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Filtering by Tag: supply chain transparency

Putting a Face to Fashion: Cambodia

I have been reading a lot about Cambodia’s apparel industry lately, both positive and negative. On the positive side are the continued growth in its exports of apparel (7.6% in 2015) and the rise in pay of apparel workers (the average take-home pay of Cambodia’s garment workers rose to US$175/month). On the negative side are the continued challenges of sourcing in Cambodia (labor issues, strikes, lack of infrastructure) and the fact that even with the rise in pay for garment workers, the ILO still considers this pay very low. I struggled to find information or transparency about Cambodia’s apparel supply chain, despite the fact that many fashion brands work with suppliers/factories in Cambodia (e.g., H&M, Levis Strauss & Co, Gap). The closest I came was Nike’s interactive map of suppliers that shows the names and addresses of the five factories in Cambodia that produce apparel for Nike. Therefore, I was excited to learn about the fashion brand, Tonlé, which provides more complete transparency of their operations in Cambodia. 

Tonlé is a fashion brand of women’s apparel and accessories headquartered in Phnom Penh. Not only can you go online and meet the team of workers in Phnom Penh, you can see photographs of the team sewing, knitting, screen-printing, and hand weaving products. In addition, Tonlé merchandise combines two strategies for zero-waste fashion: “creative pattern making that uses 100% of a given material, and generating garments from remnant materials.” Designers and production team members work side-by-side to create merchandise that results in only 2-3% waste fabric (which by any account is amazing!). However, they were not satisfied -- they then take this waste fabric to create recycled paper. It is all here in their video.

I love it when I can put a face to fashion – Tonlé is a great example!

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Putting a Face to Fashion: Uganda

As you know from my previous blog postings, I strongly believe in the power of supply chain transparency -- I love companies that share stories of their workers through photos, videos, and interviews – evidence of the real faces of fashion. Two companies (well, one of them is a non-profit but most of their operating expenses comes from selling merchandise) I want to share with you in this posting are Sseko Designs and Krochet Kids Intnl. Both produce merchandise in Uganda and both use the creation of fashion as a basis for social change; in the case of these two companies to use fashion to empower women in Uganda. Through the creation of fashion both companies offer women steady employment, education and/or scholarships, and opportunities for the women to become self-reliant. In addition, by producing merchandise in Africa with materials/fabrics from either the US or Africa both companies can take advantage of the US trade initiative known as the  African Growth and Opportunity Act when importing the merchandise back into the US,

Sseko Designs makes wonderful “ribbon sandals” with interchangeable fabric straps as well as leather bags and other footwear and accessories. The model used by Sseko Designs is to provide employment to women during the 9-month gap between high school and university requiring them to save money to pay for tuition. Sseko also grants scholarships to these women so that they can earn a college degree. As they note “If we considered the impact that each product we consume has on the lives of those who produced that product and chose to see consumerism as a force and opportunity for positive social change, we believe the world would be filled with beautiful products with even more beautiful stories.” On their website is a “meet the women” page with stories about the women who work for Sseko Designs. For example, Pauline works in assembling sandals. Her goal is to study law.

Krochet Kids Intnl. creates hand crocheted hats, scarves and other men’s, women’s, and children’s apparel. The model used by Krochet Kids Intntl. is that women enter their program, learn to crochet and have steady employment for up to three years. During that time, they set goals, learn about business operations and finance, and have one-on-one mentoring with a local female program mentor. An interesting aspect of Krochet Kids is that they are a registered non-profit organization. As they note, “As a non-profit, we are able to focus more resources and financial investment into our program initiatives and the activities that achieve empowerment.” Upon graduation from the program, the women have gone on to become business owners and teachers. As noted in a Krochet Kids Intnl. video: “the true measure of social impact is not how well you can care for someone in your presence, but how well they thrive in your absence.” Watch their videos of the women crocheting hats sold all over the world and you too will be inspired.

These are the true faces of fashion.

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Putting a Face to Fashion: New Zealand and Ecuador

As you have read in some of my previous posts, I am an advocate for supply chain transparency. I believe it is imperative that fashion brand companies share with customers how, where, and by whom their products are made. And I love it when I find companies that do what I think is a fantastic job with this – telling their stories in ways that authentically put a face to the fashions we buy are wear. With this posting, I’ll share a couple of companies that I feel are very effective in telling their stories.

The first company is Icebreaker, a New Zealand-based company of merino wool base layers, sportswear, and outdoor wear. On each Icebreaker product is a label “trace me” along with the directions “simply type the unique Baa code on the green tag inside your garment into”.  You will get information about where the wool came from and “meet the growers who raised them, and follow the production process through to the finished product”.  Videos of the wool growers are absolutely delightful – real people and real places!

The second company is Winter Sun. I wrote about Winter Sun in an earlier blog as a company that designs and produces hand-painted fabrics and women’s apparel using fair trade practices. The Winter Sun factory is located in Ecuador.  On their website are wonderful photographs and a video that shows the location of the factory in the Andes mountains of Ecuador along with the artisans who create the hand-painted fabrics and the sewing operators in the apparel factory.  I have personally visited this factory and can vouch for the authenticity of the photographs and video. The beauty of the place is amazing!

I wish every fashion brand provided this type of transparency particularly around the people who raise the animals, pick the cotton, design and create the styles, and sew the fashions we wear. In both of these cases, we can see who is involved with the making these brands -- these are the faces of fashion!

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A Tale of Transparency

I’m one of the few people in the world who actually looks at tags/labels in clothing to find out where the clothing was made. I do this more out of curiosity rather than using the information as a purchase criterion. Like other consumers, country of origin, is not one of the most important aspects of a garment in my deciding whether or not to purchase it. I also know that there are responsible factories everywhere and irresponsible factories everywhere and so country of origin does not guarantee factory or brand responsibility. As such, I rely more on the brand name and my knowledge of the brand. That said, I’m not a philanthropic consumer – that is, I do not purchase clothing I do not like or that doesn’t fit just because I know the company is responsible.  

One of my favorite fashion brands is Nau, a Portland, Oregon-based company that designs and markets urban lifestyle fashions with environmentally responsible materials. I wear Nau a lot when I travel; I particularly love the designs that allow me to take one garment I can wear as a jacket, dress, or top or remove the sleeves and wear as a sundress or jumper.  They also have a website that provides a wonderful description of their design philosophy, sustainability efforts, and social causes that they support. They outline and defend their global sourcing approach: “We manufacture our clothing in four countries—Canada, China, Thailand and Turkey—using fabrics from China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Thailand and the U.S.A.” (Nau, 2015). Therefore, how surprised I was to recently purchase an organic cotton sundress only to read the label “Made in India”.  I’m going to give Nau the benefit of the doubt that their website is not up-to-date. But, it did make me ponder why companies, even socially responsible companies like Nau, have difficulty or are reluctant in providing information to consumers about their supply chain?

Given that few companies are authentically transparent, how does a consumer know that the clothing they are thinking of purchasing was made using socially responsible business practices? Unfortunately, country of origin is not a guarantee. Granted, I tend to shy away from anything made in Bangladesh; but I also know that there are WRAP-certified factories there. Reputation and authenticity of brand name is probably the best way to assess a brand’s social responsibility. That does not make it easy for consumers. Over the coming months, I’ll share some of my favorite brands and why I believe they are authentically transparent. I welcome your experiences and information about favorite brands as well! In the meantime, I’m still going to look at tags/labels and still do my research.  

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