Social Goods: What It Means To Build A Sustainable, Ethical Fashion Brand

Here's an inside look at how fashion designers can take a stand on environmental sustainability and ethical manufacturing practices.

Steve Villanueva, co-founder and CEO of Otero Menswear | Source: Courtesy

When we first decided to create an innovative fashion-forward line of menswear, promoting both style and confidence, we were also committed to manufacturing every article of Otero Menswear clothing with a high respect for both the environment and the people who are involved in every stage of manufacturing.

As reasonable as these goals may seem, it turns out the odds were stacked against us, but with a little heart and soul, we found a way. Here are some tips on how you too can navigate an industry that seems dead set on continuing in its harmful ways.


The environmental costs of fast fashion

Today, the fashion industry is one of the worst global polluters (second only to the oil and gas industry). Many brands manufacture cheap, throw-away fashions that aren’t designed to last for more than a season; others use fabrics manufactured exclusively from non-renewable, petroleum-based products that wear out quickly but won’t biodegrade for centuries; still others employ cost-cutting manufacturers who outsource production to sweatshops with horrible working conditions and poverty-level wages.

If you are like us, however, you will not let any of these factors stand in your way from establishing an apparel brand that stands for both people and the environment.


Photo: Snapwire, Pexels
Photo: Snapwire, YFS Magazine

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” ― R. Buckminster Fuller

In a perfect world, we could provide the highest quality natural fabrics, milled ethically, sourced responsibly, and still compete with the cut-rate competition for low prices. But the reality is ethical branding comes with many trade-offs and requires many perspective shifts.


1. Higher price or investment in our future?

The basic economics associated with high-volume manufacturing are not usually compatible with environmentally sustainable and ethical manufacturing practices. If you make these priorities, you’re going to spend more, and you’re going to have to charge more.

There are ways to partly compensate for these high costs by making innovative changes to the standard business model (e.g., selling directly to the consumer), but your basic costs and, therefore, selling prices are going to be higher.

Consider this to be an amazing opportunity to educate your customer about the investment they get to make both in people of various nations and in the protection of our global environment. We may not all be able to change government policies and the like, but we can all make choices to invest in products that stand for the change we desire to see in the world.


2. Limited sourcing or special relationships?

The knitted fabrics needed to manufacture our Polos and T-shirts could, in theory, be sourced from any one of a dozen countries at, literally, hundreds of manufacturing plants, yet a limited number of these plants hold to ethical and environmental manufacturing standards. So how do you find these sources?


Photo: Heng Films, Unsplash
Photo: Heng Films, YFS Magazine

Your best bet is to go to every trade show you can afford and ask everyone for referrals. The high-quality companies who prioritize these values are out there, but they are rare, which makes them unique and special. It may feel like you are hunting for a rare treasure, and in many ways, you are.

It is much easier to compromise and choose a supplier based on immediacy of need, but let this search be part of your adventure. And when you find that factory that matches your values, build a long-term relationship and not just a transactional relationship. In addition, let your customers know you searched the world over and found a rare jewel that was totally worth the effort.


3. To see or not to see?

Even with referrals, the only way to guarantee your garments are manufactured in a clean, safe, ethical facility is to see it for yourself. In other words, you’re going to have to travel (a lot), meet with manufacturers personally (a lot), and get a firm agreement that the facility you inspected will be the actual facility used to source your materials.

By way of warning, many foreign manufacturers will tell you what they think you want to hear, so it’s up to you to ask for hard proof documentation of environmental certifications as well as materials used.

Our co-founder Steve Villanueva almost signed a contract for a 100% wool fabric, but when he demanded further documentation, he discovered the samples he had been given were a wool-acrylic blend. Acrylics are terrible fabric, declared dangerous by the state of California. But if he hadn’t pushed, we wouldn’t have known until it was too late.


4. Global or local certifications?

In line with the notion of needing to see things first-hand, you will find that many of the certifications you hope to see (from water treatment and reclamation to various labor laws) are issued and managed by the local government, and not by some international tribunal. You will find only the largest manufacturers (few of which will work with startups) will carry global certifications—unless they are in an E.U. country.


Photo: Pixabay, Pexels
Photo: Pixabay, YFS Magazine

But don’t let that defray your search. Understand the local requirements, understand the testing and inspection required, talk to your supplier about their own Quality Processes, walk the floors, talk to employees, inspect the facilities, and then decide if the business in fact adheres to ethical and environmentally responsible practices.


5. A supplier or a supply chain?

Though you may have found a manufacturer you are happy with, you still must pay attention to every link in your supply chain. When sourcing our Polos, T-shirts, and denim, we found there were multiple companies in our supply chain: one that purchases the cotton and then knits the fabric griege, another which dyes the fabric, a third which washes the fabric, and then the company we chose that manufactures the product (cutting, sewing, and final assembly).

Even if the company you sign a contract with has all its certificates of compliance and a commitment to healthy environmental and sustainable practices, it does not always mean the entirety of their supply chain does the same.

At Otero Menswear, we inspected each link in our chain to verify the entire supply base functioned at the level of our chosen manufacturer. In one instance, we found one link that would move labor-intensive steps to a factory in a country that could not verify they complied with recognized child labor laws. Of course, we insisted our product would never cross those country lines, we could not take the risk. The point to remember however is that rarely do you choose a single supplier, but one that is part of a much larger chain.


6. Is material patently good or bad?

One can make an argument for and against the actual sustainability of each material that is utilized in clotting. For instance, many of the natural fibers, though biodegradable, utilize unhealthy pesticides, some an excess amount of water, and others require significant chemical processes to create the fiber.


Photo: Fancycrave.com, Pexels
Photo: Fancycrave.com, YFS Magazine

Then then there is polyester, and nylon manufactured exclusively from non-renewable, petroleum-based products that wear out quickly but won’t biodegrade for centuries; yet, they can be recycled and even repurposed. And then there is the blends which commingle these fibers.

At Otero Menswear, we focus on natural cottons and other natural fibers, believing the trade-offs are most favorable from a sustainability perspective. Research and most importantly, whichever fabric you choose, be transparent with your customers and authentic to your brand.


It sustainable fashion worth it?

Venturing into a new industry is difficult and choosing to take a stand on environmental sustainability and ethical manufacturing practices will require serious dedication, but the effort will eventually put you into contact with amazing craftspeople, dedicated manufacturers, and people around the globe who care about the future of our planet.

Better yet, you can produce and sell a garment with confidence, and customers can purchase your products knowing that by buying your garment they have also positively contributed to many lives across the globe. And that dedication will reveal the kinds of people who take responsibility for their product also produce some of the highest-quality materials in the world.

And the beauty of it all is that everyone benefits from taking a stand on these principles: lives are changed, dedicated craftspeople are paid fairly, and everyone involved can take pride in your finished product. We all win when we take a stand on environmental sustainability and ethical manufacturing practices.


Steve Villanueva co-founder and CEO of Otero Menswear is a serial entrepreneur with a background in international supply chain management for large global corporates. His newest start-up Otero Menswear provides A Better Way to Dress for men between 5’4” and 5’9.” We have found the secret to a perfect fit and provide the best off-the-rack fit a shorter man can find. Connect with @oteromenswear on Twitter.



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