We've heard a lot in recent years about the phenomenon of "fast fashion," in which apparel gets to the retail store faster, and remains on the shelves for much shorter periods of time. The whole concept of distinct "seasons" is becoming increasingly irrelevant. At the same time, the price of this fast-moving merchandise can be shockingly low. But there's another cost associated with this state of affairs, in the form of low wages for factory workers, especially overseas, and potential damage to the environment. In this conversation, excerpted from an episode of The SupplyChainBrain Podcast, we talk to Maxine Bédat, chief executive officer of Zady Inc., a company that is taking a new approach to selling more sustainable clothing. She describes how Zady is working to meet the needs of consumers, while creating an apparel supply chain that respects human rights and the environment – and, in the process, slowing things down.
Q: Can you explain what the term “slow fashion” means?
Bédat: Slow fashion, much like slow food, is about taking into consideration every detail of production, starting with the farm. It’s about having an appreciation for quality over quantity. It’s building a story that goes back
Q: In other words, 180 degrees opposite of the direction that most of the fashion industry is going in.
Q: Tell me about the year-long research project that you’ve undertaken at Zady called “The New Standard.”
Bédat: We went about trying to create clothing that was made in a decent way. As we explored that concept, we uncovered the big challenges facing the fashion industry – how disconnected it is, how retailers are not aware of where their production or raw materials are coming from. We also looked at the environmental impact, given that apparel is the second-most polluting industry in the world.
First, we wanted to find LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design]-certified factories, or their equivalent in the apparel space. We found that they didn’t exist. We also needed to research the issues, including how the apparel industry connects with broader discussions about climate change and human development. We discovered that nobody was doing this. We developed a tool internally, just to figure out what the right thing to do was, then decided to share the research that we had managed to pull together.
Q: Tell me about Zady. How old is the company?
Bédat: We launched the company two years ago, our private label product last November, and our first collection this past month. We began by developing our third-party-made products – telling the story behind each one that we carried – then ventured into our own production, to get down to the farm and figure out where our clothing comes from.
Q: So this determination was built into the origin of the company?
Bédat: Yes. Our origin was an integration of content and commerce. It was the story behind our products, building that emotional connection. Our generation and society right now are seeking that in their food. That was the heart of the company right at the get-go.
Q: What’s your background? Were you in other companies in the fashion industry prior to this?
Bédat: I was a lawyer, actually.
Q: This is your first venture into the apparel and fashion business?
Bédat: Yes. I got started doing corporate law, then human-rights law. From there I went on to found a non-profit organization working with artisans throughout the developing world, helping them revive their craft traditions. That led me and my co-founder Soraya Darabi to build stories and connections between all of our products and where they come from.
Q: It sounds like you had to learn the fundamentals of the apparel business pretty quickly.
Bédat: Certainly. It’s been a steep learning curve, but the team now includes industry veterans as well, with a fresh perspective. It wasn’t a case of “This is how it’s been done, and how it’s going to be.” Our approach allowed us to think a bit differently about what production can look like.
Q: So where are you now with The New Standard? Is it still underway?
Bédat: It’s always ongoing. As information comes out, we’re going to continue to add to it. That’s the reason why we published it. We wanted to continue to develop it as a living, breathing tool. It’s the standard that we’ve applied to our own production, in terms of creating high-quality clothing that is designed for longevity, and is sustainable from the farm all the way through final production.
Q: What have you learned so far about the major issues in fashion production that are commonly overlooked?
Bédat: Starting with material choice, it was shocking for me to learn of the sharp increase in the use of polyester, even over the past couple of years. Cotton is no longer king. Polyester is now in over half of the clothing that we wear. It’s a dramatic shift away from natural to synthetic materials. If you compared that trend with the carbon footprint of each of those fibers in their production, it’s pretty shocking.
Q: Polyester and other synthetics have been part of the apparel business for decades. Is the problem getting worse, or are you just saying that it’s time to wake up and attend to it?
Bédat: If you look at the trend curve, polyester has been around for a long time, but it’s ubiquitous today. That’s the big challenge – how much of it is being created. Each one of us throws away 70 pounds of clothing every year. That’s in sharp contrast to even 20 years ago. Our consumption of clothing has increased 400 percent over just 30 years. It’s this pace, combined with a move toward synthetic material, that’s causing major challenges.
Q: But cotton has its problems as well. What about the use of child labor to harvest cotton in Uzbekistan, for instance?
Bédat: Natural materials, and cotton in particular, have their challenges. We address those as well. The cotton that we use is organic. We also show within The New Standard the impact that organic, pesticide-free raw material can have on a carbon-footprint basis. We’re trying to cut across all of those issues, from child labor in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan to avoiding pesticide use in our production.
Q: It’s a complex supply chain. What challenges have you faced in tracing the provenance of your products all the way back to the fields, including the mills and all of the processing that these materials go through before they even get to a factory? Have you found it possible to get visibility of every single step in your supply chain?
Bédat: We do it very differently. That’s how we’re able to get this visibility. We don’t say to the factory, “Please tell us where you’re getting the material.” We start the other way around. With our first sweater, for example, we began at the ranch, then worked our way upstream. That’s the way to build transparency, so that we can track wool that came from Oregon, was washed in South Carolina, and was spun and dyed in Pennsylvania. We created a video of our sweater getting made through that entire supply chain.
Q: What happens when a producer or seller is much larger than Zady? With more complex supply chains, higher volumes and more sourcing points, I would imagine that they would find it more difficult than you have. Do you expect them to be able to meet that challenge as well?
Bédat: It’s not a matter of scale. We are partnering with facilities that can scale our company – places that have great standards and can also handle high volume. Many brands right now are stuck in systems where they don’t have visibility. That’s going to be a challenge for them to come to grips with, but we’re also seeing a shift in the attitude of consumers. They want to know where their products come from, that they’re doing the right thing. Eventually brands are going to have to get on board in order to stay relevant.
Q: Major brands have paid lip service to ensuring workers’ rights in their factories. Many have detailed supplier codes of conduct for that purpose. But then we turn around and see a disaster like the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, in which the brand didn’t even know that its apparel was being produced at that location. It was subcontracted out through four or five levels. How can we address this problem of achieving visibility across the multiple tiers of a supply chain?
Bédat: In terms of the ethical side of the equation, subcontracting really is the biggest issue, because of how easy it is to transfer a sewing machine. You can audit a factory left, right and center, but if it’s not the one that’s actually producing your goods, you’re auditing the wrong thing. Which is what Rana Plaza was – a subcontracted facility. The important thing for the industry is to recognize and be transparent about the issue. Auditing is not going to be the only thing that solves it. It has already been proven to be not sufficient.
We do all of our manufacturing, in terms of cutting and sewing, in facilities in the United States that we can go and visit. There are other safeguards that can be put in place and seem pretty simple. One is a reliance on non-profit organizations that empower workers with mobile texting. They can send anonymous texts if there are violations happening in their factories. Other things they can do include understanding how many sewing machines are in a particular facility and, given the units ordered and the time frame, whether it can feasibly produce those quantities. It sounds incredibly basic, but if the brands actually went through those steps, they could avoid some of the major problems.
Q: Is this system of texting reports of violations over mobile phones in wide use today?
Bédat: It’s beginning to be. It’s an interesting use of technology in this space, to ensure at least compliance at the start.
Q: I wonder if that’s a difficult thing to pull off. A lot of factory workers are under constant surveillance.
Bédat: It’s interesting to see, when you visit these factories, how ubiquitous cell phones are. There are instances where the non-profit organizations that have launched this product have found it to be very successful.
The fashion and apparel industry has been caught in this race to the bottom, always trying to find the cheapest suppliers. As a result, there’s been very little innovation in the space toward making a product more effectively and efficiently, instead of just trying to cut labor costs. Look at a company like Toyota, which sees its suppliers as partners. It wants to get feedback from the process, make it more efficient. Under the partnership principle, a factory can feel comfortable to say, “These are the issues. How can we work through them together, to avoid the catastrophes that we’ve seen in the industry?”
Q: The apparel industry, at least on the manufacturing side, appears to be less susceptible to a high degree of automation than high-tech or automotive production. It still seems to come down to a lot of people at sewing machines. Will it continue to be very labor-intensive, even as technology improves?
Bédat: Certainly. New products come out every season that don’t lend themselves to total automation. They will continue to require human hands to make them. But there are other ways to make a system more efficient, such as allocating labor based on actual orders that are coming in. A lot of this is still done on a whiteboard or Excel spreadsheet, even in the biggest factories. There are many more efficiency gains that can happen if brands start partnering with factories in the medium term.
Q: You call it a race to the bottom to save money, but it’s going to cost money to begin implementing some of the measures you’re talking about. Does a Zady sweater cost more because you’ve gone to the trouble of ensuring that your supply chain is responsible?
Bédat: Yes, it does cost more. We get savings from partnering with our factories and doing our manufacturing domestically. Therefore we don’t have the excess inventory that has plagued the rest of the apparel industry. Our labor costs are significantly higher because we’re guaranteeing a living wage for the skilled people who are making our clothing. But we have found that when you pay people well, they make great products.
Ultimately, clothing can be either a commodity or something very special. It’s the things that make the product special that people want to attach themselves to. Clothing is very much about what you are expressing to the world. People want to have that connection, and are willing to pay for a higher-quality product.
Q: That’s the question, though – are they? Are consumers willing to pay more for merchandise that is environmentally responsible and respects human rights? Or are they going to continue to scramble for the incredibly cheap clothes that they can get now from outlets that don’t practice what you do?
Bédat: If you fast-forward to what’s happening in the fashion industry, there are people flocking to fast-fashion stores. Those chains are opening up new stores every day. But we’re beginning to see a deep shift in society about wanting to be more mindful. There’s a growing consumer base that is switching away from fast fashion to simplify their lives. One of the best-selling books right now is about simplifying your life, including simplifying your closet. People are so overwhelmed with the amount of stuff they have, they’re looking to pare down. That’s a massive shift that is taking place in society right now.
Q: On the other hand, with fast fashion, a collection might be on shelves for just a few weeks. That’s a big deal right now, and consumers are indeed flocking to that business model. So do you realistically think that we can put the brakes on fast fashion?
Bédat: I do. These things don’t happen overnight. I grew up eating a lot of McDonald’s food. We’re seeing people becoming incredibly excited about slow fashion, and that slow way of life from all different corners. It certainly is happening, and will continue to happen.
Q: What will Zady look like 10 years from now? Are you looking to get bigger, or do you intend to manage growth in line with what we’ve been talking about?
Bédat: For us to be successful, we need to scale the company. It’s a very interesting time. The brands that I grew up with, that seemed as though they would always be there, are having a real struggle. There’s a major bifurcation going on, where those older brands are either going toward fast fashion or slow fashion. Apparel is a one- or two-trillion-dollar industry, and there’s still a huge portion of the market that is making the shift to slow fashion. That’s allowing us to be a sustainable company, and to continue to grow.
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