Mind over Matter
The NGO ‘Made- By’ collaborates with brands and designers in providing solutions in creating a sustainable supply chain. Widening their interests on a global market is a key element in Made-By’s and its partner Solidaridad’s strategy.
30 brands have adopted their strategy so far. Their hands-on approach towards changes within the demand and supply chain in the fashion industry should be seriously considered or at least studied.
Our core business is not fashion itself. But sustainability within fashion is.
Just opposite Central Station in Amsterdam, the white facade of the Made-By´s office building does not directly reveal its inner qualities. Formerly the home to a well-known coffee and tea producer, Simon Levelt, this head office is submerged in Jugendstil ornaments in glass, wooden sculptures dating back a century ago.
The prosperous city was keen on importing large quantities of precious resources from the far East, Africa and the American continents in these days. Exactly in this area ships were on- and offloading their goods in large quantities, shipping it onwards to the rest of Europe.
As if turning back the clock, Made-By nowadays can consider itself a key player in this part of the world, supplying knowledge and coaching fashion brands looking for labour and raw materials from second and third world regions.
It focuses on bringing all parties together in a sustainable way and share profits fairly. As the company is growing, so is the demand for eco-friendly production on behalf of buyers and manufacturers.
Made-By is also using a unique track and trace system, which allows the public to trace any of their Blue Botton tagged products back to its origins. By means of a code the consumer can virtually travel all the way back to the farmer who grew and hand-picked the raw cotton or other material in Peru or the lady who sewed the seams of a jacket in India. While tea is being served, managing director Mark Huis in ‘t Veld, joins in for an interview. Our conversation begins informally:
AM: – What did your personal itinerary look like in your professional life before you joined Made- By?
MHihV – I have always been working within sustainable enterprises like Max Havelaar and Triodos Bank for example. About 5 years ago the director of Solidaridad – an organisation we still intensively work with informed me about a new concept within the sustainable clothing and manufacturing domain. It was – and still is- part of my motivation to bring that concept to a large audience within the existing context of a world trade market.
AM – Could you give an outline on what Made-By is doing for brands?
MHihV – We are a label which supports fashion brands in order for them to produce their collections sustainably and present themselves as such. And then we mean for a full 100%, throughout the entire chain of production. A holistic concept we can only achieve through long-term commitment from all parties. Annually we strive to uphold and improve certain standards of social and ecological interests. A report of all activities for each brand is measured and annually published by us. All information is sorted on our website open to anyone to read and study.
We use different certified standards that have to be respected by our brands. As an effect, it can occur that we decide to no longer continue a contract with a brand because of negligence on their behalf. Benchmarks help us to make the proceedings understandable. Gradually we try to upgrade the performance annually for all elements, not just our cottons and fabrics.
AM – Which third-world countries have you seen where legislation on working conditions and prices are different from our commonly accepted standards in Europe?
MHihV – First I’ve been to Peru, where Solidaridad already had quite some expertise within bio-cotton farming and harvesting. But with respect to the global numbers in quantity that area is surpassed by, e.g., India. So India was my second destination. We started with around 60 farmers and today we cooperate with 7000 farmers in India, spread around the entire country. Made-By generally works from Europe, communicating with local partners in the countries where our resources originate and where factories are situated.
AM – How many offices does Made-By have and where are they located?
MHihV – We have three offices with around eighteen people working for us in Amsterdam, London, Freiburg and Utrecht. Worldwide the company is employing 40 people on a day-to-day basis. In countries where fabrication and harvesting is done, Solidaridad has numerous local offices.
AM – Ok, so let’s pretend that you receivet a massive order from a globally well-known company within the fashion domain. This specific client would consider starting a 100% eco-friendly and sustainable business strategy. Would you be able to handle the demand for, e.g., cotton and manufacturing skills?
MHihV – We will have to expand for sure. Solidaridad – our partner- is getting a large fee from the government which solidly believes in us. If numbers increase they will only applaud that. After 4 years we will be ready for any company regardless of its potential or size. Large companies like C&A are exceeding 2% and are steadily increasing the amount of organic materials each year.
They pay about 20% more on the basic product – the raw materials – but for us at the end of the production line
it’s hardly noticeable in prices we pay for our clothing in shops! It sounds like a lot- 20% extra for the raw stuff- but in fact it’s marginal.
If we balance the costs by increasing the volume of our crops, the difference will be even smaller and eventually be of no importance at all. Then all brands will be able to finally choose this method. More companies in countries in the West are into buying these items; The US and Australia are seriously interested and in time China and Russia will follow their example.
AM – What is the amount and nature of brands that you work with now?
What are your prospects for the future regarding brands and opportunities?
MhihV – We have 30 brands now mainly from Europe. In 10 years from now we will be globally active. I suppose over a hundred brands will work with us by then. We are focusing on geographic expansion primarily. Scandinavia and later the south of Europe are to follow. But in a broader time span countries further from our ‘ home-base’ will follow; North-America, Australia, Russia, China, etc. This was our ambition in the first place, because the fashion market works globally.
AM – Ecology and sustainability are sort of a trend in marketing. You’ve started quite small haven’t you, but by now apparently you have enough wingspan to embrace ecology and sustainability in a serious way and not as an instantly devised marketing tool. Correct?
MhihV – Yes, we started with small and medium sized companies, so to speak. By now because of the knowledge and expertise on location we are working with large-sized firms. We learned from experience that others had been assembling for years. Kuyichi, for example, taught us that one can live and work by the eco-friendly and sustainable strategy and make true and sexy fashion collections at the same time. We are very practical; it’s about what you can do and make. It is in the first place less about how we think that things should be ideally.
Also the bio food market has been an example to us. And generally speaking we trod the same path along they did.
In smaller companies the improvement of working and ecological conditions are easier to cater for.
Larger companies have to move along a bit slower because of the many factors that have to be taken into account.
There is obviously a difference between companies which produce t-shirts only versus a designer’s label that needs to get all its materials and manufacturing conditions improved for a complete collection year in, year out.
AM – For example: a larger company like ‘Claudia Sträter’ is part of the Made-By group. How is that company doing with regard to these issues?
MHihV – That is a good example: the company truly committed to eventually being able to produce 100% as we agreed, but cannot shift its strategy from one moment to the next. But annually it is improving.
AM – Will people in countries producing raw materials now be able to actually buy the clothing themselves in time?
MHihV – Well these countries are home to an increasing number of people from the middle-class. There will be a growing demand for sure. But right now, it is not an issue. Economic growth is in general a necessity, otherwise there are less chances that working conditions, for example, can be improved. But I am optimistic.
I believe that companies who take this business concept seriously won´t turn around in the other direction and will still continue to grow. Sustainable production is here to stay even in economically difficult times.
Short quote by Pascual Sànchez Cuscano, cotton farmer, Peru
‘In the four year that I have been growing organic cotton, I’ve noticed that my land has become stronger. Especially last year we had a very good harvest. I used the extra income to invest in my farm.
But I also put a floor in the bathroom and bought school supplies for my children.’
Multilingual info on Made-By brands, strategy, track and trace system and annual reports:
Story and interview by Alexander Moust in 2009
Published initially in German and English for Fashion Today international trade magazine.