How to find an ethical supplier

It’s officially a global movement and in all honesty.. should be a “normal and non-negotiable” when it comes to people purchasing fashion they can feel good about. In response, designers and apparel companies are championing the cause, with social and environmental sustainability has become a key priority in recent years.

Zero waste techniques, ethical consumption, use of sustainable materials, and meeting certification standards are the new black as the world’s most glamourous industry attempts to rectify its history of pollution, excess water consumption, questionable labor conditions, and general environmental damage.

During the past five years, I’ve advised multiple start-ups and labels big and small on ethical and sustainable practices. Besides a personal passion for responsible design, I studied sustainability specific to the fashion industry and have a thorough technical understanding of the environmental and social issues concerning design and production.

The two questions my team and I are most frequently asked are:

  1. Can you help me find a supplier?; and
  2. How will I know if they’re ethical?

I’m happy to hear this is a potential deal-maker (or deal-breaker). Before diving into a deal with a potential supplier, start-ups and larger business owners have made sustainability a top priority, along with the usual suspects: quality, price, consistency, overheads, transparency. Whether it’s societal pressure, demand from the consumer, or an original priority of the design company, ethical and sustainable standards are now fixtures on the supplier shopping list.

While technically I could walk each and every one of my clients through the steps of what they needed to do to correctly assess the environmental and social impacts of suppliers, this process took up my time – and theirs. Often the budget couldn’t accommodate such a time-consuming process.

In some cases, I could help alter designs and source sustainable componentry or link them up with a suitable factory. However, that was entirely dependent on my own personal network and personal vetting process. Simply giving out my contacts didn’t guarantee a smooth process if the fashion business didn’t have their own processes in place, to begin with.

How to find suppliers that meet your sustainable business goals

Finding sustainable suppliers traditionally involves a lot of legwork: traveling abroad going to vet factories, attending trade shows, searching the internet, and networking. Even asking for recommendations can eat up precious time, and time equals money.

This is where production and sourcing agents can help. They can be an extra cost you weren’t anticipating, but they will save you a truckload of time and help with efficiencies when it comes to freight and packaging, even QC, saving you big time on dollars later on down the track.

This is one of the reasons we created The New Garde: to harness the power of the collective and enable you to find suppliers (or customers) that match your product, price, quality, MOQ, and sustainability needs as quickly and painlessly as possible. In addition, we can walk you through sourcing the right agents and full-service vendors, who can also be an enormous help.

Practicing sustainability

Once you’ve found a supplier that appears to fit the bill, what are the questions you should be asking about sustainability? Developing a set of standards you’re clear on will help you, and your supplier, be consistent.

This set of topics listed below will put you on the right path to creating your own watertight set of standards.

  1. Sustainable Business Model
  2. Animal Friendly
  3. Environmentally Friendly Materials (Excluding Organic)
  4. Organic Materials
  5. Recycling and Waste
  6. Chemical Management
  7. Water Efficiency
  8. Supporting Traditional Skills
  9. Ethical Sourcing and Supply Chain Management
  10. Decent Working Conditions
  11. Transparency

Remember to consider the whole supply chain as you consider each of these topics. Expand your knowledge by familiarising yourself with some of the prominent sustainability credentials and certifications, and survey each of your supply chain partners so you can be confident in your offering.

Look for investments in sustainability

Across the fashion industry, we need to work together to change our methods of manufacturing and production. Being aware of what other brands, big and small, are doing is a great way to learn and be inspired and as industry participants (rather than competition). Here are a few suggestions on being more aware and involved in the community:

  1. Take a look at companies investing in reducing their environmental impact, or donating a portion of their profits to a cause. What have they done lately, and how are they innovating?
  2. Look for potential manufacturers who are committed to doing more with less, reusing manufacturing waste, and using additive and lean manufacturing
  3. Quality information — and how well we share that information — is key

As part of our offering to our clients we’ve put together a series of suggested business practices to get you started planning your own path to sustainable practices.

These include key points for consideration and highlight what you could be doing to ensure sustainable practices within your company.

  • Critical path development and management
  • Yarn, fabric and CMT supplier sourcing, for a wide product base
  • Managing the sampling and approval process
  • Price negotiations and cost price analysis
  • On-site QC and pre-shipment checks
  • Ensure compliance with a range of ethical and social standards and accreditations including Fairtrade, GOTS, Oekotex, SA 8000, ETI, SEDEX, Fairwear
  • Product development and creation of specs and tech packs
  • Small to large scale production runs (Local and offshore)

In addition, here a few great resources I recommend checking out to better understand the importance of sustainability in fashion:

Why should fashion businesses commit to sustainability by V&V Collective
Factory45’s collection of guides and stories on sustainable fashionA new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.



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