When it comes to sourcing and sustainability, fashion apparel start-ups have an edge: Right from the start, they can set up their supply chains and organizational efficiencies sustainably — if they have the right resources (not just funding) to help.
“Start-ups have an opportunity to rethink the system and do things differently,” Amina Razvi, Sustainable Apparel Coalition executive director, said to WWD. Razvi mentioned how sustainability may not be the top priority for resource-strapped start-ups but that tools exist to foster better understanding.
One such resource is the Higg Index, which is part of Higg Co., the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s technology for-profit arm that gives companies — large and small — the access to data to better understand one’s social and environmental sustainability impacts. Companies can identify areas for improvement using options such as the materials sustainability index or facility environmental module, among others.
“They can take a close look at the companies they’re working with to understand what and from whom they’re sourcing, how they operate and what their end-to-end product life cycle looks like,” said Razvi, arguing that start-ups often maintain “deeper relationships with value chain partners,” and are thus able to implement changes “more quickly and more effectively than larger organizations.” By partnering closely with their facilities, small businesses and start-ups are more agile to lower energy or water consumption.
Building Relationships Overseas
In her book, “Source My Garment: An Insider’s Guide to Responsible Offshore Manufacturing,” which launches in September, industry veteran Adila Cokar targets start-ups to help them manufacture ethically and sustainability overseas.
According to Cokar, the book serves an “overview to a very complex fashion industry — and a roadmap — providing the agency to decide for yourself what’s right.”
Marking 18 years in the industry, Cokar served as a product development manager in New York City with demonstrated experience in entrepreneurship before moving back to Vancouver, where she is based as a consultant. Previously, she founded her own boy’s line, Shortstak; and The Good Tee, a T-shirt that biodegrades in 20 years and is founded upon fair-trade certified organic cotton, and a fully transparent supply chain.
Of two actionable pieces of advice she offers start-ups, Cokar said, “If you want to work with a vendor overseas; fly to them, meet with them, take them out for dinner. It’s about building relationships.” She also advised start-ups and emerging designers to “design with purpose and integrate your values into your design and branding.”
“Start-ups lack funding, but they have one edge over the big guys. It’s so much easier doing things right from the start — and understanding your supply chain and how your product is made than having to make changes down the line,” reiterated Cokar. She stressed that supply chain transparency isn’t just disclosing a factory location, but rather it’s tracing the threads, trims, embellishments, weavers, washers, fibers — everyone in the supply chain — and creating relationships.
The Human Core
But as tech is often engrained into the foundations and operations of today’s start-up businesses (including everything from the use of RFID-enabled inventory or mobile checkouts built alongside proprietary systems for gathering customer data), some sustainability advocates may argue a departure from the industry’s human element.
“Clothing is made by people, not machines, no matter how many units are made,” said Cokar, citing the labor-intensive component in garment production.
On the quest for sustainable, circular businesses — start-ups have the chance to lead, if they build from the very beginning using the right tools — and don’t neglect the human core of the fashion and apparel industry.