7 Things We’ve Learned About Ethical Sourcing In The Garment Industry

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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.

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When we launched our menswear label, Lazlo, 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.

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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. IMG_8502
  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.Wall ivin back off-small
  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.

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  • Sandy Montalbano

    This company is on the right track with local sourcing for the benefits of localization and for sustainability.

    The benefit of reshoring apparel manufacturing is in the total costs. Offshore apparel manufacturing leads to high shipping costs, high carrying costs of large inventories and long lead times. Reshoring allows for smaller batches with more flexibility for customization, style changes and delivering the product to stores on time for consumers.

    The planet will benefit from more production occurring in the more environmentally responsible locations, and by a dramatic reduction in global freight. Furthermore, the less environmentally responsible locations will have added incentive to achieve higher environmental standards sooner.

    The not-for-profit Reshoring Initiative can help.

    The not-for-profit Reshoring Initiative’s free Total Cost of Ownership software helps corporations calculate the real P&L impact of reshoring or offshoring. In many cases, companies find that, although the production cost is lower offshore, the total cost is higher, making it a good economic decision to reshore manufacturing back to the U.S. http://www.reshorenow.org/TCO_Estimator.cfm

  • http://www.ebatotes.com Emmaly Knecht

    We are also building a brand on sustainability and using manufacturers in LA and its tough!! But we also have seen a growing trend of the fashion market not wanting “fast fashion.” And with documentaries like True Cost showing the negative global effect of fast cheap fashion, i think consumers are shifting towards purchasing fashion from sources that they can feel go about.

    Its not about what we are selling, its about what we are creating.

    http://www.ebatotes.com

  • Jason Maderight

    Fair wages really speaks out to me. One really great part about apparel is that it has, through history, improved global poverty. I don’t think enough people really think about how US textile industry was created in 1800’s through Britain’s outsourcing and cost cutting as it matured as an economy. The textile industry is one of the early indicators of industrialization. It raised our wages, improved living conditions. This is what we’re doing for the rest of the world as leaders of the knowledge economy. Our shops have a fair wage and no-shadow-factory policy for those reasons.