Ethical Cashmere + Sustainable Supply Chain Practices
When I left the world of fast fashion to start virtue + vice, I was beyond excited. I was finally going to get to be part of the fashion industry on my own terms. Working to change the practices (some of which I wasn't so proud of) that I had been part of for nearly a decade. I couldn't wait to help brands build more ethical and sustainable supply chain systems. That is why supporting brands that are doing really good things is so important to me. We will get to more about FTC® and their fair trade ethical cashmere clothing in just a minute.
But, for now, back to my story. About one year into virtue + vice, something happened that I never thought in a million years would. I considered going back to fast fashion. And, for a short period, I actually did. This time, as a consultant.
It might sound kind of crazy that I would go back to such a terrible industry. But, please hear me out.
What I did realize in my year away from fast fashion was just how much power I had when I was in it. If I could change just one of our orders from cotton to organic cotton. Or, from a kind of iffy factory to a great one, I was making a huge change. Like, change in the tune of millions of garments, and, thousands of industry workers' lives being impacted.
The thing that drew me back to fast fashion was the scale.
I know influencers complain big brands are never doing enough. But, from where I stand, the smallest amount of progress in fast fashion has a wide-reaching ripple effect. And what FTC® is doing could revolutionize the ethical cashmere industry
I liked knowing that the manufacturing decisions I helped make were having such a wide reach. Because, tbh, after a year at virtue + vice I was getting a little depressed. I was kind of feeling like who really cares if we make 100 shirts totally ethically and sustainably? That is like a drop in the ocean with all of the clothes being produced. And, I was asking myself, is such a small order even making a difference?
My reprisal in fast fashion helped me sort out my feelings. And, after a few months, I knew that industry was never going to be for me. So, I left it once again - This time more confident in my decision and goals.
Part of the reason I love the the The Fashion Startup program so much is that it allows me to build my tiny army of conscious fashion brands, creating more and more global impact with each graduating class.
During my time, back in the dark side, I realized something. If fashion was going to really change. It was going to be up to the brands to do it. The pointing fingers and pretending not to know what was really happening overseas would need to stop. Industry accountability would be necessary for a more sustainable future.
And, that is why I am so excited about this blog post. What we are going to talk about today is something I truly believe will not only be able to help improve the fashion industry but is actually the key to creating real change.
And, That Something Is Vertical Sustainable Supply Chains
Which, the company FTC® (stands for Fair Trade Cashmere) is making huge strides in.
FTC® was created in 2003 with the goal of making quality cashmere pullovers at a fair price. Today the family company is still run by the second generation.
Through the years FTC® has started to own and operate more and more of their supply chain. So now, today, they control and own their entire system literally starting from how the food for their cashmere goats is grown (but, we will get more to that in a second).
I don't take payment for my posts. On average I get about 10 or more brands reaching out to me to post about their companies. To date, I have turned all of them down. Because in my opinion, they aren't doing anything groundbreaking. And, I don't want my content to devolve into shopping listicle.
But, when I heard about FTC® from an industry friend, I immediately wanted to learn more about what they were doing. And when I did, I was like - everyone needs to know how cool this is.
So, here we go.
The 3 Biggest Issues Standing In the Way Of Changing The Industry
Before we can start talking about vertical sustainable supply chains and why I, and many others believe they will revolutionize the industry, there are first a few things you need to understand about supply chains.
I love this post from Greenpeace.
Number of years global leaders have met to discuss climate change: 25
Number of years CO2 emissions have fallen: 0
The industry is full of empty promises and sliding dates that no one remembers. After missing the last 2020 target date to "save the planet" big brands and corporations have now set their aim for the future again. In 2017 it became painfully clear to the fashion industry they had spent the last decade doing a lot of nothing. So, The UN's 2018 Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action was signed by 43 huge brands promising to cut their emissions by 30 percent by the year 2030. And they are even suggesting they will have net zero emissions by the year 2050.
I'm not gonna hold my breath.
Because the thing is, these brands can make whatever big promises they want for their PR stunts. Because, by the time the progress is sup should be made, everyone has forgotten about it.
The other thing is that there is no penalty for these brands if they do not meet their goals. They can literally say whatever they want and it doesn't matter if they make good on it.
For fashion to change, there needs to be more accountability.
Two, Speaking of Tricky PR
Today brands stand behind certifications and purchasing carbon credits to artificially lower their emissions.
And, this will never create real change.
In my opinion, certifications are not the best barometer of the sustainability or ethics behind a product. Because there tends to be a lot of corruption in the system. Remember certification companies are corporations not charities or NGOs (for the most part), they are in the business of making money.
Get this. Certifications are so hard to enforce that GOTS has taken to blowing the whistle on itself.
And, with the issue of carbon credits, companies are just trying to buy their way out of unsustainable practices. No real change is happening.
When I spoke with Sara Mettler, Marketing & Communication Manager, from FTC® on the phone she said this to me.
"The technology and opportunities are always changing – you need to go beyond the certifications of fair trade, organic etc, you need to push the boundaries and bring the industry to a new higher standard. "
And that is one of the things that really sold me on their company and the good work they are doing. Their dedication to the idea that there is always room to improve and more to be done.
Three, Lack Of Industry Understanding And Appreciation
Most people really don't understand just how much goes into making their clothes. On a rational level, we all might realize that a $5 t-shirt is not sustainable, and someone in the process of making it is being taken advantage of. But we are so far removed when it comes time to check out at the register, we simply don't care.
That is one of the reasons I do my trips to India. It gives people a chance to see first hand where their clothes come from. I had one dad who came on the trip with his daughter. He knew nothing about fashion and at the start, didn't really care to learn. After the trip, he became obsessed with fabrics, how they were made, and had a huge, and lasting appreciation for his clothes.
I know everyone can't take a trip to a factory. But, the nice thing about FTC® is that they are transparent with their practices and supply chain management, so it almost feels like you are right there with them.
So How Can We Fix All These Problems That Are Holding The Industry Back From Progress?
In my opinion, the answer is fashion companies creating their own vertical sustainable supply chains. I think it’s also one of the bravest manufacturing systems a brand can take on, but more about that in a minute.
So, To Tackle The Issues Surrounding Ethical Cashmere We Need To First Focus On Problem Three - Understanding The Industry We Are Trying To Change
What Is Ethical Cashmere?
Ethical Cashmere is also cruelty-free cashmere. Because ethical cashmere comes from animals, for many conscious shoppers, how the animals are taken care of and treated is an important part of the story of the garment.
While there are industry-recognized certifications like the Responsible Wool Standard (made popular by the merino wool industry) in my opinion I prefer to shop small and know where the wool in my sustainable cashmere sweaters is coming from instead of a more generic and blanket certification.
Now, Let's Take A Look At FTC®'s Vertical Sustainable Supply Chain, And See How Their Fair Trade Ethical Cashmere Compares To A Conventional System
Before I get into FTC®'s really awesome supply chain sustainability. First, you should know how most sweater companies make their sweaters.
Generally, they are responsible for nothing in the actual supply chain and are working with at minimum 7 different other companies.
These 5 companies are farmers, where the wool (or ethical cashmere material) comes from. Meaning the environment the goats are raised in. And, how farmers collect the hair.
- The wool/ethical cashmere (material) then goes to a cleaning facility where it is usually combed and carded.
- It then goes to another place to be spun into yarn.
- After it is spun into yarn it goes to the garment factory where it is knit into ethical cashmere fabric.
- Then the garments are sewn in another facility
- And after that is taken to a warehouse.
- By the way, at either the fiber, yarn, fabric, or garment stage color can be added with ha dye process, and that happens at a totally different place.
With FTC®, they own all of these different operations. This means they can control each level of the supply chain and make it as sustainable and ethical as possible.
What Does It Mean To Have A Vertical Sustainable Supply Chain?
FTC® doesn't just start with fibers, they actually start with fodder. Meaning the food that the cashmere goats eat. Their 30,000+ goats are fed a diet of corn and alfalfa. But, here is the best part, FTC® grows their own sustainable goat food. They are so tapped into every aspect of their supply chain, that they leave no detail to chance.
And they don't just grow their own food. In 2017 when they expanded to a bigger farm, they were able to introduce more biodiversity in their farming practices. And, create more eco-friendly systems.
FTC®'s attention to detail in their sustainability practices also extends into their infrastructure. So this is pretty cute. The goats have little huts where they can live. And FTC® used rammed earth to build them. By using this building process there are no emissions. The materials are local, low impact, and best of all, good at keeping the heat in to keep the goats roasty-toasty in the colder months.
The lesson here is that to do vertical sustainable supply chains right, it requires brands to look past fashion and to look into other industries like farming, construction, transportation, etc.
We all know the fashion industry is confusing and complicated. By becoming vertical, a brand is not just an expert in fashion, but an expert in many other industries as well.
But, the hard work and learning are ultimately worth it. Here's why - Mettler said it best "Sustainability is a process and not a status quo or process, it’s something that you always have to work on – there are always points to optimize and make better, the work is never done"
Making Good Even Better
By controlling almost everything, FTC® is able to achieve 100% understanding and internal transparency in all of the steps. And, this gives them a unique opportunity to see where they can optimize their systems to create the most environmental impact possible.
And, when I say optimize I don’t mean how they can make more money. I mean, how they can make the systems more sustainable.
Here Is What FTC® Found In Their Own Facilities
After the knitting process there is always a little bit of extra yarn on the spools, And, that extra yarn is normally considered waste and thrown away.
To reclaim that waste, FTC® invented a technique to reuse the little bits of scrap virgin cashmere fibers. Which they call UpKnit-Upcycling for Uniqueness, a zero-waste cashmere production system. While it's not exactly recycled cashmere in the traditional sense a lot of fibers that would have become waste are reclaimed and re-used.
Sara says that by "By being close the the supply chain you can see your own faults and make changes to make them better."
And, this brings me to a really important point that ties back to my fast fashion story. Sometimes a tiny change (like collecting scraps from a processing machine) can make a huge impact. And, I believe the future of sustainable fashion is more small changes like this one.
FTC® is already carbon neutral, and any product you buy from them is. They have reached the goal way before all those other companies with their 2030 and 2050 target dates. That's because, with FTC®, everything is in their own hands. They do not have to rely on partners to change, they can do it themselves.
I bet you are left with a lot of questions. I was too. So here are some of mine
Where Should A Brand Even Start This Process Of Building Their Own Supply Chain?
FTC® started as a fashion company, and through the years invested profits back into the supply chain.
The first step is that you understand your recent supply chain. Build up transparency right now, if you have suppliers you can trust they can help you.
Sara recommends “starting at the beginning of the supply chain. And, if you can’t do that start at the very end and then work backward, this is how FTC® did it.
And, “Try not to have too many suppliers, and keep them at short distances. Look around where the raw material is coming from, and then go from there – see if there is a possibility to start from the raw material and see what you can do.”
She admits that what FTC® has accomplished is not something that everyone can do, it’s a huge thing (both from a logistics and cost perspective), and if it's not possible for a brand, the best thing they can do then is to have more honest conversations with their supply chain partners. Sara mentions, “I am still impressed by the way the family around FTC® manages all the challenges along the value chain.”
We both also agreed that brands should consider keeping their staff local 365 days a year, so they can really learn what happens in their supply chains from the day-to-day perspective.
Brands that plan 2 week sourcing trips, then leave are not able to fully understand what is going on, and what they can do to make it better.
The way FTC® got started with their vertical sustainable supply chain was with a social project. They gifted a goat to each farmer, under the condition the farmers and herders would work with (sell the ethical cashmere fibres exclusively to FTC® for a fair set price). And from there they just keep tackling each step of their supply chain.
What Is The Biggest Challenge Creating A Vertical Supply Chain?
Sara said "It is a huge responsibility – you can't say I was not aware, or no one told me, because you are the person (or, the brand) that is ultimately responsible for every step.
There are a lot of opportunities, but there are also a lot of challenges. You get to decide how you do it."
I thought supply chain specialization leads to lower prices. Will vertical operations be able to compete?
"It’s not true that specialization leads to lower prices – as traditionally taught in school."
And there is really strong reasoning behind that.
That is because a benefit to controlling your own supply chain is that you are not dependent on other people to make your prices – your suppliers can’t up the price of your raw materials, because you control them yourself.
The other thing Sara mentioned about making. cashmere collection was that "prices count if you want to survive, but that the price should not be the total focus."
And, I agree, sometimes enough money is enough. And, the rest should be used to make the world better (a lesson most billionaires like Bezos and Musk don’t understand).
My Final Thoughts…
For me, FTC® is a beacon of hope. They show that it is possible for brands to make a real and expansive change that runs through their entire supply chain. They also restore my faith in the industry. With so much greenwashing out there, it is refreshing to find people who care so much and are so deeply involved in creating real change.
What Do you Think?
Let me hear your comments!