Allie Kushnir on Her Low-Impact, High-Design Textiles & Paper Craft
January 31, 2019
BY Maia Welbel
Allie Kushnir‘s driving force has always been finding the most considerate way to live. The painter and designer has developed a brand of custom-printed fabrics and paper products—both grounded in the principle of minimizing environmental impact. Allie is also the creator of the documentary web series The Ones That Will, which highlights sustainable and ethical business owners in Chicago. She and her husband, video editor Andrew Wittler, released the second season of the show in October. We talked to Allie about turning her passion project into a full-time job, what it takes to run an ethical brand, and how her low-impact lifestyle doesn’t mean sacrificing pleasure.
What made you want to start an ethical design and lifestyle brand?
I am a painter first, and coming up with a way to make my paintings a functional product was where this all began. I’ve always been concerned about the space I take up in the world, and the more I learned about the impact of everything that we consume, the more concerned I became about not contributing to it negatively. So that’s been my main focus the last couple of years—learning how I can minimize my negative impact and be part of a shift in the way that we consume things.
How have you integrated sustainability into your business?
If I learn that something I’m doing is having a negative impact on the environment, I have a hard time ignoring it. Since I started selling products and researching things like synthetic materials and carbon emissions associated with manufacturing, I’ve made a conscious effort to use low-impact and organic materials, avoid animal products, and source from within the U.S. I also sell products that encourage a lower waste lifestyle like utensil wraps and cloth napkins.
I love curating events to encourage conversations around these topics. The textile, food, and animal industries are all consumption based and hugely impactful on the environment. I want to be a resource for people who are looking to change that.
Does that consciousness impact your lifestyle in other ways?
I try to avoid plastic so I always have my reusable coffee cup and utensils with me, and I compost at home. When I learned about the impact of animal agriculture on the environment I immediately decided to transition to a vegan diet. Similarly, in learning about the impact of the fashion industry, I’ve tried to buy mostly secondhand and research the practices of the companies I buy from. It’s definitely extra work, but it’s a priority. I don’t do the right thing 100% of the time; sometimes I’m out and the only thing to eat is wrapped in plastic. But I do my best.
What does your work day look like?
I run every morning, which is not part of my work day, but it is a really important part of how my body functions. I work from home, and what I’m doing really depends on what kinds of orders I have to fill, what kinds of events I have coming up.
When I first started the company I didn’t know anything about textiles; I was just a painter. But I taught myself how to sew and print, and now I do all the manufacturing myself. Because I do work alone so much I like to collaborate with other designers or people who have overlapping interests. I try to save up my computer work so I can get out of the house and work in a coffee shop or something because sometimes it will be the end of the day and I’ll realize I haven’t used my voice yet.
Tell me about your documentary series, The Ones That Will.
I started the project in 2017, and we released our second season in October. I had become so involved in learning about my impact and so driven to help other people recognize that they can make small shifts in their lives without feeling like they’re sacrificing, so initially I wanted to create a resource that highlighted these great companies that could help make those shifts more accessible.
There are lots of things that I am not an expert on but I care about a lot, like reducing waste or being more aware of the chemicals that are in products, so I thought maybe I would start a blog where I profiled people that are experts. But it ended up being a standalone video series with a focus on conscious consumption, profiling business owners who focus on making a positive impact. My husband is a really talented video editor, so we created the series together. This season, some of the companies we featured were an urban beekeeping business, a sustainable florist, a compost collection service, and a vegan bakery.
The main thing that I want to project with my brand is that a conscientious lifestyle can be accessible. Especially in a place like Chicago, where there are so many options, I want people to know what’s out there so they can pick what is doable for them.
What were you doing before you started your business?
I worked for an education publishing company doing administrative and design stuff for about five years. I started working on my business long before I quit. I was constantly trying to do something more creative. As my business started ramping up, I felt like there were moments where I was denying certain opportunities because I had to prioritize my job. So I was at this crossroads where I wasn’t making enough money to feel like I could do my business full time, but I also knew I was never going to make enough money if I didn’t give it the time.
When I left about six months ago my boss was happy for me, but it was psychologically really hard. I was sad to leave because I liked seeing my coworkers every day, and it’s jarring to suddenly be working alone. I’m also not a business expert, so I’m constantly doubting myself and wondering if I’m making the right decisions—asking myself whether this is going to go anywhere, and if it doesn’t go anywhere, what am I going to do with myself after I’ve put so much time into it? It’s really easy to get into deep cycles of self-doubt when you spend all your time alone.
My tools have essentially been saying yes to a lot of things I wanted to say no to because I was uncomfortable, putting myself out there, and collaborating with people as much as possible, even if it’s just for the sake of having meetings that get me out of the house. And that has definitely paid off.
Recently a friend said to me, “You’re so lucky you get to do what you love every day.” And I don’t want to seem ungrateful because I really am grateful I can even pursue this, and that is largely because my husband has a full-time job that mostly supports us. But I don’t like falling into this wife role—like I’m sitting here with my crafts while he’s really making money. I know that isn’t actually the case, but it’s what I tell myself when I’m feeling bad. I constantly have to advocate for myself, I have to tell store owners why they should carry my products, and I have to promote myself through social media. There’s so much I have to rely on myself for as opposed to a job where you start and leave at a certain time. I think the grass is always greener in situations like this.
What do you wish people knew about living a sustainable lifestyle?
I want everybody to know that it is accessible, that it is possible, and there doesn’t have to be judgment or shame around it.
I feel like I have a responsibility if I’m going to be taking up space on the planet to figure out how that impacts the people who come after me. I always think if someone is going to be putting another human on the planet, which I am not at this point, how can you not consider what will happen when you’re gone? The more people living on this planet, the harder it is for the planet to sustain us all, so I think it is everybody’s responsibility to delay this impending apocalypse. With my brand, the video series, and the events I put on, my intention is to get people to come and be like, “I didn’t realize this is what was happening, and now that I do, I’m so glad that I know I can do this one thing differently.”