In 2012, Alok Appadurai and Jade Beall, co-owners of a yoga and arts studio in Tucson, Arizona, began designing and selling t-shirts and donating a portion of each sale to local nonprofits that feed the hungry. Little did they know where that simple idea would take them. As they learned more about the fashion industry, their mission expanded to include making the apparel in non-sweatshop U.S. factories and using only sustainable, eco-friendly and vegan fabrics.
Fighting food insecurity and tackling fast fashion would be a big enough social mission for many entrepreneurs. But the company, Fed By Threads, has heaped a few more goals onto the list: to help revive Main Streets, support indie designers, and educate shoppers.
In May 2014, Fed By Threads opened its first brick and mortar store in downtown Tucson. In choosing the 1,000-square foot space on Congress Street in downtown Tucson, Appadurai eschewed locations in malls or other high-end areas, realizing he could play a role in an effort to revive the down-at-the-heels neighborhood by setting up shop there.
“Congress (Street) is a real success story,” he says. “The opportunity to open on a Main Street coming back to life doesn’t come around very often.”
Transforming the Shopping Experience
The store also presented an opportunity to expand the inventory to include clothing made by other designers who, like Fed By Threads, produce locally made products with eco-friendly fabrics.
“These people are in the trenches,”says Appadurai. “Why shouldn’t we support other brands around the country?” In addition to Fed By Threads T-shirts, hoodies and other apparel, the store now features about 20 brands.
The company has also diversified into other revenue streams, such as custom printing for companies and nonprofit customers. About half of its revenues now come from that business.
The store is just one step in Appadurai’s long-term goal of transforming the act of shopping for clothes into a Whole Foods-like educational experience and increasing shoppers’ awareness of how clothing is made and the conditions of textile workers.
The 2013 Rhana factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,000 people, has raised awareness among consumers of the appalling conditions that apparel workers often labor under. That’s partly a result of publicity by Fashion Revolution, a European group formed after the tragedy and its Who Made My Clothes campaign. In fact, Appadurai says, over the past few years he’s seen much more consumer awareness of all the issues he’s trying to address.
To that end, each item of clothing in the store includes a tag or sign that details the number of meals the item can pay for, the city and state where it was produced and the material from which it was made. “When people can see where every garment came from, they feel they can have an economic impact on people’s lives,” says Appadurai.
Fed By Threads also participates in the “body positivity” movement, using pictures of real customers—no airbrushing allowed—in its store and social media posts. A sign in dressing room reads: “Zero fat talk allowed.”
Fed By Threads does all while supporting its original mission of helping provide emergency meals to America’s hungry—474,592 such meals to date.
The Tucson store is just the start, says Appadurai, who is looking to open similar stores in other cities with like-minded consumers (think: Seattle, Portland and Brooklyn).
In doing so, he may show a new way to scale impact: one Main Street at a time.
Anne Field is a New York-based journalist who writes about social enterprise and impact investing. This article originally appeared on her Not Only For Profit blog on Forbes.com.