Fort Wayne startup seeks to simplify sustainable shopping

The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world.

As a result, a new generation of global consumers is emerging.

They call themselves “green,” “ethical,” or “sustainable” shoppers, and they’re looking for more responsibly sourced and produced products for everything from the clothes they wear, to the accessories they carry, and the items that adorn their homes. 

As an Assistant Designer at a Fort Wayne handbag company, Shruti Sharma, 25, noticed this growing market while on the job.

“Every season, we hear from trendspotting companies about what’s next for the future of fashion, and everybody is talking about sustainability,” she says.

But while many consumers want to shop more sustainably, knowing where to start can be confusing. There’s no directory of eco-friendly brands, so it’s often up to consumers to study labels for themselves.

Now, Sharma and her business partner, Tommy Cutter of Fort Wayne, have come up with a way to simplify the process.

They’ve created a platform called Sustainable Thinkers that offers the dual functions of a one-stop e-commerce shop for sustainable goods and a community-building tool to educate people about the topic of sustainability, in general.

Cutter, 34, runs his own web developing company called Cancel Print on the Southwest side of Fort Wayne. About five months ago, Sharma came to him with the idea for Sustainable Thinkers. The two have been developing the concept ever since with help from the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center and a brand video by Upper Valley Film Co.

“There’s a product side and a community side of it,” Cutter says.

On the product side, Sustainable Thinkers will operate similarly to Thrive Market, an e-commerce site for natural and organic foods. But instead of food, it will help consumers find products for their homes and wardrobes.

Sharma and Cutter have produced short videos to tell the story of each brand they feature on their website, so buyers can see firsthand how and why their products are made.

The Fort Wayne brand besimple Creations is featured on the Sustainable Thinkers website.

Along with accessibility, one hurdle for many eco-friendly brands is the higher price tag associated with their processes and materials.

Before Sustainable Thinkers, Cutter calls himself “the person who wanted to be sustainable but didn’t know how” or didn’t realize why it was worth the added cost.

He and Sharma hope the videos will inspire others in his position to make the transition by drawing attention to the benefits of sustainable goods.

While some of the products on their website will cost as high as $600, the majority do not exceed $150, Sharma says.

The site will launch sometime in mid-to-late August, starting with inventory from about 30 brands in categories ranging from apparel and accessories for men and women to products for kids and home goods.

Once the website is up and running, they plan to track consumer experiences and adjust their inventory accordingly.

The e-commerce side of Sustainable Thinkers.

While some of the brands they carry are based across the country or around the world, others are based right in Fort Wayne, like bsimple totes and bags made from washable paper

Cutter says something they’ve seen the last several months is that the Summit City is becoming a hub for sustainable thinkers and brands nationwide. As local companies, like Aardvark Straws, the nation's only producer of paper straws, put Fort Wayne on the map, they're setting the tone for other regional companies to follow.

That’s where the community side of Sustainable Thinkers comes into play.

Along with brand videos, Cutter and Sharma are creating video interviews that are purely educational. These will help connect sustainable thinkers around the world and show how people in northeast Indiana and beyond are making a difference with eco-friendly ideas.

Their first interview was with 9-year-old Sammie Vance of Fort Wayne who launched the nationally acclaimed program called Buddy Benches, which uses benches made from recycled bottle caps to help children find friends at recess.

“Just talking to Sammie inspired me,” Sharma says. “It’s important to highlight people who are doing good for the world, and we’re here to offer support.”

Buddy Benches are made from recycled bottle caps.

Speaking of support, Cutter says there’s a notable difference in working with sustainable companies in the way they are willing to band together around a common cause. Sustainable Thinkers has grown in part thanks to brands they’ve contacted who have referred them to other brands in the same industry.

Traditional retail companies might not care to do that, but people in the sustainability community really want to support each other,” he says.

So far, the venture is self-funded by he and Sharma, but once they get going, they are open to seeking grants and opportunities to expand, they say.

While many of the products they carry will be shipped by the brands themselves, they are purchasing inventory and shipping products for some of the smaller brands, operating out of Cutter’s office in Southwest Fort Wayne.

Since Sharma is an immigrant from India living in Fort Wayne, part of her vision with Sustainable Thinkers was to create a platform with global reach. Even so, she says she is happy to keep Sustainable Thinkers headquartered in Fort Wayne. She even prefers it.

“It makes us different,” she says. “We’re not just another startup in San Francisco. We're different.”

While there are some e-commerce sites currently available for sustainable products, Cutter says he and Sharma hope to give consumers the first elevated, all-inclusive experience.

We want to be the first and the best,” Cutter says. “Right now, we’re just trying to see what people are most interested in, and we’ll adapt.”

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Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.