Making ethical and sustainable fashion choices can be a minefield.
There is the issue of the fabrics themselves. Which chemicals are used to process and dye them? Will the material they are made from flush microplastics into our oceans whenever we wash them? What happens to the garment at the end of its life?
And then there are the conditions under which the clothes are sewn. Is the factory providing a safe working environment? Are the employees being paid a living wage?
The good news is that awareness around many of these issues in the fast fashion industry is growing. And there are many new labels popping up online who vouch for more sustainable and ethical practices. But that doesn’t necessarily make things easier for consumers.
Many of these brands are selling online only. These small independent designers often have limited market reach, meaning they can be harder to find. But even if fashion labels claim to be eco-friendly and treat their workers fairly, it can often still take a fair amount of research from the buyer to ensure that these claims are in fact true and not just an effort to make a quick buck from a growing trend.
Enter Thread Harvest. The Australian Certified B Corporation is an online marketplace for ethical and sustainable fashion. I recently had the chance to catch up with its Managing Director, Davyn de Bruyn, to chat about the company’s approach and the challenges of bootstrapping a business while juggling a full-time job and family life at the same time.
A curated hub for sustainable fashion
“We’re on mission to make it a lot easier for people to buy ethical and sustainable fashion,” says Davyn. “And we want to break with some of the most common and persistent stereotypes in this category.”
Currently, shoppers can find over 50 hand-selected brands from Australia and around the world on Thread Harvest. All of them had to pass Thread Harvest’s four strict selection criteria.
Criteria 1: Fashionability
“This may be a surprising criteria for some. But one of the negative connotations we wanted to get away from is that ethical and sustainable fashion isn’t fashionable,” explains Davyn. “That’s why our first step is to look at a brand and ask: Is this something we would buy? Would people wear this with joy and pride?”
Criteria 2: Price
Once a brand has passed the aesthetics test, Thread Harvest takes a closer look at the retail prices.
“This is another criteria we have implemented to part with the prejudice that ethical and sustainable fashion isn’t something that everyday consumers can afford,” says Davyn.
“We totally understand that producing to higher standards than the fast fashion industry incurs higher costs. However, that usually doesn’t justify a price that is 4-5 times what you’d pay for a similar item in high street stores.”
Criteria 3: Quality
The next step in the selection process is to examine the overall quality of the garments. “We want to encourage people to move away from fast fashion, so the quality of the pieces is very important,” says Davyn.
“But it also goes beyond the garment quality to the story the brand tells about what they do. You can gauge a lot about the final product from understanding why the company is in business.”
Criteria 4: Ethics
Only once a brand has passed the first three criterias, the Thread Harvest team investigates its ethics more closely. For this purpose, they have developed a Shop Your Values Badge System which has earned them the Good Design Award in 2018.
“To get a listing, a brand needs to achieve at least 2 out of 6 impact badges and provide supporting evidence,” says Davyn. “For example, to get the Fair Trade badge the brand needs to be certified as fair trade.” On average, the Thread Harvest brands have 4-5 badges with the available categories being Living Wage, Empowering Women, Eco-Friendly, Fair Trade, Employing the Marginalised and Charity Supporting.
Building a fashion business on sweat equity
While Thread Harvest has managed to build a loyal and constantly growing follower base since it was founded in 2014, getting the platform off the ground without any capital investment has not been easy.
“At this stage, the company is built on the sweat equity of its founders ,” says Davyn. The lack of financial backing means that no one in the team is getting paid a wage yet and everyone still also has a part-time job to support themselves.
To reduce capital cost, Davyn and his team also decided to change the original business model from being a stockist and third party provider of brands to a dropship approach where Thread Harvest takes the role of a marketing platform and sales driver in exchange for a commission.
What’s more, there are plans in the works to further extend Thread Harvest to include a wholesale corporate arm and a second hand clothing market.
“So far our dream of building something larger than ourselves has required a lot of weekends and late evenings, explains Davyn. “But we’re at an exciting point in our journey now and we believe that the business is not far off from scaling to the point where it will be economically sustainable.”
And as the adage goes: adversity breeds resilience. “For me personally, one of the most inspiring things about building the business is seeing our team grow in their skills and how we work together,” says Davyn. “Ultimately, a business’ success depends on its people and how they develop. From what I have seen, we’re in a very good position and the best is yet to come.”
Leaping from logistics into sustainable fashion
For Davyn himself, the journey into sustainable fashion began with some soul searching. After having moved from Johannesburg in South Africa to Sydney in 2011, he had a successful career in logistics and supply chain management. Life was comfortable in one of the nicest suburbs of the city.
But his life was lacking purpose. “For a long time, I was just focussed on earning enough to eventually retire from a job I disliked, so I had the means to pursue a passion or something that inspired me,” describes Davyn.
That was until he decided that he didn’t want to delay his dreams any longer. He threw in the towel at work and all the safety nets that came with it, including his visa status. All to leap head first into his first fashion venture, Black on Black. “It was a bit like jumping off a cliff and building the plane on the way down,” he says laughingly about the experience.
The idea behind his first fashion venture was to build a profit for purpose business. “The whole thing failed horribly,” says Davyn. “I started off with a website and did not sell one t-shirt within the first year.” But he held onto the vision of building a clothing label and kept growing his team.
Pivoting the business model
In 2015, Davyn and his team went through a business accelerator program. There they pitched their idea of adding a line of shoes to their brand to a group of impact investors. “They asked me all these questions about how the shoes are going to be made. I honestly hadn’t considered this until then,” says the entrepreneur.
“Suddenly it became clear to us that you can’t be an organisation that empowers on one hand and exploits on the other. We realised that how we invested the profits wasn’t necessarily going to have the biggest impact. We had to look more closely at how we are making the product in the first place.”
This aha moment eventually led the team to connect with the founders of Thread Harvest and to acquire the business. And the team continued to grow it together ever since while keeping the vibe decidedly positive.
“I believe there are two modes you can operate from: guilt or gratitude,” says Davyn. “If you are trying to make people feel guilty, they are eventually going to shut off. We decided to run the business from a position of gratitude. We want to encourage shoppers to ask questions and build awareness around the industry’s biggest problems. Hopefully, that will inspire them to vote with their dollars.”
Interested in making your fashion choices more sustainable?
Learn more about Thread Harvest and the brand in their portfolio on their website.
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