
I think these issues are all interrelated. It is not only about buying better quality clothes, which are better for the environment and therefore for our health, but it is also attached to the concept of personal development. After all, it is an individual matter to come to this realisation — you yourself need to force yourself out of that cycle of commercialism and reflect more on yourself to make rational decisions and understand that you don’t need that new item to be happy. Firstly, you should always ask yourself, perhaps there’s something else missing in your life, it might be that somewhere deep inside there’s another reason behind [craving for a thing].
So you believe that every person has an individual responsibility to open their eyes to the idea of environmental responsibility?
It can be approached on many different levels and through various layers of importance — starting from your own health to [what is to do with] the environment. The easiest way to convince parents to act greener is the fact that they always want the best for their children and they don’t want to wrap their child into those clothes full of chemicals. Last week I held a presentation at a kindergarten, and I find it a very clever approach to speak to people to whom the future we build for ourselves and our children is more tangible. I want to do things better for the world simply to be a better place, but I don’t have this particular person in mind whom I am doing it for, but parents have that special person because of whom they should do things in a more considerate way. Nothing will change overnight, but let’s take it generation by generation then.
“[…] From an early age, we are being sold that idea of ‘shopping makes you happy’. Often we are just buying new things and new things, without focusing on our main problem, and kill it with the good emotions we gain from the act of consumption.”
How did parents react to your presentation?
I only had limited time to speak, so I used the shock therapy method. I showed them images like, here’s a child sitting on top of a dumping ground, that is the reality. A young, exploited child sewing somewhere in a dirty factory, that is the reality. To see the images of the huge amount of sewage water that drains into the natural waters from plantations and factories, is only one side of the coin, but I think this is what people have the strongest reaction to. There they sat and stared with petrified faces…
Don’t you often get the impression that these problems and concerns seem somewhat distant, so out of reach from us? For example, we often hear the news that somewhere in Bangladesh a factory collapsed, and immediately think, who cares? What we actually don’t realise is that we are contributing to these incidents on a daily basis by buying those fashion items, toys and homeware, which are crafted by children of the Developing World.
During the presentation I gave at the kindergarten the headmaster pointed out savvily that, “we feel like they are extremely unhygienic and unkempt there, but it is our rubbish they are sitting in.” She was confronted with the epiphany that this little human is sitting on top of our rubbish, not on someone else’s rubbish. Of course, there will always be people who couldn’t care less about preserving our environment, and there’s nothing much to do about it. But if you take that garment full of chemicals and wash it in the washing machine here, then the infused chemicals reach us one way or another. Then comes the time we have to learn to take responsibility for it.
Of course, we are often presented with the beautiful lie that they are actually happy to have that job in a factory mass producing clothes…
They are! Because they don’t know a better way. Perhaps it is the best choice for them out of all choices, but it doesn’t justify the sad reality — exploitation of these young people.
I’ve also noticed that slow fashion still stands on the pricier side of the market compared to its Fast Fashion sister. To me it seems like stating the obvious, considering the high production costs and ethical approach, but how has the audience’s reaction been so far — do they perceive eco fashion as something lavishly expensive or affordable?
I have also tried to take in orders for goods that are more affordable. However, I’ve been keeping in mind that the things I offer cannot be too cheap. In order to cherish the item more, you need to think the purchase through and ask yourself a few questions — how to combine it with the already existing pieces in your wardrobe; how does it go together with your personality. I want the customer to see it as an investment — she is willing to spend a larger amount, because that way it also lasts for longer. My target audience — of course, all people could act more considerate and consume better — are people who have already found their own style and know that the lifespan of the purchased item will be infinite. I am that person myself… I know nothing about fashion! On the other hand, I have developed my own unique style over the years, which is not very significant, but I feel good in my own skin wearing my signature clothes, and when I do buy something, I wear it at least for a year…two… three… four, maybe even longer.
And when you divide the cost of the product with the number of years worn…
It is overall much cheaper indeed.
As a true fashionista, I am also struggling with the results of excessive fashion consumption habits in the past — I’ve got heaps and heaps of old garments, which I’ve disregarded for long and, as a result, I cannot find a way to get rid of them anymore. It just seems to me as a mindless waste, both financially and environmentally.
I would also like to highlight that I don’t support mindless wasting. That comes without saying that when people all of a sudden realise they should consume less and invest in better quality, durable clothes, then it necessarily doesn’t mean they have to swap their wardrobe against a new one. The items that already exist should be used until they last, without the attitude that “I am now environmentally conscious and I only need to consume organic clothes.” I am also struggling with finding the best option to send off the old items to recycling.
Tell me more about the brands you’ve chosen to introduce to the Estonian market. According to which criteria did you select them? Do you keep your own personal taste in mind, or think that, ‘I don’t actually like it, but my customers certainly do’?
I aim to keep a characteristic line in the selection of products, not to diffuse things unreasonably, because my aim is that the regular customer, who comes every once in a while, knows that they will certainly find items of a specific style from my store. If I would only consider my own personal taste, my store wouldn’t be customer-friendly at all! (laughs). It would be only for a strictly limited audience then. When I fill in the orders, I usually have specific prototypes in mind — people whose opinion matters and to whom I turn to when I need advice about product selection.
When I was studying in London and my course was completing our final major project, our tutors would often ask in awe, “Who do you keep in mind, when designing these products?”. There were artworks that were designed in a very incompetent way and we would often answer, “Don’t worry, I personally also don’t like it, but the one who purchases it, will adore it, hands down”. I think it also cannot be that controversial…
Agree! Well, of course I am considering what the consumer thinks, but I also have to remain true to my own vision — if I am doing it alone now, then it is my brand, my soul that has been poured out to take a form of a store, and I cannot do it inadvertently at this stage. I am always trying to look for the middle ground bringing together my own personal taste and an understanding of what the customer wants and needs.
Do you believe that slow fashion is still targeted at the niche market? Who is your actual target audience? You already mentioned earlier that someone who has already found their own personal style. Do you have anything else to add to this equation?
I wouldn’t say that slow is the right word to use here, but consuming consciously is certainly becoming more trendy and common here, more than it was a few years back.
Well, the brands you represent, use specific principles to be more environmentally considerate…
After all, the reality of things is, for making ends meet, you need to sell your products. This is the…
Together: Point of conflict!
Did I understand correctly — you can produce something ethical, but when you sell it in large quantities, then the end result comes across as completely unethical?
When you look at the entire process as a whole, it is absolutely acceptable that people need clothes and they want clothes, nothing wrong with that, but then we should start from the fact that the items we wear have been crafted keeping the nature and people in mind, and when the garment reaches the end of its lifespan, then it is crucial it won’t be thrown out to the dumping ground immediately, but the whole recycling process has to complete the full circle. Then the act of consumption becomes more reasoned and thought-through, too.
How would you evaluate the slow movement in Estonia compared to Scandinavia and the rest of Europe? Assuming that they already stand a step ahead of us, how could we progress to their level? How could we fill in that education gap when the subject of living greener is concerned?
To be honest, I preserve it more as a natural process, but as much as I’ve kept track [of the progress], it can be said Estonia is still a step behind. Although I think that the progress gap is not immeasurable anymore — people are more aware of the harmful effects of overconsumption and thinking green has become valuable. Of course I can perceive the rapid change in the mindset and general attitudes more sharply due to the fact that I am also an active member of the vegan community here.
Oh, veganism has become an entire movement on its own in Estonia.
Yes, all of a sudden there are vegan cafes popping up everywhere and we also boast a wide variety of organic food stores. Judging by that, I think we shouldn’t define the gap in being slow in progress — we only need more activists, who create these stores and make whole foods and the organic produce more accessible [for the everyday consumer].
One thing I have noticed, though, is that everywhere in Europe, the excessive use of plastic bags is strictly prohibited, but Estonians haven’t adopted that policy yet…
Not to mention that a few days back I just got angry with Selver [my local food store], where there was a striker on the food scale saying: “Please place all the products with different prices in a separate plastic bag.” AAAAGGHHH! Pure nonsense!
I also believe that they should at least encourage using paper bags, or…
Why do I need to place a single item in a plastic bag? I can weigh a single tomato without it.
That is indeed ridiculous.
I do understand there will always be people who would place even their single carrot in a plastic bag, but the store has a responsibility not to encourage it. I cannot buy any food products that are wrapped in heavy plastic packaging… in Estonia, they sell leek wrapped in plastic. If I see something like that, I just refuse to buy it.
“My target audience — of course, all people could act more considerate and consume better — are people who have already found their own style and know that the lifespan of the purchased item will be infinite. I am that person myself… I know nothing about fashion!”
What other environmentally responsible principles do you follow in your everyday life? Apart from being a vegan…
I hate wasting water. Although our bad habit of letting the tap run freely while we are brushing our teeth is not even comparable to the amount of water wasted on growing cotton in India, but I try to avoid wasting water as much as possible. Also, as mentioned, I am not fond of using heavy packaging. The loveliest surprise awaiting me when I moved to my new flat was that next to our building are 4 separate recycling bins — one for general waste, one for plastic and packaging, one for cardboard and one for organic waste. Now I recycle everything separately. No one is an über-human, but at least as much as I humanly can.
Have you also reduced consuming fast fashion?
To be fair, I have never been particularly fond of shopping — when I was brought up I was always encouraged to think my purchases through. I still belong to the generation who remembers the time when everything wasn’t so easily accessible and available in our market, so it is fairly a modern-day concern, when you have limitless opportunity to consume and consume.
Maybe partially this could be the reason why Estonians are reluctant to accepting eco fashion and consuming less, because we are so used to not having anything available…
And now we have more than enough, so we have to take advantage of it! Maybe that’s the reason why it takes longer for us to understand that we are better off with consuming less.
In a nutshell, could you bring out a specific aspect that concerns you the most related to your start-up?
To be fair, in Estonia there are thousands of people who are dedicated and ambitious; who are willing to invest all their free time to help and work 12 hours in a row, but in the end it all comes down to the finances and readiness to act. But it is not a hindrance at the moment. We can do it!
I would again like to point out that we are inserted into this materialistic and superficial cultural environment that encourages consumption and therefore we also encourage our children to look for the missing happiness in rewards we can buy only with money. How to change that mindset and replace it with thinking greener? Pitch me an effective action plan.
I think everyone needs to come to that conclusion themselves that this cannot go on any longer. What we can do is to educate people as much as in our will and be a positive example. Sadly, the way it works with certain things in life is that when you force them upon people, then they refuse to conform, and as a result, act in a reverse way. We certainly don’t want that. I personally try to offer a variety of possibilities — to filter the products according to my own vision and ideals, to educate people on the negative effects of consumption and be an exemplary figure in thinking green. And then everyone individually slowly gets there in their own pace, if they do…
How is your experiment called pineapple leather versus Estonian weather progressing? (hinting at the shoes made of Pinatex leather [pineapple leaves fibres] Helen is wearing)
They haven’t seen any rain yet! I also haven’t deliberately jumped into shower with them to test the water resistance, but they are extremely comfy and allow the feet to breathe.
So you recommend them? Will they be available for us to buy?
I have introduced only a couple of pairs at the moment. My final e-store launches in October and then feel free to order and test out yourself!
Where do you keep your inventory and send the products out?
Under the kitchen cupboard. I have a teeny-tiny apartment and you wouldn’t even notice that there’s a whole store full of goodies hidden somewhere… everything is perfectly fitted in.
Thinking economically! Both laugh out loud.
Lately, Slow.ee PopUp store could be spotted at Tartu Kaubamaja, (expectedly) from December onwards, Slow boutique will be open to customers in the newly-refurbished Aparaaditehas…