As part of our founder interview series, we speak with Jo Salter from Where Does It Come From? about transparent supply chains, producing in India and the meaning of ethical fashion.
What first inspired you to create Where Does It Come From??
I had been looking into Fairtrade and ethics for a while, initially as a consultant and then while exploring an ethical uniform business idea. I soon realised that it was virtually impossible to uncover the whole history of a garment - most brands don't look back further than the fabric. When I had children I became even more aware of this lack of transparency and concerned about the origins of the fabrics I was putting next to my children's skin. I also worried about who was involved in making the clothes - were other children actually working to make clothes for mine to wear?
Every piece from Where Does it Come From? is individually traceable using unique garment codes. How did you come up with this idea?
Each of our garments comes with a code on the label so you can explore the creation journey of your garment. This is done in batches so a group of items made at the same time will have the same code, as this reflects how the garments are made. The idea came to me in the middle of the night and woke me up! I was so excited. However, it proved a lot more challenging than I expected to find production partners, as very few can truly trace their production to the level that I insist on.
How did you connect with your production partners in India? How do you know they are ethical partners?
Our main production partner is MoralFibre Fabrics, based in Gujarat, India. They are a social enterprise set up to promote a handcrafted fabric called Khadi. I spent a year researching and following up a wide range of partnerships; using LinkedIn, phone calls, Skype and attending conferences to connect with producers.
Our first conversations were around sustainability; MoralFibre were promoting the virtually carbon-free and artisanal elements of their fabrics. Khadi has a rich history of sustainability; it was widely publicised by Ghandi as part of his freedom for India movement. I was interested in the Fairtrade and Traceability angle. This was a new aspect but because they had visibility of the supply chain as it was all local and co-operative based, it was achievable. In fact their enthusiasm for traceability soon grew to match my own and my passion for sustainable production grew to match theirs!
As well as face to face meetings and Skype, I have visited the cooperatives and artisan printers in Gujarat and met many of the weavers, spinners and printers. I've also had meetings with the head of the particular cooperative we mainly work with, as well as the local government director responsible for the khadi cooperatives.
Of course it is a challenge to have 100% proof that all meets the standards required; but I feel from my visits and discussions that the people driving these projects are totally committed to ethics and sustainability.
We are currently working on an ethical supply chain for African produced fabrics too, working with the charity Proudly Made In Africa. Most fabrics that we believe to be African - the beautiful bold prints - are actually made in China these days so the weaving and printing skills are being lost, as well as the livelihoods. The challenges and timescales seem to be similar to our Indian experience but it's a fascinating process and we plan to launch sustainable, traceable African cotton garments within the next year or so.
We also hope to work with partners in Nepal and are at the early stages of discussions. We are also hoping to set up a project in the UK where we can trace knitwear back to the flock of sheep!
Each Where Does it Come From? scarf is block-printed by hand using traditional Indian techniques. Where do you find your inspiration for each new block print design?
Good question! I am usually inspired by current events such as environmental issues and wildlife or feedback from customers about what colours or prints they would like to see. Our new Mindfulness scarf - white handwoven cotton printed with inspirational words -came from an idea I had in the shower! It's all about wrapping yourself in positivity.
Sanjay, the MoralFibre print designer is fantastic at turning my ideas into designs. I explain the designs I am looking for and he then creates different versions of how they would work in print. I then have a team of key people - customers and designers as well as creative friends - in a Facebook group who give frank feedback on the designs. We often gather customer feedback using social media too.
Why is the khadi cotton that you use special?
Khadi is a traditional cotton fabric produced using hand spinning and hand weaving techniques. It has a key importance in India that cuts across history, politics, social issues and sustainability. The fact that there is a spinning wheel on the Indian Flag is not a coincidence?
During the struggle for Indian Independence one key issue was fabric. Cotton grew in India but Indians were not allowed to make their own cloth. The cotton was exported to the U.K. and then reimported to India once woven. Ghandi encouraged Indians to spin and weave for themselves. Now the cooperatives he set up are run by the Government with the ongoing goal of rural employment (especially for women), social inclusion and fair working conditions.
The cloth itself is special. The spinning and weaving is all done by hand so each piece of cloth has its own little inconsistencies. It is very soft but also strong; I was surprised when I visited the cooperative to find that Levis actually use it in some of their jeans! Handwoven fabrics are more breathable too so khadi is comfortable to wear; this is why we used it for our shirts.
As if all that wasn't enough, khadi plays a role in sustainability too. Virtually no carbon is used in its production.
What has been your biggest challenge since launching Where Does It Come From??
The biggest challenge has definitely been reaching the market and communicating our message effectively. Big brands dominate and it's a challenge to be heard around their high street presence and big advertising budgets. I completely underestimated the amount of effort required just to get Where Does It Come From? Into the public eye.
The ethical market is growing though (sites like this really help!); many customers are looking for a more holistic approach – focusing on style that doesn't compromise their ethics.
What does ‘Ethical Fashion’ mean to you?
Ethical fashion is a way of creating great looks in a way that does not impact negatively on the world we live in and the people involved in clothing production. I believe it includes recycling and up cycling too. Where Does It Come From? promotes an ethical fashion ethos around shopping consciously. To choose clothes that you love and that are of high quality and then you are more likely to wear them more; treat them better and keep them longer. We hope that sharing the stories of how your clothes were made and getting to know the people involved will help build that relationship.
What do you think are the biggest obstacles preventing higher ethical standards in the fashion industry today?
Fashion is a challenging concept for me. I have a problem with the idea of fast fashion (low quality, cheap clothes produced in haste), or even just wearing something that is 'in fashion' and then rejecting it when it is 'out of fashion'. Fashion as a way of reflecting personal style makes a lot more sense to me.
There is some fantastic work going on to increase ethical standards - supply chain mapping, ethical sourcing and innovative design. However it is an uphill struggle. The clothing business is very lucrative; brands are keen to encourage consumers to buy clothes as often as they can. This leads to a race to the bottom in terms of price and quality.
Consumer awareness is a huge barrier; the majority of consumers just don't have ethics high on their priority list when shopping. Most people would not want others to suffer or our planet to be compromised. But it's easier not to be aware and most big brands aren't going to publicise it. There is an expectation that clothes are cheap (fast fashion prices are roughly the same as the 1980s) and out of sight tends to be out of mind.
Price is also a barrier.
Using sustainable fabrics costs more right now and ethical, traceable production is more expensive than outsourced, unregulated factories. Add to that the fact that ethical brands are usually smaller and can't command the same economies of scale; so prices are invariably higher to the end customer. However ethical your intentions, most customers find it a challenge to pay more.
There are barriers for producers too. To be Fairtrade or Organic certified costs a lot of money with no guarantee of reaching a wider market, and these certifications again put up the end price.
There is no real incentive for brands to produce ethically. Legislation is meagre - the human Slavery Act of 2015 was a start. But it only requires a statement to be made regarding the use of slavery if your business turnover is above a certain threshold, and there is an opt-out clause. Further advances in this area would help ensure brands are more aware of their own supply chain as well as enable customers to access information.
How can we motivate consumers to shop more consciously?
Awareness has to be key to more conscious consumerism. At Where Does It Come From? we hope to inspire by sharing the stories behind the clothes and providing the human to human connection. Key campaigns, such as Fashion Revolution, do a fantastic job at raising awareness; as do movies such as the True Cost. A large proportion of fast fashion shoppers are young so it would be fantastic if we could inspire them to change their shopping habits through better education on this issue.
Celebrity can have a strong effect - many customers are keen to buy what they see their idols wearing. The media tend to amplify this - focusing on the brands being worn by A-listers. Celebrities who embrace ethical fashion, such as Emma Watson, can ensure a brand is mentioned in the national papers! When Joanna Lumley sent us a positive review it was widely covered in local papers and ensured good sales for that design.
However, another key motivation has to be around creating beautiful; quality products that consumers want to wear and want to buy. When we can convince customers that ethics adds even more beauty to their wardrobe then we're there!
What is your proudest moment since launching Where Does It Come From??
There's been quite a few proud moments - product launches, being runner up in the Suffolk Green Awards, media coverage et. But the best was definitely going to India; meeting the people who directly benefit from Where Does It Come From? When I occasionally feel down and wonder what it's all about then I just think back to those people and the fact that we are helping ensure they have livelihoods and that their skills are being maintained. That feels good.