Looking for a sustainable fashion manufacturer is honestly one of the hardest tasks of being a sustainable fashion designer. This process took me several months of hard work to figure out, and I honestly wish I had a guide like this to spell it out for me. Whether you are a fashion designer or aspiring sustainable entrepreneur, this guide will make it a lot easier to figure out what you need to look for in a sustainable fashion manufacturer to help get your business up and running much quicker.
What to Look for in a Sustainable Fashion Manufacturer
This process took me several months of trial and error until I was able to find my perfect manufacturer. It can take anywhere from a week to a month of researching to make this happen. Give yourself some patience. If you want it bad enough, you will make it happen. Let’s get started. I ordered these factors in order of importance for success.
The location is the #1 most important thing when it comes to finding the right manufacturer. American made will give you bragging rights, but it might not be the most cost-effective measure. Places in other countries can pay their workers a fair wage in relation to the overall economy. There are always pros and cons to any location. You just have to find out what is most important to you and your brand.
2. Employment Practices
Okay, so this should probably be #1 in order of importance, but it’s relatively a gray area. You have got to do your research on this, especially if you are employing overseas. Sustainability is the balance between the environment, workers rights, and the economy. While you will rarely have a perfectly sustainable product, it’s important to take the steps necessary to understanding your manufacturers’ employment practices. Otherwise, you can be blindsided like Ivanka Trump and her shoe line if you aren’t careful.
Look up reviews from other people who source from them. Look up building codes, employee wages in relation to the living wage in that specific country. See if there are employee abuse in the records. Call and ask about their fire-extinguishers. Basically, if any of these don’t seem right, they are cutting corners with their products. Whether or not you still want to employ them is your choice, but be warned. You won’t be able to call your product “sustianable” if it violates human rights and ethics. If you do, and you get found out, it could spell the end for your company.
3. Language and Politics of their Local Region
This is another thing to consider when outsourcing abroad. I ended up calling several embassies in East Asia to find a sustainable fashion manufacturer. Most of the time, the language barrier was so difficult that I could not see myself working long term with any of these companies. I would have definitely had to hire a translator, and I didn’t want to do that. Not everyone will make this call. If you can get over the language barrier, and find a sustainable clothing manufacturer, you’re setting yourself up for a wonderful opportunity. It’s not for everyone, though.
Second, if you are working with any company overseas (and even in another state) it is important to pay attention to the local politics of the region. A manufacturer might seem less expensive and overall a perfect fit, but there might be a civil war brewing in the region, and you might not get your product at all. There might be local laws that manufacturers in the region can exploit, but you cannot because you aren’t a citizen. The factory might be located near sea-level and could be impacted by a tsunami. There are a lot of things that could happen. Keep them in mind to make a wiser final decision.
4. Sourcing of Materials
Your manufacturer is not the end all be all of the supply chain. Most clothing factories don’t source their own fabric. It’s important to see where your fabric is coming from, or if the fabric supplied comes from a local supply. If anything, the supply of fabric will be one of your largest expenses, besides labor. Make sure you know where your fabric is coming from, sometimes before you decide on the manufacturer.
Imagine supplying fabric from Thread in Pittsburgh, but your factory is in Taiwan. You’re going to have to send your fabric all the way to Taiwan, before sending it back to the states. If anything, you’re adding to the carbon footprint of the fabric in addition to the price.
This is an extension of #4. Wherever your clothing is produced, you are going to probably want to include distance in your carbon footprint. If not, outside reviews will be able to easily track this and see where you are cutting corners. Is your product being shipped to your warehouse via airplane or train? How far will it likely travel before it is even considered to be sent out to customers?
This is another reason why I went with domestic production of my fashion line. I know it’s not for everyone. You might want to save on costs by going overseas. It’s not technically a sustainable fashion manufacturer. I can’t discourage you from doing so. Just understand some of the sacrifices you might be losing out on by doing so. This is why eco-friendly fashion is not exactly sustainable.
6. Cost of Production
Cost is the killer for most sustainable fashion companies. As a culture, we have been gradually trained to go after bargain prices when it comes to clothes. The fast-fashion culture is the exact opposite of sustainable fashion culture. It is difficult to compete making a sustainable blouse for $129 when you can get an unsustainable blouse for $30.
However, it is important to realize that the slower style movement is a movement all to its own. There is a willing market, it just needs to find you through word of mouth and advertising. By far, this will be the hardest part of selling your product. Over time, it will be worth it if you can pull it off.
I spent a good amount of time researching the target market for this niche, but that’s another blog post.
7. Production Minimums
The beauty of overseas production is that sometimes you can get away with tiny production minimums. If you get this far, that’s freaking awesome. It means that you can get away with producing a very tiny amount of product in a short amount of time. This is great for entrepreneurs because it means that you can easily do market testing before sinking too many resources into a product.
Don’t be afraid of companies that have very high order minimums (in relation to your comfort level). Most American manufacturers have a minimum of $10,000. I know because I personally called almost all of them. Some places have unit minimums, so you can have a product ordered for significantly less than the $10,000 minimum. It’s just another question you should be prepared to ask for.
8. Design Services
The glorious thing about some manufacturers is that they have a design team at hand who can basically do all the design work for you. If you’re more business-minded than design-minded, like me, this is a Godsend. Just because you use the design services of one company doesn’t mean you have to go with them for full production. You can, and sometimes you should. But, there is a lot of flexibility in this industry.
When you sign up for design services, MAKE SURE you sign a rights contract. This ensures that you have the rights to the design should you ever need to litigate. Hopefully, you never will, but if you don’t you are setting yourself up for possible ruin to your company later on. At the end of design services, you will usually get a copy of the CAD designs, photos, and even samples that you can show to investors and customers. You’re also not bound to manufacturers specifically for this kind of service. This is a fun part of running a sustainable fashion company, but it will cost you money.
9. Quality of Products
You’re going to want to have the first order of anything you produced shipped right to your house so you can check quality. Sustainable fashion manufactuers are no different. Quality is king. If you spend all this money for a product, and the manufacturer doesn’t deliver, you could possibly sue. If you just send out a product without checking it first, you are setting your company for major liability and loss of trust with your customers.
Don’t do this. Check the quality before you start selling. Get your samples. Check. The. Quality.
When looking for a sustainable fashion manufacturer, be prepared to have more than one manufacturer right off the bat. It may seem magical at first to get your first order shipped to your house for initial inspection before sending it off to the distributor. Be wary, that if your production succeeds, your single manufacturer might not be able to keep up with demand. This is a golden problem to have, by the way, but it can be your company’s downfall in the long run. It’s not very sustainable.
To remedy this, you are going to want to keep an eye on more than one manufacturer at a time. Look into your own competition to see where their products are produced. Many different companies are supplied by the same sustainable fashion manufacturer at any given time. There is more than one sustainable fashion manufacturer, you just have to find them.
I have a lot more to say on this subject, which is why I’m putting together an e-learning course for aspiring sustainable business owners. If you’re into this kind of thing, check out the form below to get a copy of the FREE sustainable business resource guide. My goal is to change the industry and how we consume fashion. I can’t do it all myself. This is why I want to give out as much valuable information for free as possible.