Careful planning, ethical sourcing, and customer education are the keys to a truly sustainable company.
Corporate marketing departments that treat printed apparel as an afterthought have been a thorn in my side for as long as I’ve been in the industry. About three years ago, we pivoted our company and restructured almost all of our operations. We looked at the landscape of apparel decoration and custom printing, and saw an opportunity to expand our sustainable clothing line.
We got rid of our retail and online stock design businesses and focused Fed By Threads entirely on cut and sew. In 2016, every product we printed had been purchased as a finished garment; now, we contract manufacture 70 product groups that we have designed at four factories across the United States. We only use sustainable fabrics and it’s been difficult to buy what we need off the shelf. To meet our needs, we’ve been engaged with mills to develop our own proprietary fabrics. Now, we’re producing jackets, aprons, resort wear, swimsuits, and even mascot uniforms for sports teams – all under the banner of ethically made American clothing.
I’ll admit, the cost is higher and the planning requires a level of discipline that may be difficult for a small shop to achieve. Above all, the move to sustainable production has forced us to think about time differently. We’ve learned that if we mismanage time, we can’t recover easily or inexpensively.
The Instant Economy
Let’s be realistic: Our customers are human beings, and that means they’re selfish. They want what they want, when they want it. Amazon and Walmart have enabled them to buy little treasures quickly online and then have them in hand the next day. The unforeseen problem from this business model, sometimes called the “Amazon effect,” is the excessive shipping waste such as cardboard and packaging materials that paralyzes national waste-management chains with mountains of boxes. Some retailers are trying to respond by using fewer packaging materials and switching to shipping bags for soft goods, but the model is still built around the concept of instant gratification.
Some of the giant corporations in our industry have committed millions of dollars and infrastructure to developing systems that allow shirts to be printed and shipped quickly, arriving in the customer’s hands in a day or two. These mega-operations have invested heavily in creating increasingly fast delivery systems for products that shouldn’t be made instantly. Yes, T-shirts can be made in an hour for next to nothing, but they are cheap only because these manufacturers aren’t paying the ancillary costs. Farmers in India can’t negotiate their rate above what the local market will pay. Nor can the factory worker in Bangladesh demand a higher wage, because the apparel companies are in a perpetual race for the lowest price – and that only comes with the cheapest labor.
Workers are subject to local legislators, government regulations, and the cost that the market rationalizes, without any advocacy from the customer overseas. In fact, those brands would sooner take their business across the street and endure the pangs of startup production in order to lower their production cost by a few pennies. On the books, it may look like savings, but when you track waste, selvage, production downtime, training, and rejects, those pennies saved may actually mean higher costs.
And somehow, our culture has decided that if an American clothing manufacturer is poisoning people in India, China, Turkey, or some other foreign land where we don’t have to look at them, it’s OK. We don’t mind polluting in other countries as long as we don’t have to look at toxic pools of sludge, children with birth defects, or crumbling buildings, provided we get our garments for cheap. We have been systematically trained to desire cheaper goods. This fast-fashion mindset is nothing more than a race to the bottom to see who can get the cheapest shirt to the customer the fastest.
And sustainability is not about racing to the bottom.
Sustainability is the New Black
If you think sustainability is about hippie sandals, veganism, and recycled drinking straws, you’re buying into the “baby boomer” version of green. Sustainability is about paying attention, planning, understanding your resources, and being able to reasonably predict costs and have repeatable production with profit and without harm. Sustainability is the new “black technology” (a high compliment in the tech world reserved for mind-boggling, futuristic scientific feats), and my CFO loves being in the black.
In February of 2018, I lectured at Harvard University’s Social Enterprise Conference and I was asked how our company was going to change the minds of the corporate consumer to become more sustainable. I said “through manipulation,” and what I meant was “by introducing the client to a product they didn’t know they desired and explaining the ROI.”
I’m not Machiavellian, just realistic. The customer doesn’t know what they want until you show it to them and explain the positive impact of that choice. Our brand has benefited from the fact that our customers spend hours looking on the internet for a product that matches their personal ethos. They’re not looking for a company in particular – they’re looking for a solution. They don’t set out specifically looking for a product that causes no harm, but when we tell them about ours, it’s a compelling story.
Our customers are interested in our management of raw materials and resources, conservation, education, and community services. When they learn that we participate in meal programs, offer livable wages, use no toxins, and work only with manufacturers that have a completely transparent and ethical supply chain, these are added bonuses that they didn’t know were available when they began their buying process.
Deliberately educating your customers is the future of our industry. If they don’t understand why sustainable production makes sense, they won’t change. My company works year round to educate our customers and explain the impact of their buying decisions on the entire global supply chain.
In February of 2018, we hosted an event at our corporate offices which was organized by the US Department of State and attended by businesses and political leaders from Cuba, Central America, and South America who wanted to understand how to adapt our system to their countries. In February 2019, we’ll be hosting an event with the University of Arizona, Cox Media, and leaders in sustainable apparel and human rights to educate 2000 to 5000 college students about the global damage being done by fast fashion. By making a conscious decision to learn more about the fashion industry, we believe they will change their behaviors and spread those ideas to their friends and their future employers.
I know what you’re probably thinking: “It costs more.” And so it probably seems at first, until you consider that sustainable clothing pays for the entire product cycle. Cheap garments pay only for the “First World” steps of cut/sew/decoration, delivery, overhead, and marketing. Not paid for is the “Third World” pollution, environmental cleanup, or horrific working conditions. By continuing to buy $4 shirts from H&M, consumers are accepting a process that’s unstable and unrepeatable, and will result in manufacturing being shifted to the lowest bidder, over and over again.
As our world slowly becomes more sustainable, we’re accepting many of the associated cost increases. When you get new tires at Costco, you’re charged a $10 recycling fee. Most of us have switched our grocery bags from paper and then plastic to reusable sacks. In each case, our society chose to stop wasting and customers are paying a higher price.
Fed By Threads and other sustainable companies are aware of these fees and ancillary costs and our customers have told us we must be sustainable at a reasonable price in order to complete the transaction. Are people willing to pay more for a recycled shirt? Yes – we sell them every day.
What does this mean for you? It means understanding your entire supply chain, and finding a niche where you can specialize and shine. It means recognizing your strengths and avoiding costly mistakes and waste that impact your business. We’ve found that comprehensively and accurately tracking the resources and costs associated with every job (water use, dryer temperature, production cycle times, volume of materials sent for recycling) is the only way we can function. We track every moment of production.
And the secret ingredient that will make or break you is time. It’s the only one you can’t buy or manipulate.
Recently, our company printed apparel for the second annual Goalkeepers Global e-conference held by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The shirts were beautiful: A one-color front with type as small as 6 points and a 24-color back that combined a variety of techniques. We printed them at three facilities and they came out perfect. Even with hyper-focused schedule management and shipping planned to the minutest detail, we could not have foreseen a hurricane that would delay our deliveries by nearly a week.
The only way to deliver the goods on time was for me to personally take them on a red eye from Arizona to New York City. The $1500 of additional expenses hadn’t been budgeted because we had no way of knowing the weather issues in advance. And all our client knew was that I showed up with the shirts on the day they were promised. In the end, we’re similar to most decorators: We’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done correctly. Our main brand differentiator is that we only use sustainable materials and ethical business practices from “dirt to shirt.” But thinking “green” was only the first step. By being nimble, attentive to lowering our costs, aware of evolving technology, and serious about delivering social benefits, we’ve found the formula that our customers want.
Skya Nelson is the chief operating officer and creative director for Fed By Threads.