Socially Conscious Style
23 September 2015 at 11:14 am
From handbag retailers that employ the homeless to sunglass designers that save the environment, ethical fashion is proving that style can be more than skin deep, writes Ellie Cooper in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
Thread Harvest is a social enterprise and online store with the aim of making brands with social or environmental impact available to Australian consumers.
Co-founder and Managing Director, Jai Sharma, said every item of clothing, pair of shoes and accessory comes with its own inspiring backstory.
“We partner with manufacturing operations around the world, we then import the social enterprise fashion pieces into Australia, and we market both the pieces and the stories behind the pieces to Australian customers,” Sharma said.
“For example, we sell a label called Article 22 and it’s a fashion designer in the US who designs the pieces but they’re made from recycled ammunitions, so they’re actually recreating what was meant for harm into something good.
“Then in the process they’re actually employing people in Laos to make the pieces which we then sell and each piece that gets sold some land is cleared from landmines.”
Sharma first became interested in social conscious business while working in the development field in India.
“I had a really interesting conversation and walked through a factory floor with one of the local business owners. He was fairly corrupt and really not interested in social change,” he said.
“I realised that he had almost accidently lifted thousands of people out of poverty. He had employed a few thousand young, lower-socio-economic women to manufacture his product.
“If this man was able to accidentally change the lives of thousands… a business that intentionally sought to employ marginalised people could have a really positive impact.”
Returning to Australia, Sharma worked for a superannuation fund, which solidified his desire to promote ethical fashion.
“I was analysing the apparel industry and rating it on ethical standards and was appalled by what was going on, and then at the same time coming across these social enterprises doing the exact opposite,” he said.
“Rather than exploiting people, they were empowering people and having a really positive impact and I just saw that there was scope there for incredible improvement.”
Sharma, with founding members Brian Lee and Eve Wong, established Thread Harvest with the philosophy that, to be successful, the fashion must maintain high aesthetic standards while creating genuine impact rather than perpetuating exploitation.
“We felt it was important to be absolutely uncompromising on style so the pieces we’ve chosen have been featured in Vogue and InStyle and Elle magazines and have been worn by style icons like Beyoncé and Anne Hathaway,” he said
“So core to the business model is also a desire to champion ethical fashion but also ethical fashion that people would want to wear even without the social impact behind it.”
The Thread Harvest website launched in November 2014 and Sharma said operating online allows the enterprise to be financially sustainable.
“At the moment we’re running fairly lean. We have the luxury of being able to run with lower overheads and certainly being able to sell the product and fund the business through cash flow has certainly made it an easier journey forward rather than relying on grants,” he said.
“We’re in the early stages of expanding into a bricks and mortar retail operation. We’re currently looking to develop a partnership with property developers or managers that are interested in housing social enterprises within their retail locations.”
Although the social enterprise is not working directly with the projects and communities that ethical brands support, Sharma explained that Thread Harvest fills a gap by providing a marketplace for the products.
During the initial set-up the Threat Harvest team consulted with their suppliers to determine the best ways they could provide support.
“What we kept hearing time and time again is so much of their time and energy and resources are spent just in managing the manufacturing operations,” Sharma said.
“Our suppliers employ, at last count, 1,139 people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and we’re talking the homeless, the extreme poor, and people with living with HIV, those rescued from sexual exploitation.
“Because a lot of their time and resources are spent managing the operations, they don’t necessarily have the bandwidth to market, particularly to Australian customers when they’re based overseas.
“So we wanted to step in and be that doorway and introduction point between these incredible, inspiring labels and the Australian customer, who we’ve found is actually really keen and excited by good fashion with a good heart behind it as well.”
Sharma said it’s important that socially conscious fashion is made accessible in Australia.
“It’s difficult for Australian customers to be buying from overseas labels, you can imagine shipping costs from Afghanistan for a hand-embroidered dress are exorbitantly high,” he said.
“We purchase products from the overseas suppliers at a wholesale rate, we then import it into Australia, store the stock here and then we sell it to the Australian customer.”
Although one of the common challenges facing socially minded businesses is the difficulty in measuring impact, but Thread Harvest is determined to use date collection to track the difference their sales are making.
“We wanted to be really clear and definitive about the kind of impact we’re having. For every piece we sell we have a table outlining what the social impact is of that piece, whether it be minutes of fair trade labour for a marginalised individual, meters of landmines cleared or funds channelled towards social causes and projects,” Sharma said.
“What we’ve been able to do over time is just aggregate that data and tally it up at the end of each month or quarter and we’re able to track our impact over time.
“As a smallish and growing business I think we would certainly hope that we would be able to scale that social impact dramatically over time, but it’s been a real joy, actually, to be able to tangibly measure and understand and visualise the kind of impact we’re having.”
Sharma said the data will help build a connection between the customers and causes through an impact page on the website.
“We’ve got tons of data on our hands and we’re still trying to figure out how it is we communicate that as well as possible,” he said.
“What customers can see is not just the quantitative data in terms of how many people are employed and how many of those are women, but also the narrative data, the actual stories of the people making the products.
“They’re actually able to see the whites of the eyes of the people making them and learn how it is their lives have been changed through the production process.”