Ethical production in the fashion industry may be more common than ever before, but for a long time there has been a missing link in the supply chain. New start up JUST, co-founded by Shahd Al-Shehail and Natalie Grillon, is hoping to fill that link by connecting suppliers with designers and consumers, trying to make the supply chain more transparent. It finds, vets and partners with fashion suppliers that have positive social missions. Next it brings these suppliers together with designers and consumers through an online database and consumer platform, so that the journey of JUST garments is traceable to all involved. While there are a growing number of fashion startups finding innovative ways to develop and promote ethical products, JUST is taking a unique approach as the first concept of its kind to offer a fashion supply chain that any clothing brand can source from. Ecouterre were lucky enough to talk with Al-Shehail and wanted to share her enlightening hopes and aims with our readers.
How did JUST come about?
Natalie and I grew up like many female adolescents; coveting the latest issue of Vogue and trying to copy the season’s looks. Our careers took us to business and international development, following our passion for solving social and economic issues. These two worlds steadily began to collide for both of us last year.
We met in New York City through the Acumen Global Fellows program, which sent me to India and Natalie to Uganda.
Halfway through the fellowship, we were trading stories. Natalie is visiting from Uganda, where she has been working with an agriculture development company providing access to market for over 40,000 smallholder farmers. One of the company’s largest crops is organic cotton; she starts to talk about the potential she sees for the farmers and for connecting them to the fashion industry. The company has created something incredible and special, she says. This should be the standard not the exception.
We start brainstorming. What if we could provide good suppliers, like the company she is working at, access to a market? What if there were better standards for brands and consumers to judge their garment by? And what if there was something that guarantees quality inputs in the item we are purchasing, which a consumer could easily understand and make an informed decision with? What if you had an “Intel Inside” for clothes?
A month later, Rana Plaza happened: 1,133 dead. 2,500 injured. All in a man made disaster, a factory collapse driven by demand for cheaper clothes at the expense of everything else, even lives. It was a sobering event for the world and certainly for us.
When we dug a little deeper, we realized that the problem was even larger. Thousands more die every year unnoticed. Fashion industry supply chains are complex and opaque, and this lack of transparency and even basic knowledge of a garment’s journey hides human rights abuses and the unsustainable use of resources. Here we were, in India and Uganda, using our business skills to fight poverty while something as simple as our clothes could be responsible for poverty somewhere else in the world. JUST was born.
What were the motivations behind the concept?
Our main motivation was and is to enable the fashion industry to create not only beautiful, but inherently ethical clothing. Given the complexity of supply chains, It’s far too easy to remain blissfully ignorant. Designers and retailers know their suppliers, but they don’t know who their suppliers’ suppliers are. Farmers have no idea where their cotton ends up. And consumers don’t know anything, except that their clothing was “made in China.”
This lack of even basic knowledge of a garment’s journey breeds miscommunication, diminishes quality, and hides human rights abuses and damaging environmental practices. The industry solution is to regulate with more metrics, checklists and rankings. But with all the suppliers out there who are doing the right thing, we prefer to celebrate with access to market, and transparency.
In your opinion, how responsive or encouraging is the fashion industry to brands with a social mission?
However, there hasn’t been the same momentum when it comes to ethical production and brands that are taking a look at their entire impact, including their supply chains. There has been a long-held stereotype that these kind of ethical products are not fashionable, that they feel and look like a “potato sack”.
These brands have a tougher job. Not only do they need to compete on design and distribution with larger more well-funded brands, but they also have committed to monitoring and worrying about all the complex supply chain stuff to ensure an ethical product.
We built JUST with those brands in mind, we want to support their efforts by making it easy for them to source ethically. Its a win-win for all stakeholders; brands who need ethical suppliers can find them easily, and suppliers who are doing the right thing can get access to market and expand their social impact.
What role can JUST play in the fashion industry?
We think we have a huge role to play in bringing transparency to the fashion industry. We want to shake things up and disrupt the system by sharing the stories of where our clothing comes from.
It’s an important role that can have a scalable impact, and we don’t think anyone’s playing it yet.
How has response to JUST been so far?
We launched our beta version of our supplier database last [month] at Sustainatopia to a group of industry insiders. The response so far has been really positive. We’ve already started to see designers engage with the database, request to contact suppliers, and ask about how they can share this information with their customers, and we’re excited to be able to announce our first designer partners soon.
We think JUST is offering something that the fashion industry hasn’t seen yet, so we’re excited to continue spreading the word about what we’re doing.
We’re seeing greater emphasis being placed on values such as fair trade, transparent supply chains, and slow fashion. How will JUST facilitate that?
It’s great that there’s been more conversation and awareness of these issues and great that consumers are becoming more interested in knowing more about where their clothes come from, but we think there’s still a lot more that can be done.
Our research has shown that certifications mean very little to consumers, whereas transparency puts clear information and storytelling at the hand of the consumers, and allows them to make a decision for themselves on which product they want to support.
People always ask me “who do you think is responsible for the issues in the fashion industry?”. There is a lot of finger pointing: “It’s the brands fault,” “If only the consumers demanded higher quality of clothing,” “Suppliers need to reinforce stricter tools.”
At JUST, we think it takes all of us! suppliers, brands and consumers. And that’s the role we plan to play – bridging the gap between suppliers and brands, and bringing transparency to consumers. Together we have the power to change things.
Where do you normally find the brands you select?
JUST works with suppliers, designer brands and consumers. For our suppliers, Natalie and I have worked in East Africa and India, so we find them through our contacts and travel. We spent a significant amount of time in the field talking to suppliers, understanding their story, assessing the quality of their product, and seeing their social impact. This initial list of curated suppliers are the best of the best, and we will continue to add more to them on a weekly basis with the same commitment to quality and social impact.
Regarding designer partners, the best part about JUST is that we’re offering a supply chain that any designer can source from. We think JUST is going to be especially important for those designers that want to create more ethical clothing, but don’t have the resources and capacity to find and vet suppliers.