Traceability and Truthfulness, by Andrew Dale

“It is almost impossible to do 100% eco friendly, they can prepare the documents [sic] to show it is eco friendly but actually it is different story.”

I sat for years in soaring office towers, working 90-hour weeks, making decisions worth hundreds of millions of dollars involving high-powered personalities.

I’ve seen a lot.

But never an e-mail like the one our team at LeDaveed, a startup fashion house with an initial focus on sustainably produced handbags, got in August, when we began a deep dive into the sourcing of fabrics and factories.

My colleague, Shira, who had previously worked at three prominent brands, including Marc Jacobs New York, was deep into her Chinese relationships. A trusted source, with numerous years of experience living and manufacturing in the region, dropped the bomb above.

Our jaws dropped. Here we were, a values-led company with an approach revolving around authenticity, being told that the best way to manufacture to our liking in the country where most of the bags in the world are produced was quite simply to lie.

It’s impossible to paint an entire country with one brush. The much-loved Patagonia – widely viewed as a gold star in eco-conscious fashion – explicitly states that it identifies forward-thinking factories, including those in China, and works constructively with them to generate further change from within. We’re ourselves open to this possibility, though we have significant hesitation at this point, given all that we’ve learned, and it’ll take a lot to get us over the hump.

But the e-mail is emblematic of a larger conundrum fashion brands trying to move away from toxic fast fashion encounter, not just in China – but also in India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and yes, even when “going local” in North America: how do we live our values authentically, when the playing field isn’t level, and self-reporting by companies on their environmental sustainability is still the norm?

We have coined a term to summarize this issue. We call it the “Two T Problem” – Traceability and Truthfulness.

Traceability means knowing where all materials come from, and understanding all of the components of your supply chain. That’s a problem for many companies, especially smaller brands without deep connections. Many fashion startups find it impossible to identify production facilities of scale (though sites like Maker’s Row help). Additionally, producers are often one-shop stops – they source materials in addition to doing manufacturing – so brands are a further step removed from the fields the cotton are grown in, given they often outsource the sourcing function.

Further, most factories do not have websites, and getting a call with the owner is a whole other layer of complexity, especially given the high minimum orders these facilities required and their busy production schedules, which cause startup brands to play nice with producers instead of holding them to account.

Truthfulness means being honest about where you stand. I’ve had countless well-meaning people approach me and say things like “well, you could sell it as eco-friendly because you’re avoiding the most highly synthetic fabrics like PVC, which is what most bags are made of these days, even if your main material is still non-organic cotton or poly.” For us, this seems like too low of a bar.

What is the solution to the Two T Problem? There is no perfect one, but our advice is to use our main internal tool – we call it the “Can I go to sleep at night knowing” test.

On traceability, we recommend digging to a point where you can no longer get answers to your questions, and asking yourself whether where you stand is sufficient. We strongly believe that to be a values-driven company, we must avoid asking ourselves right away how we can sell something that’s imperfect from an environmental perspective (as every product is, even the best ones), but instead first determining what we actually believe is right, and then selling based on that.

As I write this, Shira is in Montreal, working on our prototyping process. We’re doing our first sample using certified organic cotton we ordered from a reputable supplier in the US south. We asked where the fabric was made. It was made in India. That’s probably enough for most companies. But we don’t think it really is. The next step for us? Finding out exactly who it was certified by, or the exact mill it was produced in, and getting comfortable with that. And down the road as a stretch goal, maybe even how that mill treats its wastewater.

At some point, we, and every other brand, including the largest global brands, will be in a place where certain questions cannot be answered. And then, we’ll be honest with people about what we learned, what shortcomings we had, and what we want to improve on as we move forward, and then asking “Can we go to sleep at night knowing what we know in this imperfect world?”

Could we go to sleep at night should we learn that our organic cotton is actually uncertified, or certified by a party which is too closely connected to the factory we are using? Or that workers drink from a river where toxic wastewater from a mill is dumped? We already have certain no fly zones. We are developing others.

And once we can go to sleep at night, our bags will be on the shelves.

Andrew Dale headshotAndrew Dale is a finance executive who quit his executive level job to found LeDaveed, a sustainable fashion company, in 2016. He is an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Fashion Zone incubator in Toronto, Canada. LeDaveed’s launch story is here.
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