The benefits of certification

Originally posted on the Green Loves Gold blog.

When I was thinking about starting a sustainable business one of the things I looked into fairly early on was certification standards. In the clothing business there are a growing number of standards and certification programmes that need to be considered.

Standards in the textile industry

In the industry that I’m entering with Arketype, there are a number of potentially applicable standards – to name just a few:

  • Fairtrade Cotton – Fairtrade certification for the raw fibre and textiles production
  • Certified organic cotton schemes, such as USDA National Organic Program or EU 834/2007 (which takes effect in Jan 2009) – covering raw fibre production using methods that are much less impacting on the environment
  • Oeko-Tex – testing and certification to limit use of certain chemicals
  • Homeworkers Code of Practice – an Australian programme that accredits garment manufacturing as “No Sweatshop” (which is part of the Fairtrade cotton standard for garments manufactured in Australia)
  • NoC02 – programme for auditing, reducing and offsetting carbon emissions

Of course there are many standards and logos which can be quite overwhelming for business owners and customers alike. The good folks at Eco-Textile News have produced an excellent guide for the TCF industry that outlines the major standards for that industry.

Even so, businesses can’t carry out all of these certifications, especially so during the start-up phase where capital (and time) are often limited. So the challenge is to be discerning about which programs we engage in.

Of course, we can also incorporate the principles of the various other programs into our practice, even if we’re not in a position to carry out certification against those standards.

Certification counter-acts the tyrrany of distance

I attended a talk recently by a member of a local food co-op and talk turned to “certified organic” produce. Many of the local growers are using organic methods, but not all are seeking certification.

In discussing this, the member explained that one of the aims of the co-op was to connect local growers with their customers directly. In breaking down this distance – creating a direct, personal connection – he argued that the need for certification is greatly reduced as a relationship is built up and trust develops.

If customers can talk directly to the farmer about their methods, perhaps even visit the farm etc., the farmer is less likely to break that trust as their customers are people they know.

In other words, it’s when distance is introduced – when the supply chain gets between the customer and the producer – that certification becomes increasingly important. The longer the supply chain, the more important certification becomes. I find it a thought-provoking alternative “approach” to achieve the same goal as certification.

For example, at a recent event held by my primary supplier, Rise Up Productions, the makers of our products were there at the event, and were introduced to us. Bronwyn Darlington, Rise Up’s founder, often visits the manufacturers and suppliers of our textiles in India – she has a personal connection to the producers – radically reducing the distance between producer and customer.

This builds confidence in me (the customer) that Rise Up are doing the right thing.

Why should we certify?

Interestingly, though, Rise Up are provide certified organic and Fairtrade cotton products, and are accredited under the Homeworkers Code of Practice. So why, given her close connection to producers, is Rise Up going through the certification process?

I can’t speak for Bronwyn and her team, but for me, certification is still important even under this circumstance for one reason: customer confidence.

Thanks to the effects of greenwashing – essentially an abuse of trust by companies who do more talking than walking – certification is essential to build confidence that what we’re doing is not just a marketing pitch and that our claims have been verified by an independent third party.

Without it, we risk being tainted with the same brush as other companies that aren’t as committed to social and environmental outcomes, but are trying to jump on the bandwagon of growing consumer interest in sustainability.

Arketype update

Just a quick update on Arketype, given I’ve been quiet on that front of late around these parts. (For new blog readers – a bit of background here.)

Today I’m heading down to Rise Up to pick up our second fit sample – the dress shirt. The t-shirt fit sample was good, but we’re refining it further and that’s currently with the pattern maker.

I’ve been speaking to Sonny and Biddy at We Buy Your Kids (WBYK) about creating the designs for the initial range of tees. I’ve also been talking further with sustainable fashion designer Timo Rissanen about working together. So far our discussions and the ideas being generated have been very promising.

(As an aside, be sure to head down to Incu at The Galleries Victoria and check out WBYK’s instore displays – v. cool!)

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking on the business plan (especially in light the current economic climate) and have been doing some more market research. I’ve come to a point, though, where I could really use the help of someone with solid retail management experience involved in the project.

So if you happen to know someone (in Australia, pref. Sydney) who’s working in fashion retail as a manager (or store owner) – i.e. someone who has managed a store or perhaps is interested in starting their own fashion retail business, who has experience in the area and knowledge about volumes etc. – that you think might be interested in engaging on the project, please feel free to pass on my details or let me know.

Stepping outside the forest

It’s been a little while since I wrote about the label. That’s in part because, while a lot has happened, I’ve experienced a bit of a setback.

Recently the designer that has been working on the project became unavailable due to other work commitments. While we’ve made significant progress on the designs, there is still a lot to do – selecting fabrics and finalising the patterns among them.

My initial response was one of disappointment. This possibly (probably?) means that I won’t have a range ready for the Summer 09/10 selling season in February.

Although it’s a fair way away, the combination of this being the label’s first collection, ethical manufacturing lead times, and just generally the fact that I’m not on the project full time, mean that the delay in finding and engaging a new designer, and pattern maker (as the pattern maker was of close relation to Susan) means that we just won’t be ready in time.

However, after that initial sense of disappointment, I’ve come to realise that perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise.

In stepping back, outside the forest as it were, and re-assessing things I’ve realised that, in my rush to meet a deadline, I’ve lost sight of some of the initial vision that I had for the business.

I was, to an extent, falling into the trap of doing things because “it’s the way it’s done” rather than being true to my original vision for the label. I was also trying, I think, to force some things, rather than letting them unfold in a more authentic and organic way.

So I’ve decided to “ship when it’s ready” rather than trying to meet some arbitrary deadline. Of course, I’ll still need to take into consideration the realities of selling into a wholesale market, but I want to do things differently, and I’ll need to learn to be patient (not one of my strong points, I must admit) and let it unfold, rather than pushing things through for the sake of it.

Anyways… I’m currently working on doing a merchandising project for Mars Hill Cafe, and I’m catching up with Timo Rissanen, a PhD candidate at UTS who’s sustainable menswear exhibition “Bad Dogs” I caught last week, to see if there’s some way we might be able to work together.

So, in other words, keeping busy and keeping moving things along 🙂

Collaborative purchasing of eco-friendly fabrics

I’ve been speaking to Rise Up Productions about manufacturing our first range. One of the challenges is that labels need to commit to spend a lot of money up front on eco-friendly/Fairtrade textiles and fabrics – as the minimums for these are quite high (e.g. 300 m2 for a single fabric).

Rise Up is trying to aggregate demand for such fabrics to enable smaller labels, such as myself, to be able to access such fabrics more affordably, and in smaller quantities.

I spotted this press release in a trade publication the other day, but couldn’t find it online, so I’m reproducing it here to help “spread the word”.

Opportunity to collaboratively purchase eco-friendly fabrics

Rise Up Productions is looking for designers interested in working collaboratively to source eco-friendly fabrics from around the globe.

Managing director Bronwyn Darlington said she hoped designers would collectively purchase eco-friendly fabrics to secure more reasonable pricepoints.

“By buying collectively, we might be able to introduce these fabrics into the market,” she said.

And she stressed the fabric sources she used offered a high quality that could easily be sought by after by local designers.

“We don’t deal with people who are working with experimental handicrafts, we are working with those who have been supplying Europe for years,” she said.

“The fabrics perform excellently and offer exceptional printability. We are also able to specify exactly the make-up of the fabric and we look at every step in the production process.”

She stressed volume buying was essential to secure an affordable price.

“Sustainable fabrics are not the cheapest,” she said.

Darlington is also determined to build a profit-for-purpose business creating clothing labels that have a minimal environmental footprint.

For example, pyjamas in the Rise Up range are made in Australia from Fair Trade certified cotton from India and any profit from their sale will be put towards an Oxfam donation. Similarly, sales of hoodies in the collection will lead to profits going to Opportunity International.

“The concept is eco-sustainability and a minimum footprint and that we give all our profit away,” Darlington said.

She plans to soon launch a second higher end fashion label called Ayoka.

Darlington suggested the significant consumer spending dollar was larger than funds competed for by charities.

“The consumer dollar is much bigger and we need to think more creatively to channel those funds into worthy projects,” she said.

Label progress

Clothing pattern pieces on a table

That picture probably doesn’t look like much (esp. given the crappy quality courtesy of my mobile phone’s camera), but it represents a mini-milestone that I thought was worth celebrating – with blog post at least. It’s elements of the first pattern of the first range for the label – for the dress shirt.

I’m sure this will become old hat one day – not even worthy of a blog post – but this being the first is a little victory for me, and one that I think should be celebrated in its own little way 🙂

There are more designs and patterns to come – we’re planning a February launch to wholesalers (for the summer 09/10 season) of around 6 pieces with a few variations for each – but this is the first off the ranks. It’s also the first “tangible” (i.e. “real world”) artifact that’s resulted from the work I’ve been doing on the label. (It’s also further than I ever got before, so it’s nice to be over the first hurdle.)

We’ll be using it to create a fit sample – that is, testing the basic pattern for the cut etc. – and then we’ll be developing patterns for the variations on the piece.

I’ve been speaking to Bronwyn at RiseUp productions about manufacturing. She has been working for some time to develop a Fairtrade/ethical supply chain for manufacturing clothing and textiles, and has really covered all the bases.

So the first samples (dress shirt and t-shirt) will be coming from RiseUp within the next few weeks, Murphy willing. Hopefully I’ll have more to report soon.

The research project is also complete. The final report provided a lot of clarity on where we should focus. Big props to Nat at Red Rollers for doing such an amazing job, and to the 6 research participants who shared just a little of their lives to help us along.

Big props also to Susan Goodwin (who’s designing the range) for guiding me through the process – her generosity of knowledge has been a tremendous help.

In fact, everyone I’ve dealt with so far – Paula from the Fair Trading Co, Nick at Organic Cotton Advantage, Nat, Susan and Bronwyn have all been extremely generous with their time, knowledge and have each been immensely supportive in their own way. It’s been great so far – I hope the positivity continues (although I am sure there’ll be some challenges on the way)…

I’m learning a lot, which has been great (I love learning – one of my favourite things in the world) – but I’ve still got a way to go. I’m doing a short course with RMIT on textiles in August/September which I hope will help me along as well.

Oh, and during the research period I also decided on a label name (i.e. the “Soko Loko” moniker is no more). I’m speaking to some folks at the moment about developing the visual ID, so I’ll announce the name when I’ve got a nice logo to show y’all 😉

Research project

blog-research-packs.jpg

Ever since I first worked with Digital Eskimo (while I was working on the Future is man made site re-launch for WWF) I’ve really admired their approach to using qualitative research methods to underpin their work.

The research we did for the FiMM site was really valuable and useful – giving us a much clearer picture of where sustainability fits in people’s lives and what sort of site/support people would find most benefit in.

So, in starting down the path of launching a new business, I felt strongly about embarking on a research project to underpin the brand and product development.

Keep reading over the jump for more information about the research process.

Update: I was remiss in not mentioning that I was first introduced to the idea of ethnographic style research for business and the web by Stephen Cox, who is now doing great work at News Limited.

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The Affair

I was chatting to a friend of mine a little while back about my plans to start a label, and they mentioned that a friend of theirs was putting together a tshirt label with some cool designs.

I’ve also been wanting to find some more obscure tshirt labels since Threadless tees are seemingly popping up everywhere nowadays. Plus I wanted a bit of a change, given most of my tees are Threadless already.

In watching my Facebook news feed I saw they’d become a fan of the-affair, figuring that was the label they were talking about, and sure enough it was them.

I checked out the website and subscribed to the blog. I dig the tees and the branding, and the other week took the plunge and purchased two tees.

More about my impressions of the tees and American Apparel over the jump…

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Fashion Exposed

Last weekend I went to the Fashion Exposed exhibition at Darling Harbour. The last time I attended the event was in Melbourne 4 years ago. If nothing else, this year’s event was a firm indicator of how little has changed.

Granted, there were a few booths with organic cotton, hemp or bamboo offerings. Bamboo Body were there, along with Eco Wear and Pure Pod – but there were probably less than a dozen offerings in the full exhibition center area, and of those only one had menswear (tshirts).

The organisers claimed that there was an “eco-fashion” precinct – but this turned out to be 6 stalls, one of which was linen, and the other was Drizabone – included because they use Australian sheep which is a “natural fibre” (supposedly we’re meant to overlook the immense damage sheep grazing causes on the environment.)

I spoke to a couple of merchandising and shop-fitout suppliers at the show, and it seems that they haven’t yet received word that “green is the new black”. Not one could answer even the most basic questions about eco-friendly shop fittings – they had none. One at least made an attempt, claiming their mannequins were recyclable, but I’ve yet to find evidence to back up that claim.

There were two paper bag companies I spoke to – one responded to my question about recycled bags with “you’d want to look at our natural finished product”. When I asked about the recycled content of the bags, he acknowledged there was none!

Paper Pak, on the other hand, seemed to have a good range of blended recycled material with sustainably managed virgin pulp – and the sales rep didn’t try to bullshit me. He explained that they used water based inks, improving the enviro credentials, but that the adhesives were problematic from a biodegradability standpoint. Still more research to go, but a good start at least on that front.

Overall it was worth the visit to review – but not overly inspiring. I’m currently also reading Eco Chic which serves as a stark reminder as to why I got into this game in the first place. But more on the broken-ness of the system in another post…

Work/life update

I’ve been a bit quiet around blog-land of late due to general busy-ness in life and work (including a presentation I did for the Investor Weekly Branding conference last week.)

Consulting biz: Zumio

Preparations for my consulting biz are going well – the name is Zumio, and I’ve started a blog (of course!) covering work related stuff – esp. posts on social media and networking, with a bit of emphasis on non-profit/social change.

I was waiting until I’d created the site design etc. that reflects the Zumio visual ID etc., but it might be a couple of weeks before that’s done, so worth making mention of it now…

I’ve got a few bookings already post my departure from working as an employee at Digital Eskimo. (Happily I’ll be continuing working with the eskimos as a freelancer on some projects into the future.)

Menswear label: Soko Loko

The menswear label has a “working title”: Soko Loko – I call it “working title” because I’m still working on sourcing a designer and developing the business plan, so I’m not 100% sure the name will stick.

I’ve been busy attending another series of courses at Sydney Community College covering a lot of the practicalities of starting your own label in NSW. Susan Goodwin, who designs and runs street-wear label Rocket Fuel, as well as freelancing for some more well known labels, is running the courses. She’s been an invaluable source of hard-won information about the industry, how it ticks, and how we can make our own label succeed. (Further courses are planned in May – keep an eye on the college’s site if you’re interested.)

Over the next month or two I should have a bit more to talk about in that regard (as much of my time has been focused on establishing the consulting gigs). Suffice to say that so far things have been progressing well.

Fuzu

My band Fuzu have been on a little bit of a self-imposed hiatus as we search for a keyboardist (we’d been jamming with someone who’s unfortunately moving to Melbourne) and finalise the artwork. Toby has come up with some promising photos that may become the cover art, so hopefully it won’t be too much longer…

In related news, we’re no longer the only Fuzu in town – seems a certain gorilla at Toronga Zoo liked the name, which apparently means “to graduate”.

Strange, but true…