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Choosing your manufacturer

In this video, Lead Educator Clare Lissaman explores some of the key questions you should consider when choosing a fashion manufacturer.
Building up relationships in this sphere of fashion, whichever country you’re in, finding out, talking to as many people as possible, telling them what you want, finding out your way in the industry. It’s an industry that works on relationships, on people knowing each other and people trusting each other. So that’s also a really good way to spread the word and try and hear back. You could talk to suppliers and say I understand there are certifications in this sphere, this is really important to me, this is what I want. You can actively look only for suppliers that already have those certifications.
There are external third party certifications, things like the fair trademark that you can have to show the cotton has grown in a fair trade way. Things like the organic marks around cotton. There are certifications like bluesign and others that talk about chemical inputs into manufacturing garments and clothing. I’d say the most helpful thing is personal recommendations from people who’ve already used them. So initially you’d give them a sample and a pattern and get them to make a production sample. A good factory will charge you twice the amount of a unit to do that. And then if it’s any good, then you might do a run.
Always remember to make them sign a contract, whereby they’re not allowed to share your designs with anyone, et cetera.
Obviously the more you can meet the supplier, build up a relationship with them, talk with them, understand where they’re coming from. Do they share your values? That’s going to be quite an interesting starting point. It won’t necessarily help you know that everything they’re doing is perfect, but it will give you some understanding of where they’re coming from and do they share what you’re trying to achieve. I think like developing those relationships also really feeds into, like, being able to source what you want. How you feel about the person you’re working with, and the first gut instinct you get. And I’ve been to a few factories I’ve just instantly known, no this isn’t going to work.
One, you need to guarantee that your quality will be good. And number two, if your quality isn’t good then you’re really only as good as your last delivery, so. The supplier relationships with the fabric people and the factories are both equally important. Things go wrong; that’s fashion. They’ll probably go wrong far more than people not in fashion realise. So on a daily basis there’s a bit of a crisis happening. But you kind of have to be built of something particularly strong, I think, to work in fashion for that reason. But anyway, it’s important because if things do go wrong, it’s how you deal with it.
You can’t really do that satisfactory in our industry unless you actually go to the factories and see them yourself. That’s the most important thing, is to actually go there, understand the people you’re dealing with, understand the factories that you’re working in. Get a feel for them. It’s a bit like when if you walk into somebody’s house, you automatically get an atmosphere and a feeling of whether it’s a nice place or perhaps not quite such a nice place. Well factories are no different, they’re full of human beings and they have a personality. And that’s what we do. We spend time in our supply chain, understanding it.
Well what I go in and look for is, is it neat? Is it tidy-ish? Is it clean? Do the people that work there look happy? Are they really open minded and communicative? Obviously they’ve got to have the right price. They’ve got to have the right deliveries. They’ve not got to promise me too much, because then I’m a bit weary. Sometimes the factories that look the shiniest, look the glossiest, look really perfect, look as if they’ve got everything sorted and beautiful places to work are very, very good places to work. Sometimes they just look very beautiful and underneath there could be all sorts of things going on that we don’t know.
There could be sexual harassment of the workers going on, there could be huge amounts of overtime that you’re not going to see. But I think it’s dangerous to judge a factory purely on what you can see. And also sometimes old buildings, old factories, might not look very nice, but actually might be brilliantly run, have fantastic working conditions. One of the things that I find quite helpful is the attitude of the owners and the attitude of the managers.
And often they will say what they think customers want to hear, but if they seem as if they’re proactive, really trying to find out themselves the best way they can run the best factory or production unit possible, rather than being reactive and doing just what customers want, that’s quite an interesting sight. I think that it’s very important to understand sustainability is very linked with both efficiency and common sense. Generally speaking, the smaller the factory and the more you know the owner of the factory, you’ll probably find that there is more about efficiency and more of that common sense embedded in the workforce. The tragedy, I think, these days is that most fashion brands don’t own their factories any longer.
So it’s like a business done by tertiaries and therefore much harder to keep an understanding of what they’re like. I mean I’ve seen some factories, in Italy for instance, in Scotland, but also in Sri Lanka and in Hong Kong, where I would have quite happily gone on holiday at. You know, beautiful places. As I’ve seen scandalous places that you think, my God, humans should not be working in this environment. And I think that the great advantage of a young designer is that you can visit your factory and choose. You’re not a massive chain that will take it from whoever tells you, oh yeah these guys are good. Don’t be scared. Don’t think that you don’t know stuff.
Just ask the kinds of things that you would like to know if you were working there. That’s a really good starting point about being human, and if they’re responding very positively and able to show you more, that’s a good starting point. If they’re just pushing you off, then maybe that’s a bad starting point.

In this video, ethical supply chain expert Clare Lissaman explores some of the key questions you should consider when choosing the manufacturer who will make your products.

You will also hear some top tips from other fashion entrepreneurs about working with the right suppliers.

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How to Build a Sustainable Fashion Business

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