Sustainability is a multi-faceted and complex issue with no single right answer to any problem. Manufacturing in developing countries can be a double edged sword when it comes to sustainability. From a fair-trade perspective it can be an important way to support growing economies, but, carbon footprint aside, from an environmental and labor regulation standpoint China has become the four letter word of production. This is an issue we’ve addressed before here at Inhabitat when we received “sweatshop” comments on our H&M organic cotton post. Last week we interviewed Terra Plana and Stewart + Brown on the subject of sustainability in manufacturing, and today we are going to revisit the issue again with an interview of Keep – Brazilian maker of eco-friendly footware.
INTERVIEW WITH UNA KIM OF KEEP
Una Kim from Keep Eco-friendly footware graciously answered some of my questions about the issue of sustainability in the manufacturing process. She won big points in my book for her honesty. A favorite response was when I asked about their plans and she stated, “Our plan is to try and make it to the next season!” That might seem myopic to some, but anybody in the apparel industry knows that it is a tough business. There will be no opportunity to grow sustainability efforts if there is no business. Below is the full interview.
UNA: Our manufacturing situation is far from perfect, but from the start we went through a lot of grief to find a factory that we felt comfortable working with despite the increased production costs. It’s a factory that my partner visits regularly and spends a lot of time at, especially during our production, so we can know on a very personal level what’s going on there and so we’re not completely distanced from the production. As we get bigger and have more leverage, we want to gain even more control of our production process. That’s the dream!
JILL: Your website states:
At Keep, we strive to produce our goods in a way we can feel proud of, and as we continue to grow so will our commitment to positive production practices. We chose our factory in Bahia, Brazil based on their dedication to high standards for quality as well as for their labor and environmental policies. Their vision, as is ours, is one of sustainable solutions while promoting a balanced relationship between production, the environment and social responsibility.
I am assuming the factory’s labor policy you speak of begins with at least no child labor and I am hoping ends with decent working conditions and a fair wage. What are their environmental policies? What are yours… or your plans?
UNA: There is absolutely no child labor at the factory and they partner and support a childrens’ rights group to protect children across the country. From personal experience we can say that the working conditions are positive. The factory provides three meals a day for everyone, in-house day care for their workers, as well as group calisthenics in the mornings and sometimes the afternoons. We have been told that their wages are fair, but do not have the statistical back up to say this for certain, but from our interactions with the workers there is nothing to suggest this is untrue. The company wide values are listed as “Ethics, Work, Dynamism, Honesty, Humbleness in its Personal Relationships, Seriousness and Commitment with the Community.” Again, this could be a lot of lip service in the sense where it’s very difficult to quantify those values but we have felt that what they say and do rings true. We are a very very small company. Our numbers are very small in the context of an industry that produces millions of shoes a month. The fact that this factory works with us at all is a pleasant surprise and to us is at least a small show of character.
As far as environmental policies go, we have confirmation from our Brazilian rep that our factory strictly adheres to all environmental standards of Brazil and have several treatment stations to deal with their waste products. They also have a Forestry preservation Area — basically a ranch that’s committed to forest preservation — and they have other programs such as that to try and counteract what they take away. I think our approach has always been to work closely with the manufacturers to make sure we are involved with the production process and aren’t removed from the actions that take place in order to make our shoes. Do we have a plan? Right now, no. Our plan is to try and make it to the next season! But loosely, we want to continue to gain more leverage and to be able to have more control over what we use and to incentivize our factory to continue moving in that direction. RIght now we’re the people being lead by what our factory sets out for us, but hopefully the roles can change as we get more acquainted with the dynamics of the industry.
JILL: Your website states:
In addition, all Keep products are cruelty free and utilize natural materials including canvas, cotton, and gum rubber.
Are your fibers organic and/or low impact dyed? Is the rubber sustainably harvested? What types of adhesives do you use?
I know it is difficult for any young company in the fashion industry to start up, so I don’t want to hold you under a microscope. I support any company beginning to take steps toward sustainability, but I feel like areas are increasingly becoming gray and muddled. Brands like Edun are always in eco-fashion press stories, but are only 30% organic and more focused on fair-trade. Other companies sell a few bamboo t-shirts and state they are green, but have no idea how their fabric was produced (recycling water and chemicals vs. dumping) or dyed. So, I am just seeking a bit more information.
UNA: Our fibers are not organic and are not low impact dyed at this point. The rubber is not sustainably harvested as far as I know, though I believe it’s harvested from their own farms so it’s a possibility. Our adhesives are water based and use no animal bi-products. These are all things we will have more access to in the future and what we hope to use as we are more educated about what’s out there and have more leverage to obtain those options. The reality is that we’re too small to have the pull to get organic fibers, and it’s more about accessibility and power than it is about cost.
I completely understand your statement about gray areas. We never wanted to lay heavy claim to eco-production or try to exploit that for press, precisely because we don’t know enough to claim anything like that. What we’re really trying to do is have a brand that we love to do and to know enough about our production process to feel responsible for it. That’s one of the elements of trying to be what we call a personal brand. We want people to learn and know about the production process as we continue to learn about it, and let them know the face of who’s actually making the shoes. I’m hoping we just continue to learn about everything and as issues arise, we’ll be able to find solutions to them that make sense to us as normal human beings.
Thank you Una!