Tell us about yourself – family background, personal story, education, and previous professional capacities.
Hi, I’m Jo and I live in Suffolk in the UK with my husband Rob and two young sons. I grew up in the South of England and have a younger brother, Chris. My Dad passed away from cancer when I was 10 so my Mum had to work really hard to bring us up. She grew up on a farm in Ireland so would send Chris and I over there in school holidays so she could work. We both loved the freedom of life on the farm and running around the countryside with our Irish cousins! My Mum and her family are catholic and I’m sure that her strong beliefs in sharing and duty have shaped my thinking about Fairtrade and justice.
I attended catholic schools and did well enough to get to college and obtain a degree and then I worked for our main Telecommunications provider, BT. I had a number of roles, including technology, channel management, business and marketing. I always had a keen interest in Fairtrade and International Development though and was involved in lots of fundraising whilst studying for a Post Graduate qualification in Development Management in my own time. When the time was right I left BT to set up as an ethical business consultant and then eventually founded Where Does It Come From? in 2013.
What is the importance of ethical fashion?
For me ethical consumerism generally is about inspiring people to make more thoughtful choices. Do I need to buy this thing? How was it made? How much will it be used? What will happen to it when I no longer need it?
Clothing is an area where the last 30 years or so has seen a massive growth in fast fashion, with a huge culture change in the way that most people buy and discard their clothes. Fast fashion is the opposite of thoughtful – people buy on a whim, shop as a social hobby, wear once or twice and then throw in the bin. Brands encourage this behavior through rapidly changing fashions (that’s so ‘last week’) and by offering such low prices that consumer expectation is all about the cheap and throwaway. The effects of this were admirably outlined in ‘The True Cost’ movie – problems for garment producers, the environment and even for consumers, as we become constantly dissatisfied with what we have and be looking for the next fix to make us happy.
Ethical fashion – with emphasis on clean supply chains and justice for garment workers is about re-educating the consumer. You CAN buy beautiful clothes without other people (or the planet) suffering for it.
What is the importance of sustainable fashion?
Similarly to above, sustainable fashion is really important as it is behind culture change in the garment industry, creating clothing with only positive impacts on our planet and its people and looking at the whole life span of a garment. How a garment is made and what is used to make it eg. Dyes, energy, fibre, chemicals are all so important as well as how that garment will be recycled at the end of its life. There are some fascinating sustainability projects going on looking into different fibre sources (bamboo, hemp, organic cotton), the using of recycled plastics instead of polyester and how to split mixed (polycotton) fabrics at end of life so that the separate elements can be reused or recycled.
What is “Where Does It Come From?”?
Where Does It Come From? (www.wheredoesitcomefrom.co.uk) is an ethical clothing brand that creates beautiful, sustainable clothes with a totally transparent supply chain. Our core ethos is around connecting our customers with their makers and so each garment comes with a code on the label so that the customer can unlock their garment story. The customer can then explore the processes used to create their garment and get to know the people involved in making it. We believe that connecting with your clothes will make people love them more and treat them (and the makers!) with greater respect.
We launched in 2014 with a range of denim childrens’ clothes and have since added organic childrens’ shirts and 15 designs of ladies scarves. We are currently in production of adult shirts and are just coming to the end of our crowdfund where pledgers can pre-order a customizable shirt with options for colour, buttons, sleeves and they can even design their own print (www.crowdfunder.co.uk/where-does-it-come-from).
We use traditional handwoven khadi fabric (as promoted by Mahatma Gandhi as part of his Indian Independence movement) and techniques such as block printing. All our clothes are virtually carbon free as the work is done by hand or using carbon energy. Our dyes are azo free (no harmful chemicals) – we would love to use purely natural dyes and this is a balance we have had to make as our customers want bright colours that will last through many washing machine cycles! Our clothes are all made in co-operatives linked to the khadi movement. They have a strong fairtrade ethos and most of the workers are rural women. The co-operatives ensure that they are supported and paid fairly and that they can work in their rural environments.
What makes “Where Does It Come From?” unique?
The stories that come with our garments make us unique. Customers love finding out about the people who made their clothes and how they live and work. For example, you may learn that your spinner comes from a family that traditionally does not allow women to work, but through working with the co-operative she has managed to change this view. You may find out that your weaver comes from a long line of weavers and has encouraged his children to continue the family tradition. This can altar how you think about the fabric you are wearing. Personalising the supply chain is our unique feature!
You are a mother. How does this change perspectives about the future and consumption patterns and the education of the next cohorts?
I love being a mother (plus my sons model for me….) but I’m not sure it really changed my perspective on ethical clothing. It did change my practical thinking on design as I soon found how quickly children grow out of their clothes and so we have implemented a number of growth-spurt features in Where Does It Come From? such as button elastic, adjustable poppers, tunic designs and long length jeans!
Being a Mum has also given me access to other parents and also to schools. I give talks in local primary schools and always find that the children respond very enthusiastically to finding out how their clothes were made and the people behind them. I really hope that the next generations turn the thinking around on sustainability. Education has a lot of power.
I certainly encourage my children to ask questions and ensure that what they buy is driven by their choice and not by that of advertisers or media, or even their friends.
What is the importance of awareness about child labor?
Parents hate to think that the clothes they buy are created by children, but it’s amazing how they can turn a blind eye when shopping, especially if the price is low! This message needs to be really hammered home so that they can’t ignore it – if something is cheap then there is a reason, and you won’t like the reason.
With Where Does It Come From? we focus on the positives ie. How it IS made, rather than how it is not. However I think it is hugely important to make customers think about the alternatives and to get them to question. Brands certainly won’t tell you if something is made by children or slaves and if their pay is low and working conditions dreadful. They won’t volunteer facts about waste and toxicity. You need to ask and you need to think about it. If they are not telling you then it is more than likely that you won’t like the truth.
What is Moral Fibre Fabrics?
Moral Fibre Fabrics is a business run out of Ahmedabad, India and our first production partner. The founder, Shailini Sheth Amin, is driven by environmental goals and a keen supporter of khadi production. We got together (via LinkedIn!) when I was exploring ethical fabric production. It was extremely challenging to find producers that could provide the levels of traceability that I was looking for and an initial partnership failed as they just could not provide me with the information I wanted.
Shailini and Moral Fibre Fabrics were producing hand created fabrics using the khadi model and we started discussions on Skype and email. When I explained about the traceability that I was after she was very enthusiastic, which was a different response to the negative ones I had been getting! She wanted to be able to share the stories of the khadi workers and was keen to be involved. Since then we have run 4 productions with them and are currently working on the fifth. Shailini has family in England and has visited several times and I visited Moral Fibre and the co-operatives in April this year. Our partnership is so strong that I stayed with Shailini and her family whilst there.
How has this partnership been mutually beneficial for the cooperative aims?
The co-operatives run very effectively, supporting the rural artisans and creating beautiful fabric that is also naturally environmentally friendly. We have brought the traceability element to their work which means that they now have a channel to share their stories. We have provided the link from the end customer right back to the workers.
There is also the more practical benefits of providing work which ensures that the co-operatives can function.
What other work are you involved in at this point in time?
My work in Where Does It Come From? is focused on funding and creating new ranges, marketing the clothing we already have on sale and running the business. I also spend time on ethical fashion writing articles and giving presentations such as a recent Fashion Revolution presentation in India at a fashion design college. I recently ran a panel event on ethical fashion where we showed True Cost Movie followed by discussion.
I am a member of our local Fairtrade Steering Group and work with others to encourage businesses, shops and schools to use Fairtrade products and to campaign for more awareness of Fairtrade. The Fairtrade market in the UK is growing but shops and supermarkets have to be encouraged to keep it on the shelves. Just as with ethical fashion, people can turn a blind eye to the situation producers find themselves in – we need to keep the message loud and clear!
With regard to ethical and sustainable fashion companies, what’s the importance of them to you?
I’m really enthusiastic about the growth in ethical and sustainable fashion companies. The more brands there are, with lots of diversity on different ethical elements such as Fairtrade, organic, re-use, bamboo etc., the more consumers will become aware of the need to think about ethics in their buying choices. It also means that the ethical fashion market will grow which will give more choice and make consumers more likely to have ‘ethics’ as one of their shopping criteria.
Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?
This is a really exciting time for ethical business. I believe that we have reached a peak in consumerism where many people are turning away from the blatant waste and lack of consideration for producers and the negative effects on our environment. Younger people seem to be rejecting the more self focused ideology that has pervaded in the last 20 years or so and even politically there seems to be such a divide between those who want to put barriers up and ignore key global issues (whilst wearing the clothes and consuming the produce created by others!) and those who want more openness and sharing. The next few years will be extremely interesting and, I sincerely hope, enlightening!
Thank you for your time, Jo.