In June 2020, I joined Kimberly from Create Collective (*now Uncommon Folk) for a Q&A session on how to turn your ideas into reality. Questions from how to get started, to how to source sustainable suppliers.
In case you missed it, see below the full video, plus all the helpful tips and links I mentioned throughout the session.
Get Stuff Made is a one woman business offering Mentoring & Project Management to all clothing & accessory start-ups looking for help with their design, development & manufacture journeys.
Fresh out of University I created my own brand of technical sportswear and learnt first hand how intimidating, overwhelming and confusing the process of making clothing professionally can be. It’s really hard to know where to look for trustworthy suppliers, source sustainable fabrics and get good quality samples made, let alone knowing if you’re asking the right questions in the first place!
After a couple of years I reached a good point with my own brand to “pause” and decided to go away to learn the skills I was missing.
I spent years working in the industry as a Product Developer & Garment Technician for various larger brands. This meant I learnt how the industry works, what to expect at each stage of the process, as well as technical skills such as garment construction, fit and pattern manipulation & quality control procedures.
My time in the industry combined with my first hand experience at feeling a bit out of my depth way back when, I decided to build Get Stuff Made to help other start-ups through their journeys, with the hope being that everyone I work with learns to have confidence in the process and in themselves whilst making their ideas a reality.
This is one of the most time consuming things involved in the process. Normal procedure for me is to reach out to my existing trusted contacts for their recommendations, if they can’t already help! Next would be to visit trade shows & fabric exhibitions as these give you access to loads of suppliers of all kinds in the same place at the same time. I’m really missing them at the moment! They run across the country, with many happening in London – see below re: The London Textile Fair.
In the current climate, I’m leaning on the vast hole that is Alibaba – an online international market place for buying and selling pretty much everything you can think of. You can either search for suppliers or pre-made products depending on which route you want to go down. It can be a bit overwhelming, and if I’m totally honest is a bit of a minefield. The website itself is very dated, and although you can search by country, apart from spending hours scrolling through suppliers there isn’t really a secret to finding a good partner. There is a very big mix of fantastic, and less fantastic suppliers on there…
1- Reach out to potential options (lots of them!) and see what responses you get. Good suppliers will be open to talking and answering your questions.
2- Take a look to see how much information they have on their website / alibaba profile. The more info the better, and if you’re missing anything, see point 1!
3- Try not to get frustrated if this takes a long time and don’t forget if you get really stuck I can help!
Finding a sustainable supplier is all about knowing exactly what you mean by this, and then asking the right questions – see the below question to choose which aspects of being “sustainable” you mean and then my advice would be to simply ask questions directly.
For example, if you’ve found a supplier who has said their fabrics are all eco-friendly, I would want to know HOW they are eco-friendly. For example, are they following the Oeko-tex standard (very common, but all this means is it has been certified to not contain any harmful substances), or are they actually using recycled fibres maybe? If they can’t explain or you don’t get the answers you were hoping for – move on to the next option!
If using Alibaba or visiting trade shows, if a supplier is registered with any ethical / sustainable partners you can guarantee they will advertise it which helps.
If you’re UK based, and hoping to keep things local, the website Made In Britain is a great resource for this.
Being sustainable / ethical / environmentally friendly is a HUGE topic. There are many aspects involved so when I get asked to help build a start-ups new sustainable collection I start by running through the below to ensure we work out just how they see their brand being sustainable. As each aspect is also quite broad I recommend focusing on one at at time. It may be a case of starting with one, planning for two, and being mindful of all three for example.
Maybe the easiest way to start adding sustainable aspects to your brand is to use environmentally friendly fabrics where possible. There are ample options nowadays with new breakthroughs being released all the time.
You could look at using a synthetic fabric which has already been fully or partly recycled – usually recycled polyester / nylon mixed with elastane for stretch if needed.
Alternatively there are so many natural fibre fabrics available now, think bamboo, linen, hemp or even faux leather from pineapples! These options avoid the use of plastic all together, which can be favoured by some brands.
You can also look at sustainable trims, labels & packaging too – the options are endless!
Another way you can think about sustainability is regarding your products lifecycle as a whole. This is something that can be a bit endless, so again start small and focus on one aspect at a time!
The sustainability of a products life cycle is basically considering the whole process from how your product was made (for example what materials were used, what was wastage in the manufacturing?), through to how long you expect it last, and what to do with it when it’s finished.
The Higg Index by The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is where this idea originated in a physical, accountable form. There’s lots of information available (even if it can all be a little overwhelming) but you can get on their website and see as an overview the impact fabrics & processes may have compared to one another. They have many examples, from the impact of raising Sheep for merino wool, to sourcing the raw wood pulp used in Viscose/Rayon fabrics! Their “Materials Sustainability Index” can be found here. See below the impact (in a nice round number) using Alpaca Wool would have.
For some lighter reading, large brands use The Higgs Index to evaluate the impact their current & future styles may have, see here from Brooks on how they used it to review their footwear.
For start-ups and small brands, there are many other ways you can implement great product lifecycle initiatives without spending $$$. This includes things such as clearly directing customers how they can reuse / recycle your products at the end of their lifecycle, or by offering a recycling scheme where they can return used goods for a discount on future purchases leaving you to responsibly dispose of all items.
This is the most common expectation when asking for a sustainable brand, and encompasses everything to do with the relationships between brands & suppliers, factories & their staff and consumers & brands. Things are much better than they used to be and luckily as this topic is so commercial nowadays, if you ever have any concerns there are many resources available to you.
Also don’t forget, be confident and ask your suppliers directly about their business ethics – they may provide some reassurance or alternatively confirm your worries that you need to find someone new.
The Ethical Trade Initiative have lots of information and resources to help in these difficult conversations, see this poster for the basic things you should expect suppliers to have implemented.
Personally I like to bear in mind that any suppliers you work with are humans too, so when you are having conversations especially in the early days, please be patient and try your best to work with them as much as possible. Gone are the days of suppliers having to bend over backwards for the all powerful buyer – expect a much more collaborative approach where everyone works out solutions together (including you coming to them with solutions!).