Stephanie Hepburn is a journalist and the founder of Good Cloth, an ethical online store that focuses on items that are produced in a way that is kind to workers and the planet. While writing her most recent book, Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight, she was motivated to combine fashion and human rights into one venture, Good Cloth. This venture is an endeavor to fill a gap in the marketplace by evaluating the entire journey of a product and ensuring transparency from start to finish. Stephanie's goal is to generate interest in labor exploitation and forced labor and to help create positive change.
As Good Cloth is beginning to grow, I caught up with Stephanie to ask her a few questions about her inspiration and thoughts on the sustainability movement.
What inspired you to start Good Cloth?
I started Good Cloth because I want to make change in the garment industry and spread awareness on the topic of labor exploitation in a positive way. As a journalist I have written about labor exploitation and human trafficking for years and it seemed that only a niche audience was listening. Meaning, I was preaching to the choir. That doesn't really trigger change or at least not in mainstream society, and that limits the degree of change that can take place. At the same time I was separately writing about fashion, an industry where exploitation is rampant. This further encouraged me to change my personal way of shopping.
I have always been a fan of second hand stores because they prevent clothing from ending up in a landfill, but I wanted to discover brands that create innovative pieces made with respect for the planet, workers and consumers. I didn't exactly love what I found. It seemed like many of the eco and fair trade designers at the time were also targeting a niche audience, just as I had (even though my goal, and likely theirs, had been the opposite). This inspired me to create a space where people can purchase pieces that are made with consideration to people and the world we live in and design.
My hope is that the shop casts a wide net when it comes to aesthetic appeal. This means that those who fit the niche will shop at Good Cloth but so will people who just really dig the designs and then (bonus!) they can walk away knowing they did something positive for workers and the planet (and themselves, because the items are made for longevity and without harmful chemicals).
Where are you located?
Everywhere (the shop is online)! Our headquarters is in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Who’s there with you behind-the-scenes at Good Cloth?
Initially, I was a one-woman show. That is slowly changing. I still run the majority of the day-to-day aspects of the business but now I have an amazing publicist working with me. She is great at keeping me on track so that I don't go off on too many tangents. As a reporter, entrepreneur and mother of two small children, I have a limited amount of time so this is incredibly important. I also reel in my friends as much as possible and created a Facebook secret page where they can give me feedback on designs; they share what they love and what they don't. I have my own strong aesthetic but it's great to hear what other people think and why they are attracted to certain pieces.
What does “sustainable” mean to you?
Sustainable is an on-trend term. The media frequently talks about sustainability in terms of the slow food and slow fashion movements. I love that sustainability as a concept is gaining momentum; what I find problematic is that sustainability seems to be viewed as synonymous with eco-friendly, which isn't accurate. Sustainability certainly means conservation of the planet, but it also means preserving people and communities. It is this latter and broader view of sustainability that Good Cloth applies when determining which designers are a good fit.
What is the process for handpicking the items on Good Cloth? What does that checklist look like?
We first research designs that we love and then we do as much digging as possible about the designer's product transparency. Do they share a similar mission to Good Cloth? If it seems like the aesthetic and mission fit, then we reach out to them and start a conversation on how they make their goods and how they source their materials. Some designers don't know and/or don't care to answer these questions. Other designers care foremost about aesthetic and are inconsistent in their application of eco materials. I respect their application of sustainable materials but the inconsistency and lack of transparency doesn't work for Good Cloth. We find that designers who care equally about aesthetic and transparency are the best fit. They are generally able to answer all of our questions because they share the same ethos and put transparency and ethical sourcing on equal footing with design. Our questions dig into treatment of workers and the planet at each step of the process.
Do you ever meet the brands or makers before deciding to carry an item?
Yes! Often designers are elsewhere — in other nations or across the country but I do try to meet as many designers as possible. Fortunately, though it is not the same, the world of technology allows me to meet designers in other ways than in-person. We can't yet teleport, but as soon as we can, I will be all about it!
How does Good Cloth fit into the larger global conversation about ethically produced goods?
Years of researching labor exploitation give me a unique background and vantage point that translates to the shop. Not in a bang-it-over-your-head kind of way, but in transparency. Each item not only includes a description but also a product journey, so people know where their clothing came from. The focus isn't just on the final manufacturing process but also where the materials come from and how the materials are sourced. We search for designers that have amazing designs and ensure that their products are sourced and created with respect for the environment in safe facilities by workers who are treated well and paid fair wages to work legal hours and who select suppliers that are doing the same.
Why is this an important conversation to have? What are some of the issues Good Cloth is trying to address?
Good Cloth is trying to push past trend into true positive momentum that will change the garment industry. It is on-trend to shop eco-friendly but what does that really mean? What makes a particular design eco-friendly? We don't know without transparency. Labeling something green or eco-friendly are powerful marketing tools but not always genuine. This is concerning because it gives shoppers a false sense of responsible purchasing and it fails to take us any further in fixing problems in the garment industry. What's important to me is that people step away from labels and focus on the transparency of goods, that is the checks and balances that ensure companies are doing what they say they are.
What’s something consumers can do to help move the conversation forward?
When customers become more focused on transparency they will shop accordingly. It is much like how, as consumers, we generally examine where our food comes from. It wasn't always that way. Our hope at Good Cloth is that people will be as conscientious about what they put on their bodies as what they put in them. The more that consumers understand where their apparel and accessories come from, the more discerning they will be. As consumers, we would not knowingly purchase a shirt that was made using toxic chemicals where the laborer who made it worked 14 hour days on the verge of passing out because her wages were insufficient to pay for food, rent and, ironically, clothing. Unfortunately, neither is a rarity in the fast fashion garment industry. The lack of transparency in the industry means that we, the consumers, remain in the dark.
Do ethically produced goods have to be more expensive? Why or why not?
Ethically made clothing that pays proper wages for workers can't compete with the costs of fast fashion apparel. There are reasons these pieces are so inexpensive. Yes, fast fashion offers consumers affordable on-trend clothing, but it also comes with hidden costs like toxic chemicals, poor garment construction and exploitative worker conditions. There’s a mental disconnect we consumers have between how our clothing is made and the garments we try on and purchase. When we imagine workers exposed to chemicals while making our garments, we somehow think the garments are cleansed by the time they get to us. They aren't. If they were made with lead, they will still have lead when we wear them.
The pieces in fast fashion are made rapidly and are not designed for quality or longevity. I mean, the plan is that you buy more items next season! So, that means (whether you want to or not) you will need to replace those items when they quickly fall apart. This makes them less economically appealing. Cheap yes, but less so when you factor in how often you will need to purchase new items. In a time of recycling and eco-friendly savviness, this is a disposable approach to fashion that wastes millions of tons of water and CO2, and where tons of textiles end up in landfills. In fact, textiles made up nearly six percent of the total municipal solid waste in 2012. That’s 14.3 million tons of waste!
What determines cost acceptability has a great deal to do with consumer expectations. Many fast fashion shirts cost $9.95 and that is what we expect they should cost. To put it perspective we expect our shirt to cost just over twice that of our favorite decadent coffee beverage. The average American adult worker spent $1,112 on coffee in 2013, while the average consumer spent $1,604 for apparel and services in 2013.
As a responsible consumer, a shirt for $9.95 should be a red flag. In order to create prices that low, a company has to find incredibly low cost labor. The result is that garment workers that produce the majority of big name fast fashion apparel are paid a mere fraction of a living wage. The Center for American Progress reported in 2013 that garment workers in China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh — the four primary apparel exporters to the U.S. — earned 36 percent, 29 percent, 22 percent and 14 percent of a living wage, respectively. In Bangladesh garment workers' monthly wages are $68, making it the lowest in the world.
Who or what inspires you the most?
Ingenuity. I am inspired by creative people.
What’s your favorite item on the site right now?
We just added the Box Handbag by Elvis & Kresse. It is truly stunning. It is handmade by artisans in the U.K. out of reclaimed military grade parachute silk and de-commissioned British fire brigade hoses, which, after a distinguished career fighting fires and saving lives, were otherwise destined for the landfill. The hardware is ethically sourced in Europe through members of the Ethical Trading Initiative. Fifty percent of the profits from this item are donated to the Fire Fighters Charity. We love that these retired hoses that spent their years fighting fires and saving lives and are incredibly durable (after all, they are designed to survive the harshest of environments) are given a new start and transformed into this incredible piece.
What do you do in your downtime?
Hmm. I so wish I could answer this question with colorful and wondrous experiences of what I do in my spare time. New Orleans is an interesting place. You aren’t locked into adulthood in the same way as elsewhere. You can be silly and wear tutus and dance, which is pretty much what I do whenever I can. That said, most evenings I fall asleep reading to my daughter. If I manage to stay awake (I don’t know what happens when you put a kid to sleep, but apparently it is exhausting) then I will read a book, watch a movie or go out with friends.
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