Out of the three hundred million tons of plastic produced around the world, more than half of that number is only used once. Every year, our oceans take in around eight million tons of plastic from pollution. Looking at those incomprehensible numbers, how does one college student even begin to make an impact? For sophomore Caroline Danehy, she finds her answer through fashion.
Along with her older brother Jake, Danehy created Fair Harbor Clothing, an environmentally friendly clothing company that makes board shorts out of recycled plastic bottles. With help from Colgate University’s Thought Into Action entrepreneurship program, Danehy and her brother received enough support to win a “Shark Tank” type competition—judged by big names like Jessica Alba, MC Hammer, Jennifer Hyman and Neil Blumenthal—and secure $25,000 to begin expanding their company. This summer, their supply has been booming, and Danehy is excited to see where their sustainable efforts will take them.
Abbey Slattery: You’re a sophomore Geography major at Colgate. Did starting Fair Harbor somehow connect with your major, or is it a little out of the box for you?
Caroline Danehy: Well, a Geography major is kind of more environmental science, more of the social science aspect. So you’re talking about how to create social change in our generation, which includes how to be more environmentally friendly, and think of ways to go about consuming besides using one thing then disposing of it.
My brother, Jake, who is two years older than me, was a Geography major at Colgate as well. In one of his classes, he was learning all about plastic waste, over-consumption and resource allocation. Actually, Jake’s thesis in school was about plastic waste in the oceans—plastic in general, so he was doing a lot of research about that, learning about it and getting frustrated with the issue. He started looking into all these different products that were kind of changing the way that millennials and our generation thought about plastic waste.
So he called me up, and I’ve always been interested in fashion and I’ve always really been interested in the environment as well. We researched together, and Jake found this material that makes polyester and fabric from plastic, so the process we use uses plastic bottles that have already been used and discarded. So that whole idea initially stemmed from one of Jake’s geography classes.
I was a senior [in high school] at the time, and I was really excited about the possibility of creating a company with Jake and something so environmentally focused. Once we had idea, we started calling as many people as we could to learn about the industry. We started to go into the Garment District in New York to try to have samples made, and we also applied to Colgate’s entrepreneurship program, Thought Into Action. They have an incredible program where mentors come every month, and it’s intense. They challenge you, and they push you to create a product or company that is the best it can be. So we met with mentors every month and used the Colgate network, and they were extremely helpful with starting Fair Harbor.
AS: So with the environmentally friendly focus, is climate change a cause close to your heart? Is there anything specific that sparked a passion for you?
CD: I have always been interested in the environment. Being outside is one of my favorite things, and when I’m outside I’m a totally different person. I really value the environment and feel we should protect it, since it doesn’t make any sense to destroy our planet, the one place we all live.
But still, I never really connected consumerism to what I use. When I was six, my family traveled to Wyoming to see all the national parks and wildlife. It was the first time I had really been out of the East Coast suburbia of New York City, and I was just in awe of the beautiful wildlife out there. So we would go to a restaurant and my dad and my brother would order what we just saw roaming in the wild for their next meal. And that was the fist time I connected what was on my plate to living, breathing animals.
From that moment on, I stopped eating red meat. Since I was only six at the time, my parents still wanted me to get some protein, so I ate chicken and fish. I have kept my ways ever since then, and I’ve taken the time on my own to learn about the environment and climate change and what our generation can do to really instill change and make a difference with the way we approach using natural resources.
To me, it shouldn’t be something that’s out of the ordinary to use a product more than once or transform a plastic bottle into something we could use more than once, like plastic waste into really durable and stylish pieces of clothing. That shouldn’t be out of the ordinary, and we’re trying to make it more mainstream within our generation.
AS: Could you explain the concept of Fair Harbor a little bit?
CD: Fair Harbor is a small town on Fire Island, off the coast of Bay Shore, Long Island, that my family and I grew up going out to every summer. It’s the most amazing place in the world. They have a completely simple, minimalistic lifestyle out there. There are no cars, clean beaches—it’s the perfect summer life. My brother and I were really inspired by the laidback simplicity there, and it inspired us to create the brand. Basically we wanted to combine our love for the environment with our childhood past, and that’s kind of how Fair Harbor was born.
AS: You founded the company with your brother, so how do you two delegate the jobs?
CD: Jake graduated Colgate a year ago and since then, he has really just taken it on 24/7 as his full-time job. We have office space in Brooklyn right now through Pratt Institute called the Brooklyn Fashion Design Accelerator. So he goes there every day when I’m at school, and he’s been focusing on it 100 percent. He really takes care of the big picture.
I’ve done the design and a lot of the marketing and media, and I help out with the Instagram. This summer in particular, I’ve curated our wellness blog. I’ve been talking to different writers and getting people to create content for us. It’s really putting out a way for people to connect with the Fair Harbor lifestyle who can’t actually travel there. We do interviews with New York surfers, we do interviews with local firemen on the island, general store owners on the island, different places to barbecue on the weekends.
We want it to be another way people can connect with the brand and the lifestyle and get a bigger taste of what we’re all about. We want to be an East Coast surfer brand for the recreational surfer and that’s the goal with the blogging.
AS: As far as that branding goes, and I guess the activism in general, do you have past experience with them, or is this just you guys jumping in head first?
CD: We’re kind of learning as we go. But I am a huge proponent of acting on anything you really feel passionate about. And Fair Harbor has really shown me that anything I have in mind, or anything anyone in general has in mind, you can achieve, it’s just up to you and how much you’re willing to put into it. It’s really incredible what we’ve been able to do with Fair Harbor. I wouldn’t say I’m a huge activist, but if it’s an issue I feel strongly about, I’m more than happy to use my voice as much as I can, or as much as people are willing to listen to me.
AS: Your website mentions that you guys ended up in a “Shark Tank” competition. Can you tell me a little more about that?
CD: Yeah, so it was a Shark Tank at Colgate, which is part of the TIA’s entrepreneurship weekend that they host every year. We were chosen to pitch, and it was amazing. I was a senior in high school at that time, so I came up for the weekend. We had a model go out on stage, and Jessica Alba came over and felt the shorts and said, “I can’t even believe how soft these are!” It was an awesome experience. We were granted 25,000 dollars from that to fund our initial production run and that’s how we really did get started.
AS: I know that on a day-to-day basis while you’re in school, Jake does most of the work, but what does the daily grind of doing this and also college look like for you?
CD: Well, one of our huge challenges this year was moving production from Guatemala to the U.S. We really wanted to shorten our supply chain, so we found a factory in New Jersey that has been really incredible in working with us. We also have an in-house sample room at the BFBA, so we’ve been making samples with them as well. We are extremely excited about moving forward and having our next line manufactured in New Jersey. The day to day is mostly just working with customer service, making sure our customers are satisfied and doing everything we can to make sure they’re happy with their merchandise.
AS: Out of curiosity, since you two have been in this together since the beginning, do you and your brother have a good relationship?
CD: My brother and I are extremely close. He’s my best friend, and I look up to him in so many different ways, so it’s been great to be able to work with him. We complement each other well, you know. Some of my weaknesses are his strengths and vice versa. Sometimes family can get a little close, but at the end of the day, I wouldn’t have chosen anyone else to start Fair Harbor with. And I know that may sound like a cookie-cutter answer, but I mean every word of it.
AS: Since you and your brother have really come a long way with this business, what have been the most challenging and rewarding parts of the journey?
CD: The most challenging was just going through the obstacles, and when we face something challenging—whether its production or quality control—things can get to you, and people don’t really believe in you. But still going forward and being sure of what you have, even though people are skeptical or question you when things go wrong—being optimistic when nothing is going right.
The most rewarding is seeing how far we’ve been able to come with it. I tell Jake I’m so proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. Regardless of where Fair Harbor goes in the future, we’ve had great momentum this summer, and I’m so proud of what we’ve been able to create in the past three years.
Yesterday I was selling in Long Island, and someone rode by on their bike in a pair of Fair Harbor board shorts, so just seeing a product we created changing the way someone approaches plastic waste and how they dress, and connecting the two, it’s awesome to see our idea come into fruition.
AS: Looking toward the future, where do you see the company going?
CD: Well, I still have two years left of school, so it’s a long way to think of down the road, but we’ll see. Just taking it day by day now. We actually sold out a lot of our inventory already, so we just restocked one pair of shorts that flew off the shelves, and we could head in so many directions right now; it’s an exciting time. We’re seeing a lot of positive feedback and growth right now. And I’m going to Australia for a semester abroad, so we’ll see what happens—maybe bring Fair Harbor over there! There’s limitless possibility, so we’re excited to see where it goes after this summer.