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Startup Setting Out to Make Fashion Industry Transparent, 'Just'

The deadly collapse of the Rana Plaza textile factory in Bangladesh in April 2013 was a tragic, overdue wake-up call to the fashion industry — not only to take action to ensure the safety of workers throughout their value chains, but also to illustrate the critical need for transparency as far as their operations reach throughout the world. Now a startup called JUST is aiming to bridge the gap — by finding, vetting and partnering with fashion suppliers that have positive social missions and connecting them with designers, brands and consumers through an online database and consumer platform. The company’s unique model aims to ensure complete traceability of all JUST garments and an ethical supply chain from which any clothing brand can confidently source. Here, co-founder Shahd Al-Shehail shares JUST’s journey.

Natalie [Grillon, co-founder] and I grew up like many female adolescents in the Western world; coveting the latest issue of Vogue and trying to copy the season’s looks. Over time, as the co-founder of a Saudi fashion house, I grew to understand the positives and negatives of the fashion industry, and the potential of bringing the stories of traditional artisans to the consumers who admired their work. Natalie, meanwhile, working in agriculture overseas, began to realize the opportunity of connecting smallholder farmers to global markets.

We met in New York City through the Acumen Global Fellows program. Acumen is a nonprofit that invests in companies, leaders, and ideas that are changing the way the world tackles poverty. And the Fellows program, which sent me to India and Natalie to Uganda, is dedicated to training the next generation of social impact leaders.

One breezy evening in India, halfway through the fellowship, we were trading stories. Natalie was visiting from Uganda, where she had been working with an agriculture development company providing access to market for over 40,000 smallholder farmers. One of the company’s largest crops is organic cotton; she starts to talk about the potential she sees for the farmers and for connecting them to the fashion industry. The company has created something incredible and special, she says. This should be the standard not the exception.

We start brainstorming. What if we could provide good suppliers, like the company she is working at, access to a market? What if there were better standards by which brands and consumers could judge their garments? And what if there was something that guarantees quality inputs in the items we purchase, with which a consumer could easily understand and make an informed decision? What if you had an Intel Inside for clothes?

24, April 2013. 1,129 dead. 2,500 injured. All in a manmade disaster - a factory collapse driven by demand for cheaper clothes at the expense of everything else, even lives. Rana Plaza. A sobering event for the world and certainly for us.

Questions like, “Was my shirt made there, or under similar conditions?” and “Are my purchases feeding this system?” rushed through our heads.

When we dug a little deeper, we realized that the problem was even larger. Thousands more die every year unnoticed. Fashion industry supply chains are complex and opaque, and this lack of transparency and even basic knowledge of a garment’s journey hides human rights abuses and the unsustainable use of resources.

Here we were, in India and Uganda, using our business skills to fight poverty while something as simple as our clothes could be responsible for poverty somewhere else in the world.

JUST was born.

We set out on this journey to create a market where fashion is not just beautiful but inherently ethical. At JUST, we find, vet and partner with suppliers who are already lauded for their positive social missions. Through our online database and consumer platforms, we connect them to designers and consumers yearning for positive change and accurate information to hone their decisions. The result is accountability in the supply chain, and trusted, celebrated JUST garments and suppliers.

JUST wants to make your every purchase impactful and transparent. These production stories may seem far from home, but JUST aims to prove just how close they really are. We believe real change happens through the accumulation of all the small choices people make every day, when combined, our purchasing power truly can change an industry.

This post first appeared on the JUST blog on April 23, 2014.

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