An Interview with Origamo

I am again super excited to share this interview with you all as it’s a unique ethical fashion apparel store that gives men or anyone with a love of classic polo shirts, a chance to purchase better!

These classic cuts that never go out of fashion and can be worn at various occasions made me want to get to know the company better. So the Founder Nicolas Chignardet informed me that Origamo Apparel specializes in high-quality menswear crafted using only organic fabrics. They focus also on ethical production in all that they create. The Pacific Polo collection, their flagship product, is a line of polo-shirts that comes in an array of designs and colors. Although Origamo is based in Cambridge, MA, all of the polos are made from 100% Organic Pima cotton from Peru and made in fair Peruvian factories.  Now, let’s get into the interview!!


NT: What prompted you to start Origamo Apparel? Was it a question of ethics or was it primarily a business decision?

NC: Long story short, I believe both aspects of business and ethics are tied together since inception, and for our team, none of them can really be considered without the other. Origamo’s Organic and Fair concept was born in 2013 in the aftermath of the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza building, when more than a thousand textile workers were killed and hundreds of others injured.

I came to the realization that on top of witnessing an obvious decrease in the quality of the products, our clothing production backyard was a mess. The apparel industry is amongst the most polluting in the world as fast fashion generates a lot of waste, and labor abuses and modern slavery shamefully continue to exist.

It is center of our mission as a company to find what we believe are better ways to supply the garments that we love and be part of a movement creating space for companies to expand as successful ventures, whilst strictly adhering to a set of common positive values like respect for people and care for the environment.

The business decision to start came in 2015, when accompanying my wife to the United States of America, I decided to make this radical turn from my previous life as a banker, toward a more ambitious project of making my dreams come true… by building this organic and fair clothing brand.

NT: Can you expand on the importance of your cotton being organic certified?

NC: Good question. I would start by mentioning that so far 100% our cotton is certified as Organic or Bio under the American USDA NOP organic standards and the European Union EU Organic regulations.

The benefits of using organic cotton are huge and twofold:

First for the farmers, not using toxic chemicals keep them safer when working in the fields (all the more important for hand-picked cotton like Origamo’s Organic Pima), it also preserves the local food and water supply systems from contamination, and finally organic cotton (well organic Farming in general) usually comes with better working conditions for field and farm workers, and better wages thanks to the organic premium.

The positive impact doesn’t end there! This business choice we took affects everybody as it has a much smaller environmental impact compared to conventional cotton growing, which is pretty nasty. At Origamo our reference study is the “Life Cycle Assessment on Organic Cotton” made by Textile Exchange, a global nonprofit organization that works to make the textile industry more sustainable. In a nutshell they found that, growing Organic cotton has significantly less impact that conventional cotton: global warming, local water and land acidification, water consumption through irrigation (-91%!), and also energy use (-62%!). We found these facts important to share with our consumers that we dedicated a section on the website here.

It is very worthwhile to note that all of these benefits come with no real perceptible difference in cotton fiber quality, so the consumer is not sacrificing style or comfort!

NT: What is Pima cotton, and why is it so special to use Organic Pima to make your Polos?

NC: The Pima cotton is luxurious cotton specie known for its extra-long staples category. This characteristic makes it simultaneously very soft and very resistant. This character of the material also explains why it is traditionally used for either baby clothing and adult lavish products or bedsheets.

During our research we found out that, the north shore from Peru was the only place in the world where Pima cotton was produced according to Organic standards. This comes from a very specific mix between soil composition and weather conditions. At that point we decided to use this specific and fine organic cotton. With organic pima, we wanted to make the point that organic fashion should not be limited to basic tees and underpants, but could also produce more upscale items, like these 100% organic pima Pique Polos.

NT: Can you please share some of your thoughts on the experience of visiting the factories that make your apparel in Peru – including the reception of the suppliers, the conditions of the workers and how your investment affects the local community.

NC: When we came to Peru to visit the different factories making our clothes, and to meet our partners and the workers, we were both very pleased and a little surprised by the dynamism of the people that were about to make Origamo Apparel.

I would say that the main problem for the Peruvian workers and producers is illegal work, which represent more than 50% of the jobs in a sector like apparel manufacturing. This absence of legal framework is a big issue letting the workers at the mercy of income instability, uncontrolled working time, security issues, absence of health coverage and retirement plans …

That is why on top of visiting the working different floors, one of our important focus was insuring the partners enforced the Peruvian labor law. We work to verify their compliance by auditing their paper work and auditing the factory with visits on site, e.g. checking the coherence between the number of people actually in the factories and the number of contract.

Peru is a very dynamic developing country, and while being an apparel factory worker is still hard work, when you play by the rules and have demanding but reasonable expectations, people are really happy to work with you, because at the end of the day, this is a rather classic business relationship with benefits on either siders.

Regarding the communities, our stance is that those better positioned to assess community needs are… the communities themselves. For instance in exchange for their corporate taxes, our main factory partner can send five children of employees to apprenticeship schools. Paying a fair price allows for a better sustainable dignified development rather than specific marketing tools more oriented on the customer and business owner feeling ‘good’ and less on the communities they claim to help. For example ‘BOGO – Buy one, give one’ social mission adopted by some brands customer charity schemes can create a lot of unbalances in the local communities and ultimately cause unexpected troubles. For instance, it can weaken the local producers by making them not competitive with a flow a free merchandise. . Would you like to be paid in shoes for your work? I bet that your prefer money and be able to decide yourself what’s best for you. Agency and self-empowered is what as a company we believe is core when it comes to corporate social responsibility.

NT: Manufacturing your product in Peru puts you in the position of being a small business with a global supply chain. Can you describe some of the logistical challenges this has created and how you have overcome them?  

NC: One important aspect of our Pacific Polo production is that the cotton comes from Peru and all the facilities are in the Lima area. We looked for this proximity because it made things easier both in terms of process, but as well to visit the facilities and meet the different stakeholders.

While making our polos in Peru the only global supply chain related challenge we faced, was shipping the finished products to our homebase in Massachusetts. We had no experience with international shipping and it was overwhelming, but our production partners in Lima helped us to find an international shipping company.

Actually, our main challenge was to find factories sharing our set of values and accepting to take part to our due diligence and visit process. For this reason we had a smaller range of available factories and possibilities, since we had to find partners willing to take rather small orders at the beginning, and able to increase the quantity when our company grows. This is the reason why we have a small collection at the beginning, but we are very confident that this aspect will vanish as we grow.

NT: Why do you believe that fair fashion is such a neglected factor in this industry? Is it primarily down to consumers who are under informed, or producers who prefer to keep costs low?  If the former, what can be done to raise awareness? If the latter, how do you compete with fashion producers that do not adhere?

NC: I would say that there is a mix between unawareness, an undeniable worldwide appeal for cheap and fast changing collections. On top of that, there is always something that seems of more importance in the news. However I think this is the sole purpose and message of Origamo that everything that is done better somewhere is completely worthwhile. Just because one cannot make the world perfect, doesn’t mean that should prevent you from trying to make it a better place. Finally, to raise awareness we need relays, bloggers and journalist like you.

In conclusion, as an ethical blogger, I was intrigued by Origamo products as they provide anyone interested in fair organic menswear an option beyond basic tees. Their top quality fair collared shirts give conscious shoppers a selection of products that give a holistic new meaning to luxury and sophistication. What more could you want?

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About the Author

Natasha Taneka is a London based consultant with an MA in political theory and human security, and a background in Purchasing and supply chains. While she primarily works in the business world, contracted by major international corporations, she maintains a keen interest in all things fashionable and questions of sustainability. You can read her blog ‘Ain’t seen nothing yet’ at www.maonei.org

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