Image: Women artisans who work in INDIGENOUS' supply chain.
By Matt Reynolds
Fashionistas now, for the first time, can see beyond clothing labels with the Fair Trace Tool developed by my company, fair trade fashion retailer INDIGENOUS along with Worldways Social Media. This new tool, a QR code on hang-tags, offers transparency throughout the garment’s supply chain, including a glimpse of the artisans who actually made it and insight into the product’s social impact. The content is delivered in text, video and animated map format.
We founded INDIGENOUS on the principle that great design starts with paying workers fair wages, having fair working conditions and using materials that do not harm our environment. As my co-founder, Scott Leonard, CEO of INDIGENOUS says, “No one should suffer or die to make clothing. Just the opposite – they and their families should prosper. That’s how it is with our supply chain. That’s how it can be with others. Let’s not make this harder than it is.”
The global fashion industry is a trillion-dollar business, rampant with social and environmental injustices. Child labor, slave labor and hostile working conditions exploit workers. Pesticides used in cotton fields and toxic dyes used in yarns and fabrics devastate lives, land and water. The good news is that we can do something about it.
We at INDIGENOUS hope that 2014 is the year of collaboration. As brand leading manufacturers, we must collaborate and share best practices, even as our earth’s natural resources are being depleted. Yes, there are solid efforts being made by such organizations as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which has made great strides to accelerate the implementation of the Higg Index into the apparel industry. Fair Trade USA, the Ethical Fashion Forum, The Source, Fashion 4 Development, and Fashion Revolution Day are all working toward this same goal. However, these organizations alone cannot accelerate change or bring transparency to the fashion industry fast enough to make a significant dent in the huge trillion-dollar fashion machine.
Our consumptive standard of living, especially in the U.S., is exhausting precious natural resources in record time and has unnecessarily killed thousands of innocent hard-working people. Fossil fuels, formed millions of years ago, have been pulled from the earth at exponential rates, past their tipping point, in just the last 200 years. We are living in an unsustainable “energy orgy.” Look around you. I would bet most every object in the room around you has been derived from or involves fossil fuels in some manner. Your clothing is not excluded. Approximately 8,000 chemicals are used to make a typical item of clothing… not to mention the incredible injustice in terms of human rights and worker safety. Yet we choose not to see.
On April 24, 2013, the collapse of the Rana Plaza Building, just outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city, killed more than 1,100 garment workers. In November 2012, 112 factory workers died in the Tazreen factory fire in Bangladesh. Then, on Dec. 1, seven people died and others were injured in a fire that destroyed a garment factory and its cardboard dormitory that housed workers in the Italian town of Prato, in Tuscany. Each month, more tragedies like this happen that are not reported. When are we gong to join forces to keep this from occurring again and again? Now, imagine if the companies who produced clothing in these factories were in constant, direct contact with the workers and shared their supply chain transparently with consumers. All of these tragedies could have been averted.
I believe it is not a matter of “if,” but of “when” our consumption habits and global system of economics will be forced to change. Clearly, we are not living sustainably. The interconnectivity of Energy, Economy and Ecology will be realized when our current system hits a wall. But why wait until our hands are forced, when we can use the amazing tools now available to do the right thing and start working together to share solutions available today? INDIGENOUS is calling on all brands to cooperate to shift production habits and share best practices so that we can turn this massive ship of fashion in the “humane and planetary” right direction.
The Fair Trace Tool engages our end customers in the lives of our artisans and gives them insight into the social impact of an INDIGENOUS purchase. At the same time, the back end of the Trace Tool allows us to communicate directly with our artisan producers at the BOP (base of the pyramid) via cell phone-based voice and text technology.
While it is arguable that the proprietary Fair Trace Tool represents a distinct competitive advantage, INDIGENOUS is ready to share it to help save lives and promote industry collaboration, thus improving the well-being of artisans and garment workers everywhere. This is not the time to be exclusive. To bring change, we must take an inclusive and open-source approach.
Heather White, global labor expert and founder of Verite, which monitors global working conditions, commended us for improving the lives of workers in the company’s supply chain: “All over the world workers are paying the price for the clothes we wear. Environmental cost is also not factored into our purchases. The Fair Trace Tool offers consumers an opportunity to better align their belief systems with the purchases they make.”
The question is: When are we as consumers and brands going to take full responsibility for what we buy and what we make? The U.S. currently represents less than 5 percent of the global population, yet we consume almost 30 percent of the world's apparel.
The continued implementation of The Fair Trace Tool within the INDIGENOUS supply chain is exciting for us, our customers and the apparel industry as a whole. So far, the tool has provided the company with a new data set that facilitates internal analysis of its social impact and progress over time. The data shows that most artisans in the INDIGENOUS supply chain are now living above the poverty line. The percentage of those who are at risk has fallen since 2011. Also, the majority of artisans continue to feel satisfied by their jobs.
Through these efforts and with rigorous environmentally responsible standards, a brand can guarantee a sustainable product to their customers and at the same time influence purchase decisions and brand loyalty. Ultimately, we want to share our best practices and supply-chain transparency tools with any fashion brand that is striving to improve labor conditions, implement sustainable manufacturing practices and enhance communication with customers.
Image courtesy of INDIGENOUS via Facebook
Matt Reynolds, President & Co-founder of INDIGENOUS, is an ardent advocate about the positive power of business for the benefit of people and the planet. He has been a pioneer in the areas of fair trade, organics, environmental practice and the sustainability movement. He has worked for over twenty years in bringing together organizations around the world and helping to create numerous collaborative initiatives. His passion and dedication have firmly established him as a leader in the global organic and fair trade movement.