When Otero Menswear first decided to create an innovative, fashion-forward line of menswear, promoting both style and confidence, we were also committed to manufacturing every article of clothing with a high respect for both the environment and the people who are involved in every stage of manufacturing.
As reasonable as these goals may seem, it turns out that the odds were stacked against us … but with a little heart and soul, we found a way. This article is to give you some tips on how you, too, can find a way through an industry that seems dead set on continuing in its harmful ways.
Today, the fashion industry is one of the worst global polluters (second only to the oil and gas industry). Many brands manufacture cheap, throw-away fashions that aren’t designed to last for more than a season; others use fabrics manufactured exclusively from non-renewable, petroleum-based products that wear out quickly but won’t biodegrade for centuries; still others employ cost-cutting manufacturers who outsource production to sweatshops with awful working conditions and poverty-level wages. If you are like us, however, you will not let any of these factors stand in the way of establishing an apparel brand that stands for both people and the environment.
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
― R. Buckminster Fuller
Changing our systems for a healthy, post-COVID world
Hear insights from Janine Benyus, Lynne Twist and Andrew Winston on how we got here — and what nature tells us about how to build a global economy that better, and more sustainably, serves the needs of humanity for today, and for the future — at the SB Leadership Summit, SB's first virtual event, June 1-2.
In a perfect world, we could provide the highest-quality natural fabrics, milled ethically, sourced responsibly, and still compete with the cut-rate competition for low prices. But the reality is that ethical branding comes with many trade-offs and requires big perspective shifts.
1. Higher price or investment in our future?
The basic economics associated with high-volume manufacturing are not usually compatible with environmentally sustainable and ethical manufacturing practices. If you make these priorities, you’re going to spend more and you’re going to have to charge more. There are ways to partly compensate for these high costs by making innovative changes to the standard business model (for example, selling directly to the consumer), but your basic costs and, therefore, selling prices are going to be higher. Consider this an amazing opportunity to educate your customer about the investment they get to make, both in people of various nations and in the protection of our global environment. We may not all be able to change government policies and the like, but we can all make choices to invest in products that stand for the change we want to see in the world.
2. Limited sourcing options or rare and special relationships?
The knitted fabrics needed to manufacture our Polos and T-shirts could, in theory, be sourced from any one of a dozen countries at, literally, hundreds of manufacturing plants; yet a limited number of these plants hold to ethical and environmental manufacturing standards. So, how do you find these sources? Your best bet is to go to every trade show that you can afford and ask everyone for referrals. The high-quality companies that prioritize these values are out there, but they are few, which makes them unique and special. It may feel like you are hunting for a rare treasure, and in many ways, you are. It is much easier to compromise and choose a supplier based on immediacy of need, but let this search be part of your adventure. And when you find that factory that matches your values, build a sustaining relationship —not just a transactional one. In addition, let your customers know that you searched the world over and found a rare jewel that was totally worth the effort.
3. To see or not to see?
Even with referrals, the only way to guarantee that your garments are being manufactured in a clean, safe, ethical facility is to see it for yourself. In other words, you’re going to have to travel (a lot), meet with manufacturers personally (a lot), and get a firm agreement that the facility you inspected will be the actual facility used to source your materials. Know that many foreign manufacturers will tell you what they think you want to hear, so it’s also up to you to ask for hard-proof documentation of environmental certifications, as well as the materials being used. Our co-founder almost signed a contract for a 100 percent wool fabric, but when he demanded further documentation, he discovered that the samples he had been given were a wool-acrylic blend (acrylic is a terrible fabric, declared dangerous by the state of California). But if he hadn’t pushed, we wouldn’t have known until it was too late.
4. Global or local certifications?
Along with the need to see things firsthand, you will find that many of the certifications you hope to see (from water treatment and reclamation to various labor laws) are issued and managed by local governments, and not by a known international tribunal. You will find that only the largest manufacturers (few of which will work with startups) will carry global certifications — unless they are in an EU country. But don’t let that derail your search. Understand the local requirements, understand the testing and inspection required, talk to your suppliers about their own Quality Processes, walk the floors, talk to employees, inspect the facilities, and then decide if the business in fact adheres to ethical and environmentally responsible practices.
5. A supplier or a supply chain?
Though you may have found a manufacturer you are happy with, you still must pay attention to every link in your supply chain. When sourcing our Polos, T-shirts, and denim, we found there were multiple companies in our supply chain: One that purchases the cotton and then knits the fabric griege, another that dyes the fabric, a third that washes the fabric, then the company that manufactures the product (cutting, sewing and assembly). Even if the company you sign a contract with has all its certificates of compliance and a commitment to healthy environmental and sustainable practices, it does not always mean the entirety of their supply chain does the same. At Otero Menswear, we inspected each link in our chain to verify that the entire supply base functioned at the level of our chosen manufacturer. In one instance, we found one link that would move labor-intensive steps to a factory in a country that could not verify it complied with recognized child labor laws. As we insisted that our product would never cross those country lines, we could not take the risk. The point to remember, however, is that rarely do you choose a single supplier, but one that is part of a much larger chain.
6. Is Material Patently Good or Bad?
One can make arguments for and against the actual sustainability of each material that is utilized in clothing. For instance, many of the natural fibers, though biodegradable, utilize unhealthy pesticides; some an excess amount of water, and others require significant chemical processes to create the fiber. Then, there is polyester, and nylon manufactured exclusively from non-renewable, petroleum-based products that wear out quickly but won’t biodegrade for centuries; yet, they can be recycled and even repurposed … and then there are the blends that commingle these fibers. At Otero Menswear, we focus on cotton and other natural fibers, believing the trade-offs are most favorable from a sustainability perspective; but again, it’s just our perspective. We encourage you to research — whichever fabric you choose, be transparent with your customers and authentic to your brand.
It Is Worth It?
Venturing into a new industry is difficult and choosing to take a stand on environmental sustainability and ethical manufacturing practices will require serious dedication, but the effort will eventually put you into contact with amazing craftspeople, dedicated manufacturers, and people around the globe who care about the future of our planet. Better yet, you can produce and sell garments with confidence; that dedication will reveal that the kinds of people who take responsibility for their product also produce some of the highest-quality materials in the world, and your customers can purchase your products knowing that they have also positively contributed to many lives across the globe.
Everyone wins when we take a stand on environmental sustainability and ethical manufacturing practices.