What better way to get an insight into ethical fashion than chat to some entrepreneurs who are trying to make it happen? We spoke with Joanne and Esther from (hopefully!) forthcoming clothing label Jacob + Esau. They’re currently running a crowdfunding campaign to try and get it off the ground.
Tell us a bit about your experience as fashion consumers trying to make ethical choices.
J & E: Making ethical shopping decisions has always been a personal challenge for us. We found it really hard to find out where and how the clothes we were interested in buying are made. There’s not much more information available besides the “MADE IN CHINA” label stitched onto the garment! It was tough choosing to gradually stop buying from our favourite brands as we began to realise the implications of shopping at stores that are silent on their supply and manufacturing processes. Finding new favourite (and ethical) stores was even tougher. They were either expensive, non-wearable, non-trendy or a combination of all three.
What motivated you to start your new brand Jacob and Esau?
E: Our motivation is to invest in people. Strip back differences in culture, religion and tradition and all humans are basically the same. We all want to love and be loved, and have freedom and respect in our work and leisure. We felt like that was becoming increasingly difficult to recognise and understand in an age of fast paced consumerism.
This disconnection between ‘us’ as consumers and ‘them’ as off-shore workers is what fuels my passion to change things up in the fashion industry. J & E is a practical channel through which Jo and I want to provide education about how products are made, build bridges between different cultures and ultimately unite people through something as simple as a t-shirt.
J: We want to fill the gap we found when trying to shop ethically. That is, to provide the kind of clothes that we like to wear – affordable, stylish and now ethical as well.
Who will make your clothes and what arrangements do you have with them? What do you think is the best way for a small supplier to ensure that the people making the clothes are treated well?
J & E: Husband and wife team Kholil and Wiwik will produce our first collection from their own home in Bali, Indonesia. Initially we looked at setting up a comfortable and clean workspace for them to use, but we realised that they actually prefer to work from home. It’s comfortable, convenient and makes it easier for them to raise their young son Dafar. They even have aspirations to make their home business a full-time affair, which we’re very excited by.
Our visit in July allowed us to meet face-to-face, get to know them and understand how partnering with us would fit into their lives.
We think this is the best way to ensure that our employees are treated well – by including them in all conversations and decisions made by the business. Small suppliers need to, and can definitely afford to, stop every now and then to have genuine conversations with their workers, and find out what works for them as individuals.
What about the fabrics they will use – are you able to trace where the fabric itself was made?
J: We will be the first to admit that we are still in the process of sourcing more sustainable alternatives in the fabric we use.Currently, we are exploring various organic and sustainable fabric suppliers in Indonesia and will be looking to improve our environmental practices in collections to come!
E: As a starting point, 90% of the collection to be launched this summer uses natural fibres, because of the harmful impacts of synthetic fibre production—it contributes to landfill because it takes so long to break down. Natural fibres increase a garment’s lifespan too. Because they’re breathable you can layer them, and use them for many different occasions. First a t-shirt is daywear, then exercise wear, then when it’s really soft it’s pyjamas! And you can use them as rags or cleaning cloths, then finally they break down naturally in landfill.
As well as this, we have sourced all our knit fabrics (such as cotton jersey and cotton French terry) from a local textile supplier in Bali whose primary source of cotton is from the neighbouring islands of Indonesia. They stock quantities on site, which allowed us to purchase the fabric on the spot rather than importing it from other suppliers. This minimises the carbon footprint left from shipping and transport, as well as making the purchase a lot more convenient for us!
What have people’s reactions been like?
J: It’s definitely been a mixed bag! It’s ranged from people who don’t know what ethical fashion is(which gives us a great opportunity to start a conversation), skepticism about whether we can “REALLY make money?” to incredibly encouraging words and advice.
E: I find that reactions vary greatly depending on the age, culture and demographic of the person, which is understandable and expected! There is a mix of interest, confusion and enthusiasm, which are all constructive things for Jo and myself.
What has been the most challenging part of J&E so far?
J & E: We’ve been blessed with time, helpful connections and supportive friends and family, so the main challenge at this point is finance.
This includes the long-term challenge of moving people from caring about ethical fashion to supporting it through their purchases. In other words, putting their money where their mouth is!
Where do you see the Jacob and Esau project heading in the future?
E: The vision from the very beginning of J&E was to make ethical manufacturing the norm in the fashion industry. We love that we can design beautiful garments under the J&E brand, but we’re also interested in growing our ability to manufacture for other brands that want to make their supply chains more sustainable. This is also why we are intentional about being a business, rather than a community project or charity organisation. We recognise the importance of having a profitable business model, but we don’t think that has to be at the expense of the environment or our workers.
J: We want to grow, but we also want to spark a consumer awakening about ethical fashion and fair trade. As Esther mentioned, we would love to see it be standard practice for businesses to take responsibility for their entire supply chains.
What tips do you have for any aspiring small scale ethical fashion producers?
J: When you are starting something new and getting things off the ground, it can seem daunting and never-ending! You will also get a few quizzical looks and doubtful questions, but that’s par for the course. My one piece of advice is to persevere. Know that good things don’t come easy, and this is a really worthwhile cause.
E: I don’t think I have the authority to give tips or advice as my journey is incredibly fresh and is being put to the test every day! I will say that ethical fashion is a very new concept and that it will take time for people (even family and friends!) to get up to speed and support your vision. Also, that your vision has to be strong enough for you personally to commit the time, discipline and patience in the long run – being a pioneer can be a lonely path, but it’s worth it.