It’s getting increasingly tough to buy clothing that isn’t the result of practices that exploit both workers and the environment. Bernard Hickey talks to the founder of a local tech start-up that wants to help consumers all over the world make better choices.
Globalised supply chains have given us an endless choice of fashion for a mere fraction of what it used to cost – what, if we’re honest with ourselves, we know it still should cost. These mindboggingly complex and opaque chains of manufacturers and assemblers and transport systems are one of globalisation’s ultimate achievements. What’s not to love? Just-in-time supply chains producing beautiful things for prices that beggar belief. The trouble, we now know, is that it was too good to be true. And too fragile to withstand a shock.
Covid-19 was the earthquake that exposed just how little resilience was built into the system, let alone accountability or mechanisms to reflect the true cost of that t-shirt or those sneakers that look so good and cost so little. The price paid on Amazon or AliExpress or your local bargain chain store might cover the raw cost of the cotton, the slave-like wages of the seamstress and the indentured-labour costs of the container shipping crew, but not the carbon emissions from heating the plant, the water shortages created by the irrigated cotton farm, or the misery of the workers in the factories and fields upstream from the glossy website.
Now, with queues of container ships lined up off the coast of California, with empty shelves across New Zealand, and with prices rising to levels last seen in the 2000s, even the global capitalists are questioning the model of just-in-time supply systems that only an algorithm can manage or understand. One of the reasons for the stacks of containers in all the wrong places is the surge of demand from retailers and manufacturers ordering double their usual volumes to build up extra stock — just in case. The best gig in capitalism right now is owning a warehouse.
For me, the first sign that this system was not working came from the most unlikely place, and well before Covid. It happened in late January 2019 as I was driving my rubbish-filled station wagon up the road to Wellington’s southern landfill. I got stuck in a three-hour queue on a Sunday afternoon and couldn’t work out why everyone was cleaning out their closets and garden sheds all at once. The reason, I later realised, was a television show: Tidying Up with Marie Kondo had arrived on Netflix on January 1. All over the wealthy, industrialised west, people were inspired by Kondo to discard their cheap clothes, worn-once shoes and junky Ikea-ish bookcases – all at once. Prices for recycled clothing, plastic and other materials slumped globally. Op-shops were forced to close their doors.
It seemed to occur to everyone at the same time that we had consumed mindlessly and all this stuff wasn’t “sparking joy”. The conscious consumer movement has grown like topsy ever since, along with the influence of responsible investors wanting to know just how much carbon is emitted in the production of every t-shirt and toaster.
Now consumers want to know their purchases’ story too. They want to know they are not contributing to the oppression of a people or the extraction and destruction of acquifers and soil biomes. And they want to be able to compare one product against another, to know that someone who cares has checked, and that there is some accountability for the greenwashers.
Local venture capital and tech start-up veteran John Holt sees more than opportunity. He is on a mission to help these consumers, and the companies who face the same problems of consistency and accountability, to solve this filtering and discovery problem. Holt was behind one of the earliest New Zealand start-up successes, Sonar6, and has co-founded the likes of the Kiwi Landing Pad and Homes.co.nz. Now he has joined up with fashsion and retailing expert Andrea Van Der Meel to create All Things Considered (alltc.co.), a site for compiling, filtering, checking fashion companies’ claims, and for building a community of buyers, suppliers and consumers who can rely on the information and each other to make the right choices.
I spoke to Holt this week for this week’s episode of my When the Facts Change podcast, to find out more about All Things Considered, and why there is such a need for a place to sort fashion’s planet destroyers from its planet builders.
“It’s a US$2.5t industry,” Holt said. “Almost one in nine of every human on the planet is involved in some part of the supply chain and the teams working in it. And it’s one of the most significant contributors to a lot of the issues that we see daily, now, sadly, around the environment and in society.”
Regulators were starting to move, and the big fashion chains were starting to respond, but not always in a transparent or genuine way.
“Some of them have responded authentically, and some of them have not. So for a consumer, All Things Considered is about trying to navigate a huge minefield of claims and certifications and various marketing initiatives that are currently not being authentic,” he said.
All Things Considered uses a variety of metrics based on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and starts by gathering comparable information from company websites.
“The mission for us is to create a community of considered consumers. Once they start talking about these different brands, and questions they have, we want to bring those brands into the conversation. So their community extends, not just from the consumers, but to the companies.
“So once you have that sort of conversation happening at scale, then you’re going to get the attention of the search engines.”
I also spoke to Samantha Jones, the founder of Little Yellow Bird, a Wellington-based apparel designer, creator and importer that started by selling uniforms to corporates but has ended up selling as much as half of its clothes to online shoppers. Little Yellow Bird is one of the launch partner brands for All Things Considered. A former logistics chief in the NZ Air Force, Jones says she decided to build a clothing business that knew where its cotton came from, wasn’t wrecking the land and water that helped grow it, and treated workers and the planet in a way that wasn’t extractive and destructive.
“I spent a lot of time in India, networking and visiting and spending time working and volunteering in factories as well to really understand the process, tracing back the supply chain,” Jones said.
That includes finding cotton farms fed by seasonal rains rather than irrigation and finding factories that didn’t use child labour.
“There’s been a big shift in the last few years of people really starting to ask how the products are made, and where and what were the conditions,” Jones said.
“I think the problem is that a lot of times consumers don’t necessarily know how cheap it is, because there’s often no correlation between what they’re paying and what the factory might be being paid,” she said.
“There’s plenty of brands that still maybe sell the product at a price point where you would assume people will be getting paid decently. But once you understand how many middlemen are involved, or their business model relies on wholesalers, you can pretty quickly see that a t-shirt that’s maybe sold for $50 is wholesaling for $5 or $6, you can see where the factory cannot possibly have been given enough money to compensate their workers.”
“So that’s where I guess it becomes really difficult for consumers to actually know what they’re buying.”
Jones said many buyers and regulators know the wild west era of globalisation where anything went is coming to an end.
“People are more aware of it, and governments and organisations are trying to limit it, or limit the impacts of it. We can see that happening.
“I think there’s a whole new generation of people that are really interested in sustainability and really prioritise ‘non spending’ passions.”