Ethical Fashion

If ethics are made of what's right and wrong, then ethical fashion is about making clothing the right way. The issues are complex and we're not perfect, but we've got a fair way along the journey to doing things better.

It has meant choosing lower impact materials like organic cotton, seeking out ethically accredited manufacturing partners, and embracing renewable energy. Along the way we've developed and shared technologies to cut out waste, started taking back responsbility for products at the end-of-life-cycle and worked hard to take care of the people in our supply chain making all this happen. The solutions are logical and actually quite easy on paper. In practise economics sometimes get in the way. People might not know enough to make ethical choices or value better design, or the pricing of your average product might not reflect how bad it is - meaning sustainable design is disadvantaged. The current generation of designers must come up with some clever solutions or workarounds if we are to solve all the major problems in making fashion supply chains truly sustainable.

Ethical fashion in 10 seconds

In 2010 Rapanui won the RSPCA Good Business Award for Fashion Innovation for our work on Ethical Fashion.

What does ethical fashion mean to us?

To answer that, we need to talk about our values and intent. We started the brand because we felt like there were engineering solutions to massively reduce resource use, and we thought doing that in fashion could inspire people to think about sustainability in a cool yet pragmatic way. So primarily our focus was on engineering better products, systems, materials and energy use: That was the problem our business set out to solve.

Ladies working in the spinning factory

 

As our business has grew we invested more time improving our supply chains and visiting our factories personally. As a consequence we've realised how much of a positive effect a business can have on people when it goes right, and equally how what might appear to be a simple business decision could have a negative effect on people in the supply chain if taken without that insight. We use ethically accredited factories and consider social impact part of our duty as an employer and manufacturer in the UK.

Why do you do this?

From day one we have believed that it's not that people don't care about this stuff, they just don't know. Consumers face two challenges. Firstly, it's really hard to know where stuff comes from, how it's made and who made it. Ecolabels sometimes adds to the confusion even when we tried to make them simpler. And even if we assume consumers can make informed choices, sometimes the products just don't exist. People have to compromise on what's cool and functional - and what's sustainable. If designers create the materials and economies to make cool products at competitive prices with clear, sustainable provenance, consumers will transform the world with their own money. Purchasing power is the most powerful transformative force in the world, and it just needs enabling. That is our mission.

Show me inside the supply chain

Sure thing. A lot of our other products like shirts, towelling etc. are made in Portugal, and all of our knitwear we actually make right here in the UK. You can find out more on our traceability maps (on every product page), by scanning the QR in every product, or getting an overview on our traceability page. Or you could just watch this rad video of the supply chain of the average Rapanui t-shirt...

 

Why doesn't everyone do this?

Starting at first principles, most businesses compete on price and use heavy discounting or seasonal sales which puts a lot of pressure on costs, that drives down wages and working conditions overseas, and creates stuff like zero-hour contracts in the UK. Clean working conditions, safety and employment rights and access to support (like childcare, healthcare or education and training) all matter. We sometimes take these things for granted in our developed economies. Yet these things have a cost, so brands driving down cost create compromises. And overseas the consequences are out of sight, out of mind.

A lot of brands argue that they cannot be held accountable for what goes on subsequently, as they don't set the wages in the factories they use. And whilst it's true that growing cotton in the UK and paying living wage in Europe isn't realistic right now in the market, designers should see an opportunity in this this downward spiral where everyone else sees a problem.

Faced with having to compete on price at the cost of the people in our supply chain or else find another way, we developed the technology to automate lots of our processes and design out waste, then completely rebuilt our company on the principle of real-time manufacturing. Our tech means we're more efficient, making ethical fashion possible at competitive prices.

It seemed kind of silly to do all this work and then restrict it to people who like Rapanui. So we made this technology open access, letting anyone build a business using our supply chain. We packaged it up and now anyone can start their own ethical fashion business, free, at Teemill.com

Ironing team, clean light and safe working conditions

 

What's it like for the workers?

In the UK you can read more about how our company transforms young, unemployed people's lives through graduate trainee or apprenticeship vocational training.

In our suppliers, we look at local regional minimum wages to get a rough idea of how the factory paying rates compare and our latest audits show consistent paying rates 20 - 120% more than the minimum wage for textile work in India. In other words, as well as the audits and certifications (Fairtrade FLO-Cert, Global Organic Textile Standard Compliance, WRAP gold certificate of compliance, Social Accountability International SA 8000, SEDEX etc.) that verify in independent, professional terms what we have seen ourselves, workers in our overseas supply chain have enough for their house, weekly shop, to send their kids to school looking smart plus a little left over at the end - no worries.

Ironing team, clean light and safe working conditions

 

We pay a little more to buy certified organic cotton. Without the risk and cost of pesticides, it is better for the environment, health and means farmers can earn more. That money makes education and healthcare for rural children more accessible, for example.

We have moved a lot of production to the EU and some to the UK. For organic cotton production, our tech efficiencies mean we can afford to choose a high quality, ethically accredited factory in India that is clean, safe, audited and pays substantially more than the local minimum wage, improving quality of life for the folks that work there.

In the UK we choose to make long-term investments in training young people for higher skilled jobs through graduate trainee programmes and apprenticeships.

Doing the right thing when designing products is not the end of the project. It's important that the products are cool, competitive on price and clearly communicated. Our traceability tools help enable and empower ethical consumerism. We don't believe sustainability is compatible with exclusivity, so we've made it possible for anyone to use our tech and supply chain to build a brand at Teemill.com.

inspecting cotton the factory

 

We've learned that as designers we may not be accountable for the way the factory is run, but we can choose which factory to work with. And as a company we may not be able to change the economy or politics, but we can design better products and work with better materials if we are motivated. And more often than not, working with our values (rather than compromising them) leads to powerful long term business benefits.

And so, whilst our supply chains are not perfect, we're a fair way along to doing fashion better. And we'll keep working in that direction. That, for us, is the meaning of ethical fashion.


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