After a decade at the helm of bag and accessories label WANT Les Essentiels, Dexter and Byron Peart found themselves frustrated by the fashion industry and the wasteful practices that underpinned it. In response, the Montreal-based pair envisioned a new business where good design would meet social and environmental responsibility; where luxury would meet purpose. In 2019, they made good on their plans with the official launch of GOODEE: a curated marketplace for global brands and makers creating products that are not only beautiful, but ethically produced, responsibly sourced, and built to last. But while sustainability is a central tenet of GOODEE, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. The other: bringing traditionally overlooked voices to the fore. More than 30 percent of the labels carried by GOODEE are BIPOC-owned or founded.
Here, the Pearts discuss their business, the intersection of sustainability and social responsibility, and how the design and retail sectors can make good on their promises to, at long last, improve diversity among their ranks.
“Good design” has often been understood in a very European, Western-centric way. GOODEE, on the other hand, says that good design is good design, regardless of where it comes from. Was GOODEE’s founding, in part, a reaction to this narrow understanding of what’s often considered “good” or “high” design?
Byron: Very much so. The impetus for GOODEE was [partly due to] a certain level of frustration and the feeling that we were constantly raging against the machine. It was important for us to not only show a new path, but to provide a platform and opportunities for people who are also thinking in a different way. I like how you prefaced it, which is “good design is good design”. It’s so simplistic to think that how we’ve been trained, how we’ve been educated, and the information that we’re fed, which is Western [design] whether that be American or European, [is best]. What we wanted to do is bring global design stories together. Even anecdotally, we just did this GOODEE 100 project with Nordstrom. There are 16 different countries represented in that assortment of products alone. So the question for us was how can we bring all of those together to tell a dynamic story not only about design, but about purpose, tradition, and craft preservation? That I think is a unique territory because the instinct today is to have narrower stories; to fit into a lane. You see magazines that do that. You see social media channels that almost have to be defined by one thing. I think our whole approach and modus operandi is to bring as many diverse voices together and find the beauty of that collaboration and interconnectivity.
Why is it so important to have more diverse voices in the conversations around sustainability?
Dexter: If it’s a more diverse [conversation], which is where we’re always trying to get to, then you just get more interpretations of what design can be. I think it’s really important for any design conversation going forward to not think about sustainability in a lens of a Western identity, but to really think about the materiality of these products. How did people make them when they were not making in this post-manufactured world that we’re living in right now? I think that those are the ideas and intentions that we’re trying to get to.
While GOODEE is often applauded for its sustainability efforts, the past year has seen unprecedented conversations regarding systemic racism, inequality, and representation. Do you sense that some audiences now have a better understanding of GOODEE’s multi-pronged mission than maybe they did at launch?
Byron: Seeing the movements around Greta [Thunberg] in 2019, and then this whole awakening around Black Lives Matter in 2020, I think there’s this convergence of social and environmental responsibility. They’re now hitting up against each other. The conversation around how you consume is no longer separated from the conversations around community engagement, or livelihoods, or food insecurity. It’s all interconnected. I think that’s the biggest awakening. For us, it’s intentional not be in a narrow space. We’ve identified 12 causes that we care about, which range from empowering local communities, to empowering women and female ownership, empowering circular economies, and empowering the use of recycled materials. I think looking at this broader panoply is what makes us, I don’t want to say relevant, but I think the zeitgeist is that these things are connected, and that’s very much in line with what we’re doing.
While some major retailers have signed onto things like the 15 Percent Pledge, what do you want to see moving forward in regards to improving diversity in design?
Byron: It is really reassuring to see how much of an impact something like the 15 Percent Pledge has made in the past year and continues to make. I think the biggest concern that we have, and continue to have, is that will this be just a moment in time? Pledges and commitments will be made and while they’re very well-intentioned, are the actions that are necessary to go along with that process there? I keep bouncing [back to] this report that said less than 3% of accredited interior designers in the US are Black. And yet there’s a tremendous depth of talent and skill. Now, it’s about providing opportunity, providing access, and providing mentorship. Education systems in design need to change; what we teach needs to evolve. It’s a major commitment and action process that needs to happen. I think what’s important to us is to lead by example. This is already normal for us. This is how we operate, and by operating this way, we think the ripest fruit bears out of that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.