Podcast

Indigenous: Sourcing Our Clothing Sustainably

Consider Fair Trade standards when buying your next shirt
Wednesday, May 29, 2013, 2:16 PM

Today we introduce a new service: This, the inaugural Resilient Life podcast. Resilient Life is part of PeakProsperity.com: It's where we focus on practical and actionable knowledge for building a better future. I'll be interviewing guests from a wide range of backgrounds related to resilience-building, with the goal of highlighting useful insights you can put into practice in your own preparations, and in helping us to create a world worth inheriting. Feedback and suggestions for future podcast topics are welcome!  ~ cheers, Adam

When you buy a piece of clothing, how much thought do you give to how it was made?

Few shoppers do. But they should. In many respects, where our clothes comes from is nearly as important as where our food comes from.

The recent tragedy in Bangladesh, where over 1,000 sweatshop workers died in a building collapse, provides a stark reminder of this. 

In this podcast, I talk with retail entrepreneurs Scott Leonard and Matt Reynolds, co-founders of Indigenous Designs, to get a better understanding of the notoriety the textile industry has earned (much of it well-deserved) and learn about new business models that promise to transform it for the better.

Matt Reynolds: Nearly half of the clothing made in the world is made from conventional cotton. Cotton is 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land use, but it uses 24% of the world’s insecticides. There are poisons like aldicarb -- cotton’s best-selling insecticide -- which is acutely poisonous to humans. One drop of aldicarb absorbed through the skin is enough to kill an adult.

Scott Leonard: When we talk about organic certifications, we are not just talking about what you are putting against your skin as being good for you; we are talking about a “we” proposition, not a “me” proposition. This is about the people that are growing the crops. The Pesticide Action Network has identified that 10,000 people a year die from pesticide and defoliant and insecticide exposure. With something like organic certification in place, those farm workers are no longer at risk.

A new breed of 'organic' clothing businesses are re-engineering their supply chains and demanding commitments of better stewardship from their partners. An important part of this movement has been the development of Fair Trade standards.

Businesses that adopt Fair Trade commit to practices designed to increase the resilience of the farmland, the worker communities, and the end customers involved with their products. Fair wages, community planning, reduced pesticides, and toxins are just some of the components of these standards.

And these pioneers are finding they can meet Fair Trade requirements profitably, and, in a growing number of cases, at the same cost as traditional practices (or sometimes even better).

In the end, the industry will listen to the consumer. If we change our behavior, the companies we buy from will take notice.

It's the consumer that can drive the needle forward. We truly believe that if people knew more about how their clothing was made, they would be willing to pay for something that treated humans with dignity and respect the planet. I don't think people realize that there can be as many as 8,000 chemicals used to make one item of clothing. I think people do not also realize that a typical garment lasts an average of around six months in a person’s closet. There is 1,400 gallons of water going into a pair of jeans and about 800 gallons going into a t-shirt. We throw away thousands of pounds of clothing per year per person [due to overproduction, unsold merchandise, returns, etc.].

It is just an unbelievably unsustainable industry, the textile industry, and we hope that by bringing more awareness and transparency to it, people will look for alternative ways. 

To learn more about the changes we should start making, click the play button below to listen to my interview with Scott Leonard and Matt Reynolds (28m:17s):

Transcript: 

Adam Taggart: Hello, and welcome to the inaugural Resilient Life podcast. Resilient Life is part of PeakProsperity.com. It is where we focus on practical and actionable knowledge for building a better future. I am your host, Adam Taggart, and today’s guests are Scott Leonard and Matt Reynolds, co-founders of Indigenous Designs, an organic and Fair Trade clothing company.

Most Americans do not think about where their clothing comes from beyond the retail store where they purchased it, but our choice of clothes has near as much social and environmental impact as choosing where our food comes from. Manufacturing textiles is a global, multi-billion dollar industry rife with health, humanitarian and environmental abuses when done without respect for each of the stakeholders in the supply chain. The recent tragedy in Bangladesh, where hundreds perished in a collapsed factory, provides a stark example of this.

But Scott and Matt know from first-hand experience that a better model, one more sustainable yet still affordable, is possible. It is called Fair Trade, and they have been helping to pioneer it at Indigenous for almost twenty years. I am looking forward to learning about this approach, as well as how we as individual consumers can make choices in support of Fair Trade when making purchases in the future.

Scott and Matt, thank you so much for joining me today.

Scott Leonard:  Thank you.

Matt Reynolds:  Happy to be here.

Adam Taggart:  Well, guys, thanks so much again for joining me. Let us start by giving our listeners a quick background of Indigenous Designs. What is its mission, and why did you start it in the first place?

Scott Leonard:  Thanks, Adam. We set out over fifteen years ago to make a difference, primarily in women’s lives in South America. So, we create jobs in what is called the BOP, the Base of the Pyramid, working with economically marginalized communities to create these jobs, using skills that the artisans have had for generations, elevating those skills to the marketplace. So we are primarily talking about knitting and crocheting skills that these artisans have, and we have been able to take them to market and be available in some of the most premium fashion outlets in stores and boutiques across the country.

Matt Reynolds:  I will just add that really there is a lot of passion behind the founding of Indigenous. Scott was an avid environmentalist and actually used to own a surf shop in Santa Cruz, and myself, I was an avid environmentalist and grew up with a deep love for South America, having lived there growing up, and always trying to find ways to bring green practices to business. And Scott and I joined forces back in 1994 and really had an ultimate mission to build a profitable fashion brand while empowering artisans and elevating them to a world-renown status through what we call our Indigenous Fair Trade + Organic production model.

Adam Taggart:  Well, having seen your clothes in the stores here in the area where I live, it seems like you are definitely having some success in that. And I love the fact that it is combining that passion you talk about for better environmental practices with practices that, from a social and socio-economic standpoint, are helping the actual artisans that are truly doing the work. I do not really understand at all that goes into a shirt, say, when I go into the store to buy one. But, I am familiar with the stories that we read about in the newspapers about some of the horrible human rights abuses that go on in a lot of these factory sweatshops where a lot of the textiles are produced. Can you give me a better picture about what happens in the traditional supply chain – where we read about these abuses – and then contrast that with the Fair Trade practice that you mentioned and the difference that that makes, obviously, on the lives of the artisans producing the textiles, but wherever else it creates benefits along the food chain?

Scott Leonard:  Well, I will start by saying that the certifications that are in place that are out there and that we use in the Indigenous supply chain truly save lives, and I will give you two quick examples. One is, when we talk about organic certifications, we are not just talking about what you are putting against your skin as being good for you. We are talking about a “we” proposition, not a “me” proposition. This is about the people that are growing the crops. The Pesticide Action Network has identified that 10,000 people a year die from pesticide and defoliant and insecticide exposure. With something like organic certification in place, those farm workers are no longer at risk.

Matt Reynolds:  That is actually such an important point.  I am not sure if you know this, Adam, but nearly half of the clothing made in the world is made from conventional cotton. Cotton is 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land use, and it produces, though, 24% of the world’s insecticides. So 24% of the world’s insecticides are used on cotton fields, and it is really, really, really toxic.

Adam Taggart:  Wow, I did not know that.

Matt Reynolds:  There are even poisons like aldicarb, which is cotton’s best-selling insecticide, and it happens to be the most acutely poisonous to humans. One drop of aldicarb absorbed through the skin is enough to kill an adult.

Scott Leonard:  Thank you, Matt. The other point that I wanted to bring up is that Fair Trade certification brings a sense of a voice, literally, to the person that is within that supply chain, and ensures that there are safe and participatory environments for people to work in. The thing that Indigenous is doing that is truly a break-through and we are very proud of this innovation is that we are using something called the Fair Trace tool. This is an idea of sending in questions and directly speaking with supply chains. So we are able to send in questions and ask, so Adam, how are you actually doing? Do you feel like you are working in a safe environment? And we are doing it through SMS technology, which is through cell phones. And it is amazing to think that most of the people that are in what they call the BOP, the Base of the Pyramid, actually own a cell phone, not necessarily a smartphone like you and I might own, but at least they can actually receive texts.

So, we can send these important questions in to them, and we can actually figure out how they are doing on the poverty line. And, you might ask yourself, how do we do that? Well, we work with the Grameen Foundation, and they have created something called the Grameen Out-of-Poverty Index® questions that are a set of twelve or fourteen questions that will allow us to know where a person sits, and a community lies, against that poverty line. Questions like, Do you own a refrigerator? which tells us a lot more than if you own a refrigerator. It tells us that you have electricity where you live. It tells us that you are thinking about meal planning, and it also tells us that you are purchasing larger ticket items. So these questions are indicators, and we can actually bring that information back into an aggregate and then figure out how our communities are doing.

What is beautiful is that we are able to not just share that information internally, with, say, the work force within the supply chain or with people at Indigenous that work here, but we are actually able to share that with the consumer via every single hang-tag that we have has a QR code. So, when you scan that QR code, you get some of this information. You get to learn about the artisan who made the product, you get to learn about the geographical area, and, again, the community in which we are impacting.

Adam Taggart:  This is really interesting. So, you are basically giving a voice to these very voiceless, faceless people that have been working away and actually creating the textiles. And, for me, as an end-consumer, I can pick up a piece of clothing, and you are saying through this QR code I can actually find out about the actual person that made my shirt?

Matt Reynolds:  Absolutely. What we tried to do – we worked for almost two years developing this technology, so that we could find a way to directly engage with consumers while they are shopping and create an emotional connection to the people that actually make the clothes that we wear on a daily basis, and open up curiosity so that, hopefully, consumers start asking more questions about where their dollar goes that they spend, and specifically, in the things that we do in our daily actions. For example, when you scan the trace tool you not only get to see a world map of where the fibers were grown and come from, but you also get imagery or video testimonial from the actual knitters or knitting groups that make the clothing. And then, we share the social return on the investment through what Scott was mentioning, the Grameen Out-of-Poverty Index questions. And today, we are extremely proud that in our Indigenous supply chain right now, at or below the national poverty line, was just 3% of our supply chain, so 97% have risen above that poverty line.

Adam Taggart:  That is really wonderful. So what do you attribute that to? I am sure it begins with where you source your textile manufacturers from, but is it actually through working with companies like Indigenous that they are able to pull people up?

Scott Leonard:  Well, it was not always like the statistics that Matt is sharing; it has been a journey. We have been doing this for well over fifteen years, and it has taken quite a while to bring the sophistication of the quality control with the textiles and to really elevate in general just the skills and the ability to create things on time. And to bring what we would call “financial literacy” into all of these groups. We work with over two hundred independent groups, bringing them together to bring the actual fashion into market. And that fashion has made it into places like Bloomingdale’s, and Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus, and over five hundred premium boutiques across the United States.

So it has really been a journey that has slowly but surely brought the entire supply chain up, and it has risen to the point where the statistics are very overwhelming.

Adam Taggart:  Okay. So, just how I am picturing this in my mind. You have really taken on an industry, which is sort of well-known for – or at least had a reputation for, perhaps – being a little bit exploitative with the communities which it contracted with to manufacture its products, then sold them at retail for the highest margin possible without really that much regard for the actual individuals or communities where the textiles were sourced. You have now sort of turned that on its head, where you are using the purchasing power of these retailers to bring money into communities in a way that takes into account the rights of the people that are making the product, and helps basically build an economic foundation for that village or that area. And, you are strengthening the area, which, obviously, strengthens the Base of the Pyramid that you mentioned, enabling them to make even better products. And, in bringing those to market in a way where I, as a customer, can go in and actually not just feel like I am buying a shirt, but feel like I am buying a shirt and actually strengthening the global community at the same time. Is that accurate?

Scott Leonard:  That is right, Adam.

Matt Reynolds:  Absolutely.

Scott Leonard:  For sure. And I think that you are making a really good point, too. It is the consumer the drives the activity. I think it is up to brands to be responsible about how they produce. But, cutting to the chase, 1,000 mostly young women would still be alive today in Bangladesh if we had fair trade practices in place, or this Fair Trace tool that Matt and I are really trying to get out there and encourage other brands to even participate and use.

Matt Reynolds:  You know, that is actually an important point that, Adam, you should know about. I had mentioned we had spent almost two years developing this proprietary Fair Trace tool, which we saw as, initially, not only the right thing to do, but it also was a competitive advantage. But, in light of the tragedy in Bangladesh, we recently put out an open letter to the industry, saying that we really wanted to share the Fair Trace tool and not hold onto it, and allow others to bring transparency to their supply chain if they wanted to shift the way the industry works. And, not just in the fashion, but we are offering it to any manufacturer, whether in food or whether in textiles – you name it – that wants to share with their consumer how things are done, if they are doing it in a socially and equitable and responsible way.

Adam Taggart:  And what kind of response from the industry have you seen?

Matt Reynolds:  Well, we were really touched. We ended up getting picked up in – Scott, what was it? – seven hundred and fifty radio stations last week. We have been in numerous publications. We actually were just in this May addition of Apparel magazine. We were one of their Top Forty Innovators in the apparel industry.

Scott Leonard:  Well, I think the response that, Adam, you might be referring to is, how did people in the industry accept the challenge in the open letter, and the invitation to come in and work with us? And we are humbled by the fact that we have gotten dozens of inquiries as to how we could possibly put this Fair Trace tool to use within their supply chain, including people like Alter Eco out of San Francisco, that is actually a food company. And they are definitely in the space and they want to find ways to really bring their story onto a platform and share with consumers the impact that is being made when consumers actually purchase their products that are both Fair Trade and organic.

Adam Taggart:  That is great to hear about the response. And, for those listening, I did see the challenge that was issued by Indigenous to the larger industry, and it is a very bold statement, which I think is to your credit, where through the use of the Fair Trace tool – or I am sure you invite other tools that would be used for the same purpose – you basically invite the members of the apparel community to declare that no one should have to suffer and die to produce the clothes we wear, which I think is just a great sort of operating statement. I imagine it is probably hard for some of the largest brands just to jump on that bandwagon with the mass of complexity they have in their supply chains. But it is great that we have organizations out there like you guys that are driving people to that level of transparency and to that type of visible commitment to the holistic set of stakeholders in the process here.

Matt Reynolds:  Thank you, Adam.

Scott Leonard:  Adam, I think that it is a commitment; it is the complexity of supply chain. When we talk about that, I think there are not many supply chains that are more complex than ours, actually, when it comes to all the different touch points and the quality control that has to take place. I think it just comes down to the mentality of profits versus people’s lives and livelihoods, and the environment, and whether corporations are willing to step in. We do have partners like Eileen Fisher that are very akin to what we do, and, actually, we do some private label for them. So, there are larger corporations and larger brands out there in the apparel industry that are working with us and working independently that do the right thing.

Matt Reynolds:  I just want to highlight what Scott said about it is the consumer that can drive the needle forward. We truly believe that if people knew more about how their clothing was made, they would be willing to pay more for something that treated humans with dignity and respected the planet. I do not think people realize that there can be as many as 8,000 chemicals used to make one item of clothing. I think people do not also realize that a typical garment lasts an average of around six months in a person’s closet. There are 1,400 gallons of water going into a pair of jeans and about 800 gallons going into a t-shirt. We throw away, on average, 6,000 pounds of clothing per year per person.

It is just an unbelievably unsustainable industry, the textile industry, and we hope that by bringing more awareness and transparency to it, people will look for alternative ways. Not just Indigenous –  there are other Fair Trade and organic brands out there – but looking for ways to pass your dollar on to socially-just trading systems and ways to impact peoples’ lives and not harm the planet. And, for us, too, first and foremost, like Scott mentioned, we are hanging in Nordstrom’s, we are hanging in better-end boutiques. You do not have to sacrifice your style to do the right thing.

Adam Taggart:  Well, I love that. And, one of the things we talk a lot about here at Peak Prosperity and Resilient Life is the importance of models, of seeing pioneers blazing a new trail that help us understand what is possible. Because, in a lot of cases we have a certain set of behaviors or a certain narrative playing in our minds that we just accept as the way it is. And, then when somebody is able through innovation or through taking risk, show that there is actually a different way to do things that might actually be better – it is different, but better – then, the course that we are on, it gives us the inspiration and the courage to actually change our own behavior.

I think in your case, it sounds like you are definitely modeling a better supply chain for the industry. And, the more people that begin to make, the more consumers that begin to make a conscious decision about sourcing their clothes and where they come from, they are very visible models, if you will, of a different way to basically relate to your clothes, that hopefully other people will start following when they see people wearing these designs.

And, on that end, if I am an interested listener, if I have enjoyed this conversation here, if I would like to learn more about Fair Trade or I would like to be more conscious in making my decision on what piece of clothing I am going to buy the next time I walk into a store, what would your advice be to that person?

Matt Reynolds:  What I would say is that it is indeed a journey, an awakening if you will, to start to educate yourself, and there is a lot of ways to do that just online. But, when I think about different purchases that we can make, it is not just only about fashion or even Fair Trade + Organic. I think it is about just knowing where all of our products and gizmos and gadgets come from, and the people that are affected by our purchases. I will also say that as a population we are somewhere around 4.4% of the population in the world.

Adam Taggart:  We, being Americans?

Matt Reynolds:  Yeah, in the United States, and we consume over 30% of the apparel in the world. So, we are making, we are consuming, at a very rapid pace, compared to a lot of other cultures, and to be aware of that, maybe less consumption as opposed to just more and better consumption. And, the other aspect of this is – what I would say, I would point people to B Corp. If you go to that website, you can look at a rating system that looks at a whole slew of corporations that are doing business the right way and they have been pre-qualified and filtered so it is an easy way for consumers to really understand that they are looking at best-in-class green practices as opposed to just green marketing or green-washing.

Adam Taggart:  Great. And that is B Corp – ‘B’ as in boy, C-O-R-P.com – Scott?

Scott Leonard:  Yes.

Adam Taggart:  Great. And, Matt, I think I interrupted you there; were you going to add to that?

Matt Reynolds:  For somebody who is curious and listening, and maybe does not know what Fair Trade standards are, what Fair Trade is, and how it applies to Indigenous, I can just quickly read off to you what Fair Trade is. We provide fair wages in the local context, support safe, healthy and participatory work places, supply financial and technical support, as well as shared community planning to build capacity, ensure environmental sustainability, including using organic-certified cotton, GOTS, or Global Organic Textile Standard processing, and Oeko-Tex 100-proof dyes. That means that our dyes use very little to no heavy metals or azodioxyn-free. We respect and embrace cultural identity of families and community, build direct and long-term relationships, and educate and collaborate with partners on sustainability. That is how we define Fair Trade.

Adam Taggart:  Great. Those sound like great guiding principles for I think really any industry, not just the retail industry.

Matt Reynolds:  Yeah, and just so you know, a recent national Consumer League poll actually indicated that 94% of American consumers feel that the treatment of workers who make the products they buy is very important to them. And, it is an interesting statistic, but when asked if they actually really know how the workers were treated in the products they buy, a very, very, very, very small percentage actually understand that or know and uncover that. By bringing transparency to the industry, we really hope to answer that call from consumers.

Adam Taggart:  All right. And, from the consumer side, you said you do not have to sacrifice design or fashion; you do not have to sacrifice product quality. Where does this fall in the cost side of the equation? Is it more expensive; about the same?

Matt Reynolds:  We have always done deep competitive analysis of other brands that we aspire to be like, or larger brands that are in the fashion space, and by design, Indigenous is a premium brand. However, when compared to other premium brands in the space that are not organic or Fair Trade, believe it or not, we actually come out at the same price, or in some cases up to 30% under. So we feel that we can be competitive. We may not have the highest margins in the fashion industry, but that is part of our mission. But we definitely are a profitable business.

Scott Leonard:  Yeah.

Matt Reynolds:  And we are able to sustain ourselves and grow, and we have been growing over the last five years through some of the worst financial times. So we believe that it is a very viable business model.

Scott Leonard:  And we sleep well at night.

Matt Reynolds:  And we sleep well at night.

Adam Taggart:  Yeah.

Matt Reynolds:  And our customers sleep well at night.

Adam Taggart:  So, let me see, if I am a retail customer here. Again, I am going in to buy a piece of clothing, and I feel like I can get the look I want, good quality, perhaps maybe even better quality than just sort of the mass-produced factory clothing that is out there, and it is not costing me more. As you said, it might even be saving me a little bit of money. I cannot really imagine why anybody would not want to do this.

Matt Reynolds:  Exactly. But fashion and look definitely drives the market, and that is why we really put a lot of energy and effort and resources into design at Indigenous, to ensure that, and quality. And, I love that you bring up quality, because I believe just the inherent nature of a hand-crafted garment – because many of our garments are hand-crafted – surpasses the quality of most.

The actual artisans that make our clothes, many of them have skills passed down for hundreds and hundreds of years. They are the top-of-class expert knitters, and we go in and help them through bringing maybe more contemporary Western design knowledge to them and more stringent quality control standards in terms of fit guidelines. And, then we share that with them openly, and, not only does that allow us to pay them a higher and more premium wage, but allows them on the open market to be more desirable. Because everyone we work with, we really like them to be independent knitters and free on the open market to do as they please. And, we are happy because of that philosophy. We also have an incredibly dedicated and loyal group of knitters. We now work with over 1,500 artisans throughout South America today that we are employing through Fair Trade + Organic Practices.

Adam Taggart:  Wow. Well, that is just fantastic. Well, guys, I want to thank you for your time and thank you for the model that you are setting. I really look forward to hearing what type of continued participation or reaction you get from the industry, around the challenge that you have issued. And, I really encourage those listening to check out Fair Trade, to use it as a consideration factor next time you go to the store to buy some clothes.

And, Matt and Scott, for those that are interested in learning more about Indigenous, where should they go?

Matt Reynolds:  They can go to Indigenous.com, that is i-n-d-i-g-e-n-o-u-s.com, and we have a lot of information on our site. We try to do an informational blog regularly. We also are on Facebook, and we also even have a direct retail site online as well.

And, Adam, thank you so much for bringing Indigenous to your Peak Prosperity listeners, and we are really honored to be part of this forum.

Adam Taggart:  Fantastic. Well, guys, thanks so much again.

Scott Leonard:  You bet.

Matt Reynolds:  Thank you, Adam.

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