Monday, May 20, 2013

Show your supply chain? No sweat.

Photo courtesy of The Sweatshop Project 
The recent collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, which killed or injured thousands of low-wage workers, shined a harsh light on how and where much of our clothing is made. And working conditions aren't the only problem:  fashion often comes at a high cost to our health and the environment, with finishes, fabrics and dyes that involve a laundry list of toxic chemicals. In fact, consumer goods of all kinds—whether clothing or cosmetics or processed food—are the retail equivalents of the global financial system, characterized by long, complex and opaque supply chains that are hard for companies, much less consumers, to keep track of. That is, until some tragedy, scandal or recall brings the details to the surface (horse meat, anyone?).  

In the wake of the Bangladesh incident, companies from Nordstrom to Walmart have indicated they would take steps to make their supply chains more transparent. We've heard that before. But corporations have been slow to back up their promises. In the meantime, a new generation of socially-minded companies is showing the way.  

In North Carolina, T.S. Designs makes organic cotton t-shirts "from dirt to shirt" in the state. The organic cotton is grown, spun, knit, finished, sewn and printed all within 700 miles—compared to the 16,000 miles that a typical globally-sourced t-shirt travels. The t-shirts are also printed with water-based ink and no harsh chemicals. When T.S. Designs president Eric Henry set out on this mission, there was no organic cotton being grown in the Carolinas. But with the help of a $30,000 loan from Slow Money NC, Henry was able to persuade (and pay up front) a handful of cotton farmers to make the switch to organic. In late 2011, the state's first organic cotton crop was harvested and ginned. Henry also helped found Cotton of the Carolinas, a collaboration of farmers and manufacturers dedicated to growing, making, and selling its t-shirts in the Carolinas. Each t-shirt from the Coalition comes with a tag that lets you track the entire supply chain, from farm to finish.  

I was recently introduced to another supply chain pioneer, S.W. Basics, a small but ambitious Brooklyn startup that makes a line of wonderfully simple skin care products, each with just five or fewer ingredients. No scary, unpronounceable names, chemical fragrances or fillers made in a lab. Just pure, ethically-sourced ingredients like shea butter, avocado oil, rosewater, coconut butter, and sea salt. S.W.'s founder, Adina Grigore, says all of the ingredients are either certified organic, Fair Trade, or sourced from small, family farms. And she wants you to know! Grigore and her team have launched a Kickstarter campaign to help the company film and document its suppliers, from the family that sustainably harvests its witch hazel in the Ozarks to the small Iowa firm that makes its lip balms and the women's cooperative in Ghana that suppliers its shea butter. 

The idea, says Grigore, is to celebrate S.W.'s suppliers and help them perhaps attract more business so that they can thrive. But it's also about creating new standards for doing business and encouraging people to be curious about how their products are made.

"For me, it's about being truthful to what we're doing, and not in a way that's token, like putting our ingredients on the front label, but in a way that is completely transparent," she says. In other words, "Proof, not just words." 

Grigore believes that if supply chains were more transparent, people might make different purchasing decisions. After all, would you knowingly buy cosmetics that have lead or endocrine disruptors in them? Or a t-shirt made in a sweat shop? No wonder the big conglomerates are so slow in responding to pressure.

As consumers, we have power. In addition to buying local and ethical, we can demand information from the retailers and manufacturers whose products we choose to buy. Or not buy, as the case may be. 


Unknown said...

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Unknown said...

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