Megan Martis wore tights for years as a uniformed, private school student, and they were always saggy, itchy, ripping or all of the above.
As an undergrad at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, she conducted a study to see if it was just her and her friends who agreed that tights were “kind of the worst,” or if it was a problem for a lot of women.
After confirming most women agreed, she got to work on what would become CLOVO, a business that sells tights made from Tencel, a material made from wood pulp in a closed-loop process – meaning waste is reused and no contaminants are released, according to its manufacturer’s website. Her product is less likely to rip, meaning the tights will release less microplastics into the environment and take much longer to end up in a landfill. She’s raised about $40,000 so far, and runs the company by herself. She’s sold about 900 pairs of tights – which cost $25 to $32 – since 2020.
“Tights…are just constantly being thrown into our environment, and then they’re just sitting there and leaking all these microplastics and chemicals,” she said. “It’s pretty frightening and I really wanted to create an alternative.”
Eco-Depression Turned Into Agency
Martis is part of a generation of entrepreneurs who are deeply aware of the environment and often worried about it. Entrepreneurship directors have coined a word for it: Eco-depression, and say that they see students who are gaining a sense of control by finding solutions or even founding companies that work in sustainability. One of the most accessible areas is fashion – which is also one of the biggest environmental culprits.
“I hope that when students today feel that they have some power, that they can make a change right here, right now, based on what they know and what they’re learning and what they’re creating, or they can join a startup group that’s doing this, that it gives them a feeling that they’ve got some control,”said Amy Sallin, the director at the University of Washington Foster School of Business’ Buerk Center For Entrepreneurship.
In general, university entrepreneurship center directors and leaders across the U.S. are noticing more students pitching sustainability ideas, and business schools are adding more sustainability classes to their curriculums.
“It is rare at this point that sustainability, in a broad sense, is not considered to be one of the priorities of whatever type of venture that students are considering,” said Nick Moroz, the director of entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan.
Recent UN and IPCC reports that declared a “code red” on solving climate change – heightened feelings of of worry and dread about the future of Earth. It’s daunting knowing the amount of change that must occur in order to see real strides in the environmental disaster. That’s why some students, apparently, are turning to entrepreneurship to get some agency.
Younger generations — specifically Gen Z– tend to care more about sustainability than older ones. Some 73% of Gen Z said they would pay more for a product if it was sustainably made, according to a 2020 report by data company First Insight. Additionally, 49% of Gen Zs surveyed by London-based consulting firm Deloitte say personal ethics were a determining factor in their career.
Profit is Not the Only Motive
Since Sallin started working at the center in 2012, she’s noticed students have been particularly focused on making an impact with their business ideas – more so than building an app to make millions or other motivators. She notices a shift in this generation – instead of being afraid of the risk, young people are stepping up to the challenge.
“Students of this age, they’re scrappy, and they want to have an impact,” she said. “I think that they’re growing up at a time where they’re not told that they can’t, they’re actually encouraged to do more.”
That’s the case for Martis, who said entrepreneurship has provided her an outlet to create change. Now, the 24-year-old is studying renewable energy at the University of Michigan as a graduate student. “Taking on a sustainable fashion project really helps me feel like I am helping in some way,” she said.
“Having access to entrepreneurship really helped me create a broader impact than I can make myself individually by allowing other people to make more sustainable fashion choices for even such a thing as hosiery,” Martis said.
Measurement Leads to Momentum
At the University of Michigan, students tend to focus on solving a local climate-related issue or one piece of sustainability to feel as though there’s an attainable goal in front of them.
“If they can see that they’re having impact, whatever scale small scale or large scale, but it’s something that they can measure, something and they can share, something they can show that it’s possible to be done, then that will then breed more and more momentum and create an incentive for people to say, yes, I can make a difference,” Moroz said.
Take Clare Fischer, a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Missouri. She started selling bottoms, tops and bags that she creates from denim she purchases from thrift stores or accepts through donations a few months ago. She launched her online shop called Fisch Flips over the summer.
The idea was born when Fischer, who’s a textile and management and business dual major, had to make a business for a class. Fischer watched Youtubers DIY their own creations from thrift store finds, and it sounded creative and exciting to make her own clothing.
As she learned more about the industry she was entering, she realized more about the sustainability component of her business. Each year, 85% of clothing ends up in the landfill. By giving new life to clothing, she’s helping to reduce the amount piling up in the garbage.
It’s become an integral part of the brand, she said. The once creative outlet has turned into a way for her to keep clothing out of the Earth. “It was almost like, I really want to pursue this now because I can see how beneficial this is.”
Outreach to Spur Entrepreneurship
At the University of Washington, the entrepreneurship program conducts outreach to the university’s engineering school and environmental school to get more students thinking about making an impact through business. For 13 years, it’s also hosted its Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge for students to pitch their business ideas and get feedback.
This challenge asks students to think about carbon neutrality in their pitch. The goal is to get students to come up with carbon emission solutions – or at least think about reducing carbon in their business idea. In its larger Dempsey Startup Competition it also asks students to identify a social mission in their pitches.
But even without the requirements, many students are doing this all on their own, she said. “I’m always so motivated by hearing these students year after year, even in the hard years, even in the years where the climate impact is so obviously there,” Sallin said. “Students are still questioning and creating and hopeful.”