For small sustainable fashion brands like Sympatico, sourcing sustainably means forging long-term, trust-based relationships with suppliers.
As the founder of an ethical fashion brand, one of the challenges I faced starting up Sympatico 13 years ago (wow!) was making sure the components going into the clothes were sustainably produced and ethically sourced. At first, those challenges seemed steep. Many of the commodity items I needed such as buttons and elastic came from vendors not accustomed to dealing with sustainability questions. And they were buying from producers, sometimes far away, and then reselling to me. As a sustainable fashion brand I was posing lots of questions they were unaccustomed to answering: Where does your product come from? Who actually makes it? How are workers paid? Are the materials sourced sustainably? Have you visited the plant? And so on.
I may have come across a little like Sergeant Friday of Dragnet, but these would-be vendors mostly got my concerns and did their best to provide reliable information. Over time, as I turned into a small but steady customer who paid her bills promptly, I found I was able to learn more and more about the sources and practices of my suppliers.
When it is feasible, I make it a point to visit important vendors, such as my dyer, to see first-hand how they operate. In cases where it's not practical to visit, such as visiting the Chinese-based textile mill that creates our hemp/Tencel fabric, I rely upon my fabric supplier who has done business with the mill for many years and has many of the same values I do regarding health, safety and fairness. Because he visits the mill frequently, I know I can rely upon him to answer my questions knowledgeably and honestly.
I buy abalone buttons and know that the shell used is sourced from New Zealand, which has strict sustainability requirements for harvesting abalone. Although I don't have all the specifics of exactly who provides this commodity, knowing it comes from a place that practices sustainably, I am content that it is a responsible product. Although deducing in this manner is less satisfying than having hard proof, it’s sometimes the best I can do as a small-scale producer.
I make it a practice to ask suppliers how the product I’m buying is produced, even when I buy small quantities, such as the hemp cord for my hang tags. I want it to register with the supplier that customers such as Sympatico, and in turn my customers, care about how they and their suppliers do business. Given a choice, I select reputable businesses who stand behind their products and with whom I can develop a personal relationship. I try to avoid discount suppliers who seem focused entirely on the bottom line.
Asking about how products are made is a powerful way we can all register our concern for planetary health and justice. While I don't always get my questions answered, the process of asking may just get those businesses to begin thinking about a better way of doing things that protects our planet and our health.