Sustainable Pathways: Lauren Bates, Founder of Sustainably LB and Swap Omaha

Lauren Bates, the visionary behind Sustainably LB and Swap Omaha, embodies a journey of passion, resilience, and purposeful action. Drawing from a deep-rooted love for the environment, a rich background in the fashion industry, and a fervent dedication to storytelling, Lauren has created platforms that not only promote sustainability but also inspire and educate communities. Her path wasn’t marked by a singular epiphany but rather a slow, determined burn towards making a difference. Through her work, she has demonstrated that real, lasting change begins with understanding one’s unique gifts and leveraging them to serve the greater good. Join us as Lauren shares her inspiring journey, the challenges she has faced, and the invaluable lessons learned along the way.

Can you share with us your personal journey and how it led you to create Sustainably LB and Swap Omaha?

I will try to keep this as concise as possible as I believe that the two were in me all along just waiting for the right time to come to fruition 🙂 

Sustainably LB and Swap Omaha are two extensions of myself that have lived inside me just waiting for the perfect moment to be realized. There isn’t necessarily a lightning bolt moment when they were realized, it was more of a slow burn. 

Sustainably LB came first, so we’ll start there. The Sustainably LB blog, podcast and platform really comes from the intersection of three pillars. The first pillar is my love for the environment. I have always been in awe of the natural world and how she is constantly reinventing and healing herself being reborn in every moment. The second is my 25+ year relationship with (and in) the fashion industry. The third is my love of journalism and storytelling, how sharing the right story with the right person can create ripple effects in our communities is something I will never tire of witnessing. These ripples have the ability to inspire and create lasting change. The power of connecting through storytelling never ceases to me.

Swap Omaha came out of a serendipitous meeting wrapped in the power of stepping outside my comfort zone. I had recently moved back to Omaha from San Francisco and wanted to get involved with local, sustainably focused businesses. This, in turn, led me to Earth Day Omaha. Leveraging my event planning background and knowledge of the fashion industry, I was connected with the individuals and organizations that were planning a clothing swap for Earth Day Omaha 2021. The clothing swap was a huge success! After that massive turnout, we knew we were onto something special, thus Swap Omaha was born. So not only is Swap Omaha designed to keep good clothing out of landfills and in circulation in the community, it also serves as an educational vehicle. 

Swap Omaha was more of a gift and all that was needed was to have the foresight and bravery to run with the opportunity to create something that fulfilled a need in the community. Sustainably LB was something I sought to create and it evolves as I do. It really comes down to understanding your gifts and then giving them back to your community in a way that serves the whole. 

What inspired you to focus on sustainability within the fashion industry, and how do you believe this focus can create positive change?

I believe that when we know better, we do better. I believe that how we do one thing, is how we do everything. And  I believe that sustainability should be treated as a whole.

The fashion industry exploits, predominantly, women across the breadth of the industry. It denies the individuals who make our clothing a livable wage and that manipulation extends to the young women who walk the runways at fashion week. It is an intricate system built around youth, disposability and exploitation.

My foray into the fashion industry started when I was 12 years old, when I started modeling. That is almost as cringey as it sounds. I was a painfully shy, gangly tomboy that played soccer. I was kind of a wallflower and I didn’t mind it. 

But, fate had other plans and I got sent another girl’s mail. Addressed to her was a flier for this casting / self confidence building class. I went, one thing led to another and before too long I was making a little career out of being a model. But, what once carried the allure of designer outfits and sparkling lights became the sickening reality of the disposability of young women. 

Enter journalism and my love of storytelling. 

The fashion industry’s complete disregard for people and planet were just starting to become apparent due to the rise of fast fashion. But instead of feeling powerless in the shadow of the faceless force of a multi billion dollar a year industry, I had tools. I had creative problem solving. I had journalism. And best of all, I had learned to hone my words and back them with receipts. 

My focus on journalism and education comes from a place of “knowing the rules so you can break them.” Having worked for many facets of the fashion industry, I was given the unique position to see the inner workings of how this system operates. It is a machine built to exploit and consume. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Clothing is a basic human need. Fashion is a way to express yourself. There is a beautiful intersection there that doesn’t have to come at the cost of people and the planet. 

Education and connection are how we turn the tide. I don’t want to shame anyone into change, that never lasts. I want to give people tools and resources to make empowered decisions for themselves. 

What have been some of the biggest challenges or struggles you’ve faced while building and growing your projects?

My biggest struggle is burnout and time management. When you are your own boss, you get the freedom to build whatever you want, whenever you want. Which admittedly is rad! However, you are also everything to your business– you are your copywriter, your social media manager, your site builder, your project manager, the list can be endless. Plus, you actually have to create the products and services for your business. 

Sustainably LB is a production of one, but Swap Omaha I run with two other women. And even though the work of Swap Omaha can be shared, I often find myself taking on more than I can handle–that is just who I am. A personality trait I am working on. Because when I slow down and ask for (and accept) help, I am able to put my efforts into the right projects instead of spinning my wheels.

I have found that when I am moving too fast, I cling to ideas or projects that are not in alignment. I get so focused on why it isn’t working and try to force it to work that I miss the opportunity to trust the redirect.

I really hit my limit at the end of last year and I had to pull back and reassess what I could actually give. It was an abrupt and stark reminder that just because you love what you do, doesn’t mean that you can’t get burnt out. And if you don’t understand your limits, it isn’t a matter of if, but a matter of when.

Can you share a specific moment or experience that taught you a valuable lesson about sustainability or entrepreneurship?

I have already mentioned burnout, even from something that you are deeply passionate about. That has been a painful lesson as an entrepreneur, one that I still am finding balance with. 

As far as sustainability goes, the lesson is that you can always learn more. That might just be a life lesson. But just when I thought I knew the fashion industry, a documentary came to show me how little I knew. I was profoundly affected by The True Cost. The True Cost is a documentary on the overwhelming atrocities of the fashion industry. This film started as a documentary to try to understand what really caused the horrific tragedy of the Rana Plaza Collapse that resulted in the death of 1,134 garment workers. 

As filmmaker, Andrew Morgan, continues to pull the thread, he finds that the fashion industry is far more nefarious than he could have ever dreamed. And while I knew the industry was deplorable, this film allowed me to witness first hand accounts and to be transported to these places that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Of course, lack of transparency in the fashion industry is part of the design. But that is why this documentary was so powerful. This film has left a lasting impression on everyone that I’ve talked to that has seen it. It really drives home the fact that there is no discussion about sustainability in the fashion industry without the inclusion of ethics. It has inspired my work immensely and reminds me to keep an open mind. 

How do you balance your passion for sustainability with the practical aspects of running a business and organizing community events?

I view sustainability as a whole. To me, it is the thoughts that we think, the media and food we consume, the clothing we wear. So from that lens, it is easier to check in with myself. For example, I am able to flow instead of force and to honor whatever my capacity is day-to-day. 

I also organize certain work for certain days of the week. Of course there will be deadlines that can throw a wrench in the flow. But knowing that I have time set aside for certain tasks on certain days helps me to stay organized and committed to my own mental wellbeing. Especially being a woman, we are so conditioned to say yes to everything! Keeping my days of the week structured largely prevents me from saying yes when I want to say no. Because if there is a project or person that is really aligned, there will be a time that works for both parties.   

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own sustainable business or community initiative?

Find the helpers. Mr. Rodgers instilled that in me. But really, no one is an island. Even though there are many aspects of running your own brand that will fall squarely on your shoulders, having a community of like minds or a support system, in any capacity, can save you from drowning in the overwhelm. Because not only is managing a brand or initiative a heavy lift, so is work in sustainability. You have to be able to walk away from time to time and recenter. Having a community of support really helps you remember why you’re doing the work in the first place and can help shoulder the burden when you’re reaching your limit. And know those limits! There will always be a time when you need to push through, but that is not all the time. Remember that rest is also productive.

In your opinion, what role does education play in promoting sustainable practices, and how do you incorporate education into your work?

Education is everything. Education empowers people to make better decisions for themselves, their families and their communities. The fashion industry doesn’t want the common consumer to know how exploitative it is to the planet and her people. So, that is where my work starts, simply providing a narrative outside the greenwashing and gaslighting and hope that it makes its way to the people that need to hear it. 

When I was dabbling in sustainable activism, before I made it my life’s work, I used to use shame as a motivator. And while that works for some, that isn’t the way I wanted to reach people. Now, this isn’t to say that I won’t shame big brands, governments and businesses that need to be held accountable. I will very much shame them, all day. But I won’t ever shame an individual. I welcome open dialogue and a safe space to have these complex conversations, but shaming an individual into different behavior is not a productive way to build lasting change.

In my writing and in my podcast, I use every opportunity and conversation as a way to inform. And not just inform, because this knowledge can be very jarring, I also like to include options and resources. That way, not only is that individual empowered with more knowledge, they have the resources to take action and actually create better habits and make better purchasing decisions.  

What impact do you hope to have with Sustainably LB and Swap Omaha, both locally and globally?

Mainly, I want to inspire and I want to educate. 

I want people to be armed with the knowledge to do things differently. I want to help empower people to break out of this late stage capitalistic system and start creating a better way to be. A more aligned way to be. I want to help build, support and expand the sustainable fashion conversation in my community and I want to leverage my unique gifts to serve the greater good. Because that is truly what our gifts are for and we all have a beautifully unique skill set. 

A big piece of my work with Sustainably LB is storytelling and journalism. I believe that compassionate service journalism can be used as, and is, a vehicle to educate and support individuals and communities in a way that doesn’t come off as elitist, which is a common problem in the sustainable living conversation. And with the internet, that reach can be expansive. Global even. And I love that this platform has given me the opportunity to talk to people from across the globe! It really does make me feel like there is an extensive network of individuals who are also dedicated to this work. Because there are! 

But when it comes down to it, I want my global impact to reflect what I do in my community. I want people to see Swap Omaha and be inspired to host a clothing swap of their own. Even if that is only with a few friends. I want people to look at my work through Sustainably LB and go make friends with the vintage shop owner down the street and talk about how they can deeply serve their community in a greater capacity or get involved with legislation initiatives that hold the fashion industry accountable.

How do you stay motivated and inspired on your sustainability journey, especially during challenging times or setbacks?

Depending on the situation, I do one (or a combination) of three things. If I am flirting with that line of burnout, I will pull back entirely and take the necessary time to refill my cup, or I will put my efforts into the lighter side of the industry by doing a vintage / preloved styling video or something of the like. Something that allows me to not take things so seriously and connect to a sense of play. If the work feels insurmountable and like the fashion industry will never change, I come back to my why. Why am I doing this work in the first place? And then there are your helpers, your support system. Sometimes I will just need to vent, sometimes I will need to plan an event to do what I can with what I have (if I am feeling particularly helpless but will have drive) and sometimes I will just need someone to give me hope again. And oftentimes these are different people, I don’t wanna go to the eternal hope person if all I want to do is vent. 

It is really about honoring your feelings and knowing what you need as setbacks and triggers show up.

Looking back on your experiences so far, what is one thing you wish you had known when you first started your projects?

I wish someone would have told me to have patience, because good things take time. I know that is cliche, but things that are meant to last take time to build. In this world of instant gratification, I thought that all of this would come together just like that. Step one, I would have the vision. Step two, I would start to implement my dream and keep working towards it. Step three, volia, it would be completely actualized in 6 months. Haha, no. While I sometimes find myself wishing that things were happening faster, I have really begun to enjoy the process. I can’t really change the spend at which everything comes together, try as I may. So now I just enjoy where I am while continuing to move in the direction I want to go.


by Harness Editor

Harness believes that freedom of expression equals female empowerment. The truth? We’re a badass authentic community of fierce women, and we exist to help your voice be heard. Harness is here to be your safe haven. A place to shed the competition, the insecurities. This is a place to rise by lifting others. This is who we are.


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