Sourcing is a significant challenge for emerging brands–especially those that value sustainability, transparency and fair working conditions. For some, it’s a process that involves compromise, as a designer’s best intentions for ethical production are challenged by the existing industry infrastructure.
When we launched our menswear label, we (perhaps naively) set up an ambitious framework for ethical sourcing that strives to encompass the following:
- Sustainability. Eliminating toxins from our supply chain helps to ensure safe working conditions and minimize our environmental footprint.
- Fair. Everyone deserves access to living wage jobs; at Lazlo that includes populations trapped in a cycle of poverty and recidivism.
- Quality. The most sustainable products we can make are items that don’t need to be replaced.
- Transparency. Transparency encourages accountability and builds authenticity.
- Local. Supporting local economies fits hand-in-hand with our interest in transparency and sustainability.
Meeting any one of these standards moves the needle towards change, and it can feel exponentially more difficult to prioritize all of these values at once. However, these issues are so complex and intertwined that is nearly impossible to move towards systemic change without considering all of these factors when sourcing materials.
We didn’t anticipate quite how many hurdles we would face in navigating this framework. For example, in our search for a domestically produced organic jersey that would allow us to back our t-shirts for life, we sampled fabrics from mills around the country. Unsatisfied, we realized that we were going to have to build a custom fabric. We learned that Supima® cotton was the highest quality, but that the vast majority of the organic Supima goes over to the European market. A mill told us we were on a wild goose chase to try to get our hands on organic Supima, especially as a new brand. Nevertheless, we were able to build a relationship with a mill in LA. The owner bought into our vision for sustainable, high-quality products, and he picked up the phone and convinced the Swiss yarn spinner to work with us on a small run. We didn’t feel great about shipping fabric across the Atlantic Ocean and back, but because we believed strongly that quality is a key factor in sustainability, we were willing to prioritize access to the best yarn spinners and best fibers. We also knew that our next production run would be large enough to be spun at a sister company in Georgia, which would reduce transportation emissions.
1. Just because you can’t find it doesn’t mean it isn’t available. Suppliers with shared values may have been waiting for the opportunity to manufacture products that the mainstream market hasn’t been interested in. The mill owner we work with in Los Angeles was excited to help us develop a premium jersey.
2. Picking up the phone can build the partnerships you need. The U.S. garment industry is surprisingly small and people working towards a common vision have been more than generous with their time and connections.
3. Be prepared to do it yourself. When we ran up against the lack of local infrastructure, we built out a production floor in Detroit and set out to employ formerly incarcerated men. We are hoping to make our manufacturing capacity available to other designers who don’t have the resources for vertical integration.
4. Build in extra time. Some of the most helpful advice we received was being told to start small, and this has proven true. We started with the most basic item in a man’s wardrobe, a white t-shirt, and it took us nearly two years to develop a fabric, raise financing and build out a production facility. We are grateful we did not try to start with anything more complicated. There is a reason most brands don’t push the limits of ethical sourcing.
5. Know your values and story. Even when we clearly stated our interest in sustainable, local and high-quality fabrics, we were surprised when manufacturers kept offering products that compromised our values for a lower price point. With so many brands talking about sustainability and ethics but still making decisions based almost entirely on price, it may take suppliers some time to feel out how committed you are to your values. We learned very quickly that our social mission and focus on quality helped get the attention of great partners that might not have otherwise made time for a small brand.
6. Compromise can still facilitate systemic change. Less than 1% of the global cotton crop is organic, and it can take years for a farm to transition to organic production. Supporting American farmers who are transitioning to sustainable methods may be as valuable as using certified organic cotton.
7. Be prepared to pay more. It’s generally more expensive to source ethical and sustainable materials, and that’s a good thing. We have an economy and an industry built around cheap prices and consumption habits that come at a huge cost to communities around the world. We’ll happily pay more to participate in an equitable supply chain.
[First published on Maker's Row]