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What is a sustainable supply chain?

In this video, ethical supply chain expert Clare Lissaman explains what a sustainable fashion supply chain looks like.
So what is a supply chain? I think for many people when they start thinking about taking their ideas, their designs, your brand and turning it into product you think about who is going to supply you. Who’s going to make the clothes, or the shoes, or the jewellery that you’re doing. That’s your first supplier. But behind that supplier is a whole series of people and processes that enable that supplier to make– say, for example– the garment you want to be made. Those people all link together, that’s why we call it a chain. So what are the processes that happen in a supply chain? Let’s take a garment, for example. Say it’s the nice, cotton top that I’m wearing.
It starts with someone growing cotton to enable those clothes to be made. So there’s a farmer involved, he’ll have to buy seed. Then the cotton will have to be picked. It will have to be stripped of its seeds, it will have to be spun into yarn. The yarn gets turned into fabric, somehow. It could be woven, to make woven fabrics that we see in shirts or trousers, for example. It could be knitted and turned into jersey and used for T-shirts and other drapey garments. At some point in this, it will have been dyed. Either in the yarn, or in the making of the fabric.
Then from the fabric it will be cut and sewed, and trimmed and decorated, and turned into the finished, beautiful, cotton top that we’re wearing. So you can see there’s a series of processes and some of them will happen together, and some of them will happen separately. Every stage in that process, it touches the environment and it touches people. So what we mean by sustainable supply chain is, do they harm or benefit the environment or people, as that piece of cotton is transformed and turned into the beautiful garment that we wear.
There’s a lot of groundwork to be done before you jump in and just say, I’ve got to find the first supplier I can, and this is what I want to have made. And, please, can you make it for me? It really, really, really pays off if you actually do some groundwork first and think about what you really want. I would advise really taking the time to plan, to create frameworks, to create structure. Firstly, think about what you really need from the product. What do you need it to deliver for you? What quantity are you likely to be needing to make.
What price points are needing to want to buy them at, so that you can sell, to make the margin you need in order to have a sustainable life yourself. So think about those aspects of what you’re going to need from a supply chain first, because they’re going to help tailor where you go to find your supplier. Looking at my supply chain, mapping out the kind of processes that are going to happen into my product. I’ve been using examples of a cotton garment, you might be doing something out of polyester, or gold, or leather. Think about the processes that go into your product. You’re going to need to go, what are those processes? Where do they really impact the environment?
Where do they really impact the people that make them? Where can I actually say I want to make a difference? Where are my ethical values for my brand being held? What do my customers want? That will help you map out the approach you want to take to building a supply chain. Say, for example, you say, I’ve understood this. I’ve looked, I’ve researched, I’ve understood that where my garments that I’m making is most likely to have impact on the environment and on people is in the growing of the cotton, and the making of the clothes. So, therefore, I’m going to look for suppliers that can really help me do benefit to the farmers and to the garment makers.
If you’re making a different kind of product– let’s say for example, a beautiful, crocheted top– you might be thinking, actually, what I’m really interested in is where the wool comes from. The animal welfare of the wool. Or maybe it’s where the spinning happens. It’s hand-spinning, I’ve understood there’s some great artists in those industries and I really want to support those people. So getting a groundwork of what you want, recognising you may not be able to do everything all at once, you might have to take a staged approach. What enables you to put the measures in place to go out and find the best suppliers and set up the best supply chain.
There could be really talented designers, or amazing Instagram, or maybe the marketing side is nailed. The production is, for most people, is very elusive. Factories don’t have websites. A lot of designers keep their factories and their production a secret. It’s whether someone can understand your needs, your product, and whether they can make that. Young designers have really different ways of approaching the kinds of big, bright, new world of starting to make a collection. You have so many avenues, in terms of production, that you can explore. If I do sell very well, who’s going to actually make this collection for me. And this is difficult.
This is really, potentially, the hardest bit of all because you can’t predict how much you’re going to be selling. So you don’t really know the right factory, or the right producers that will support you. The tendency is that the smaller you are the less a big factory will look after you. Because the big factory will somehow encourage big orders and put them at the top of their agenda. It’s interesting, though, having things thrown away. It means that if something goes wrong, it really affects the turnaround times. A lot of it is timing. And that is not anything that’s difficult, it’s just being very, very aware of your lead times and how long things take.
Fortunately, a lot of the lead times are fairly standard and similar. Things take about a month. Just finding ways in production to cut down on the number of countries that something needs to move through before it gets to you is always good. So it’s just being organised. There’s no dark art to the sourcing side of things.

A crucial factor in developing a sustainable fashion brand is being able to find the people and businesses who you can trust to supply you with what you need.

Even if you plan to make the clothes, accessories or jewellery yourself, you will need inputs and components whether that be fabrics, yarn or other components. Your suppliers will need to source other inputs too, right back until to the very beginning – the raw materials.

Week 4 introduces you to the concept of supply chains, what factors to consider in relation to sustainability, what tools exist to help manage sustainability issues in supply chains, what you need to know before you go out to source supply, how you can go about finding suppliers and some pointers on what to ask suppliers regarding sustainability practices.

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How to Build a Sustainable Fashion Business

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