Today’s brands are under increasing pressure to build ethical practices into their whole production line. We spoke to some of our favourite fashion brands from London, New York and Paris to learn from their experiences.
The fashion industry at large isn’t known for its ethical or sustainable practices. In fact, it’s known for being incredibly wasteful to the point of environmental crisis and mass unethical production that undermines workers’ standards. Change is on the horizon, however, as young fashion entrepreneurs are challenging the status quo by stepping up to bring more honest, fair and sustainable manufacturing processes into the limelight.
Manufacturing may not be the ‘sexiest’ part of starting a fashion business. However, if you are starting a new line, it’s important to consider how you’ll go about it. Here, a handful of designers who have consciously gone through this process share their best practices.
Do your research, diligently
Regardless of whether you come from a background in fashion or not, beginning to look for factories and suppliers can be daunting. So jump straight in by talking with your own networks and contacts.
When Alice Ashby, the former knitwear designer for Rag & Bone, set out to start responsibly sourced knitwear line Blake LDN, she picked up the phone and started making a lot of calls. Word of mouth, she quickly found out, was an effective way to get your foot in the door. “I regularly attended trade shows, such as Pitti Filati in Florence, and found that the more relationships I built, the more people would open up to recommending factories. Finding the right manufacturers when you’re just starting out can take a long time. You can’t be put off by people saying no. You have to persevere,” she advises.
Though it might be helpful, you don’t need to come with a black book full of fashion contacts to start asking around. Maxine Thompson, the founder of Polka Pants – a line of fashion-focused chef trousers made in London – began by cold calling other independent brands she admired to learn about their experiences. “When I was put in touch with a production studio, I’d visit them personally, meet the team and assess whether the work environment was up to par with our brand ethos,” she says. “The environment in which Polka Pants are physically manufactured is as important to us as the finished product. I strongly believe that the product will be better if the individuals who are responsible for making it are happy, which is true in any field.”
If you really don’t know where to start your research, another approach might be to start by asking experts in your field – and then making a grand road trip out of it, like the guys behind New York-based ethical sneaker brand KOIO did.
“When we started KOIO, we didn’t know anything about making sneakers or working in fashion, so we reached out to shoe professors at FIT and Parsons and built a strong network of advisors,” says co-founder Johannes Quodt. “Then, we set out on a year-long journey to find talented craftsmen to work with. We visited 34 factories across Italy. Eventually, we came across a family-run business tucked away in the hills around Le Marche and knew right away they were ‘the one’. The quality of their work and attention to detail is unrivaled – they used to work exclusively for Chanel. Finding these people took perseverance and determination, but it made all the difference.”
Do build production relationships face to face
These days, it’s easy to hide behind a screen. When it comes to building a two-way relationship with manufacturers, and ensuring the conditions in which the work is done are kept up to your standards, it’s important to handle business in person.
“It’s really worthwhile to take the time to get to know the people who are making your products. Especially upfront, we make sure to visit each prospective manufacturer to ensure conditions and quality are in line with our expectations, but also so we can explain our brand vision and projections in person,” says Richard Jeal of ethical menswear line Form & Thread. “Building close relationships with each of our factory partners allows us to keep flexible minimums, production timelines and delivery dates. It allows us to appreciate the level of skill and craftsmanship behind each individual piece that’s made.”
For “Made in LA” ethical jewellery line Vrai & Oro, building strong relationships with their manufacturers has been a key element of their mission to push the boundaries of the traditional fine jewellery industry. “For us, our manufacturers are not only partners but an extension of our brand. The relationship is built on mutual respect and collaboration,” says founder Vanessa Stofenmacher. “The close proximity of our offices is a huge benefit, bringing a true sense of camaraderie to the working relationship as we grow together.”
Do pay attention to craftsmanship
The hunt for the right factory or supplier isn’t just about fair wages and delivery schedules – it’s equally as much about the quality of work being done.
“KOIO sneakers are made of more than 100 individual parts and touch 42 hands in the production process,” says Johannes of KOIO. “Being able to work with some of the world’s best artisans who are well-compensated and in good working conditions means they can give 100% to what they’re doing, and truly achieve the insane attention to detail we’re after.”
For Alice of knitwear label Blake LDN, it was important to base her hunt for factories on those sthat were not only passionate about making knitwear, but also about their employees. “We source yarns from some of the oldest and highest quality yarn suppliers from around the world. The UK factories we rely on for our new classic jumpers are family-run businesses that have been going for years. It goes to show that they have fantastic skill sets and truly nurture their craft,” she says.
Do define your stance, don’t settle for less
Whether in quality of materials you’re sourcing, the people you’re employing or the environmental footprint you’re leaving behind, start by carving out your point of view.
“Sustainability is something that can be taken advantage of, so make sure that you start by properly defining your environmental concerns and ethical practices, and contextualising your stance towards your customer,” says Matthew Scanlan, founder of Naadam, the startup on a mission to disrupt the cashmere supply chain by paying goat herders a fair wage. For Naadam, this required fully understanding and taking control over their entire supply chain, from beginning to end.
“In order to cut out the middleman, we own the raw material and even go so far as employing guards to watch over it 24/7. We begin by sorting our raw material on site with our herders, before washing and dehairing the cashmere and shipping it to inner Mongolia to be spun into yarn. We don’t let anyone else’s hands touch our material from the moment the material is gathered from the herders straight through to yarn manufacturing and the knitting process,” says Matthew.
Do consider your environmental footprint
On top of fair wages and pricing (the brand proudly claim to pay their nomadic herders 50% more than traditional traders, while keeping costs down by 50% for the consumer), Nadaam also takes their environmental cost seriously. “We use non toxic dyes and washing chemicals, as well as cut down on the logistics to reduce carbon emissions and enhance speed to market. We only work in facilities that are Bluesign and Cradle to Cradle Certified. This is how we believe manufacturing should be done,” says Matthew.
From cashmere to diamonds, jewellery brand Vrai & Oro points out that you should reconsider the way materials are traditionally sourced. “We believe that using materials like aboveground diamonds and recycled gold to make our jewellery will make a lasting effect on our company’s environmental impact. By questioning tradition, we can set a new standard that we as consumers desire ourselves.”
When you’re starting out, ordering in small batches can be a challenge. When Maxine of Polka Pants first stumbled upon this issue, she figured out she could find other small brands online in independent fashion forums to split the cost. “We’d buddy up for things like fabric, buttons, zippers – even cutting card for sewing patterns,” she says.
Textile designer and founder of Paris-based Paria Studio, Morgan Levy, shares her golden rules for how she runs her own ready-to-wear label: “Always ask if there are minimum orders first and if they have stock available. Try to find it locally, it’s less polluting and cheaper for transport. Also try to use dead stock from suppliers or designers so you don't have minimums of production. And last but not least, don't over produce.”
Do share your story
At the end of the day, the hard work that goes into building ethical manufacturing processes pays off. Today’s increasingly conscious consumers look to buy from brands who align with their own personal values. They are savvy and appreciate transparency as the way forward. This is especially true for luxury brands who value provenance and therefore offer a higher price point.
So if you’re taking responsibility over the way in which products are made or manufactured, build it into your brand’s story. After all, it’s by setting an example of how it can be done better that the fashion industry can move towards a less harmful future.
Words by: Lisa Roolant