Slow fashion: Well Made Clothes want to make ethical shopping easy

Swimming against the tide of fast fashion, a NZ expat and an Australian are about to launch Well Made Clothes, an online hub for beautiful, ethically made garments.

The fashion industry is notoriously cagey about its production lines, so unearthing the facts doesn't always come easy to consumers wanting to make informed shopping decisions. However, two women are about to launch a website called Well Made Clothes that will act as an online hub for beautiful, ethically made garments. We talked to co-founder Courtney Sanders about the venture, the Kiwi brands it will feature and the rise of conscious consumers.

How did the idea for Well Made Clothes come about?

Kelly Elkin and I, who are the co-founders of Well Made Clothes, met a couple of years ago and bonded over our love for fashion and our frustration over a few things about the fashion industry. These included the under-reporting of the major problems in the fashion industry (it’s the second-most polluting industry in the world, after oil) and that when discussing ‘ethical fashion’, people assume we’re talking about ill-fitting dresses made from hessian sacks or something, which is such a shame because there is so much well-designed ethical clothing out there.

Who are the founders of Well Made Clothes?

Kelly Elkin and I are the co-founders of Well Made Clothes. Kelly is our ethical fashion overlord: She has over a decade of experience in ethical fashion advocacy, co-founded the ethical fashion advocacy body Clean Cut here in Australia, and also co-founded ALAS, which is a certified organic and fair trade sleepwear label. She’s a busy lady! My background is in editorial and digital marketing, and I’m also the editorial director over at Catalogue. We’ve both worked in e-commerce and digital start-ups along the way, too, so this project brings all of our skill sets together nicely (we hope!)

We wouldn’t be anywhere without our wonderful team, though. Charlotte Agnew is our fashion director, and she’s a Sydney stylist who has contributed to Oyster, i-D, and Pitch and her work has been featured by Vogue Australia. Rosie Dalton is our fashion editor, and she’s worked as a fashion journalist for over five years in both New York and Sydney, writing features and interviewing key industry figures for i-D, Oyster, Catalogue, and The Last Magazine, to name just a few. Then (sorry it’s a long list but they’re all very important!) we won the Walkley Foundation’s Innovation in Journalism grant, sponsored by Google, last year, which helped us on our way, and which is also where we met our mentor. Finally, we wouldn’t be anywhere without our awesome investor, who trusts us to make the right decisions and to work hard to make Well Made Clothes work.

Do you think there’s a big consumer market out there for ethical clothing? 

I hope so! I think there is, though. Over the past twenty years or so we’ve seen consumers, slowly but surely, becoming more interested in where their products come from. I think you can probably see this most clearly in the ethical food movement, especially in the Inner West in Sydney (where we’re based) surrounded by organic grocers and green smoothies, but it’s definitely happening in fashion, too. I think designers like Stella McCartney, websites like the Business of Fashion, advocacy groups like Fashion Revolution, documentaries like The True Cost, and ethical fashion companies like Reformation, have been fundamental in drawing attention to ethics in fashion recently, and I think the overwhelming success of all of these proves people want to know more about the production processes of their clothes, and will buy from companies who provide this information.

Have you heard people say there’s a gap in the market/they’ve had difficulty tracking down these kinds of brands in Australia and New Zealand?

We’ve definitely heard people say this, but it’s been our experience, too, and we’re looking out for this information and these brands. The heart of Well Made Clothes is to provide all the information we can, about the fashion industry and about the products we sell, so our readers and customers can make informed consumer decisions. We do this via the 8 Well Made Clothes Values: transparent; sustainable; gender equality; minimal waste; fair; handcrafted; vegan; and local. To be stocked on the site, a label must meet the ethical requirements of at least one of these values, and sign a code of conduct to this effect. When a customer is browsing products on the site, they can clearly see the values every product falls unders, and can click through to read more information about the values, to read articles about the values, to shop the values, or to browse our values system more generally. Everybody has personal values via which they make decisions, and we want to provide all the information we can so people can buy their clothes based on their values, too.

Do you think the majority of people know these kinds of clothing brands – fashionable, beautiful clothing that’s also ethical and socially responsible – exist, or do they fly under the radar?

The problem is that the clothing industry is so complex, there are so many steps in the production process from seed to retail floor, that it’s difficult to even know how to begin categorising labels and products as ethical, let alone knowing how to communicate this to consumers. Most of our research and development process was spent determining how we could break down the fashion industry, and how fashion labels can operate ethically within it, in a way which is easy to understand. Which is why we opted for our 8 Well Made Clothes Values.

When do you think people’s attitudes about ethics in fashion began changing? When the Bangladeshi Rana Plaza clothing factory collapsed in 2013 killing over 1000 workers, people were horrified. Do you think this was part of the wake up call for consumers?

I think the mainstream media coverage of the Bangladeshi Rana Plaza clothing factory collapse is one of the most important moments for raising consumer awareness, for sure. I think, more recently, the release and popularity of the documentary The True Cost, is another important moment for raising consumer awareness, too. I was reading an interesting article on Business Insider recently, which unpacks the unrelenting criticism Nike received for exploiting the workforces of developing countries in the ‘90s and I think this might be one of the most important moments to prove that, when it comes to the ethics of fashion companies, consumers have the power, via their purchasing decisions. Overall, I think mainstream media coverage of the problems in the fashion industry is increasing, which proves people want to read about this stuff, and hopefully this increased coverage and increased awareness will change our combined purchasing habits for the better.

When someone goes to buy an item on Well Made Clothes, where is the transaction taking place?  Are they redirected to the brand’s site to buy it or do they buy it through your site?

They buy it on Well Made Clothes. Well Made Clothes is what’s known in internet speak as a ‘marketplace’, which means we unite these ethical labels under one roof, we sell these ethical labels on our site, we help customers with any questions or problems they have, while the labels themselves ship the product to the customers. If a customer buys something on Well Made Clothes, they will pay for it on Well Made Clothes, receive an email confirmation from us, then receive tracking information from us as soon as the label has sent it. From a customer’s perspective, the experience will be exactly the same as buying from a standard e-commerce store.

What criteria does a brand have to meet in order to be included on Well Made Clothes?

The core of Well Made Clothes is our 8 Well Made Clothes Values: transparent; sustainable; gender equality; minimal waste; fair; handcrafted; vegan; and local. To be stocked on the site, a label has to meet the ethical requirements of at least one of these values, as well as a set of ethical production requirements, and they need to sign a code of conduct to this effect. These requirements are pretty detailed, so I won’t list them here, but they’ll be available to view on the site, and if you have any questions about these values, feel free to drop us a line at info@wellmadeclothes.com.

How did you decide what values were the most important for brands to meet?

It was a really long, complicated process. As I mentioned, Kelly has had over a decade of experience in the ethical fashion advocacy realm and an established ethical fashion body, Clean Cut. Kelly and her co-founder of Clean Cut, Carlie Ballard, spent a long time unpacking the fashion industry, and the different production considerations within it, to determine these eight values which cover the major production considerations in the fashion industry. As I mentioned above, everyone has different personal values which they use to make decisions, and we simply wanted to create a system where everyone could shop by their values. You’ll have to tell us whether you think we achieved this when we launch!

What are some of the New Zealand labels you’ve already got on board?

So many great ones, including Kowtow, Penny Sage, Ovna Ovich, Meadowlark, NOM*d, Company of Strangers, and Bare Bones. We’re launching with 40 labels, from New Zealand, Australia and the rest of the world.

I know it’s just an online store for now, but have you considered the possibility of opening an actual boutique?

We have, but at the moment the focus is on our website. The one thing both Kelly and I love about physical retail is that in the physical retail environment you can really connect with customers, chat with them, find out what they want, and hopefully educate them a little bit, too. Right now, we’re working on ways we can have this unique relationship with our customers online.

What is your long-term goal for Well Made Clothes?

We want to change the fashion industry for the better! Haha, but seriously, we want to be a one stop shop for people to be able to buy well-designed, ethical clothing, based on their values.

If a brand is interested in being featured on the site, how should they go about contacting you?

Please drop us a line! We’re at info@wellmadeclothes.com, or send us a Facebook message (and ‘like’ us). We’d love to hear from you.

Well Made Clothes is set to launch later this month, so keep an eye out for a launch date on its Facebook page or on The Register (where this story was originally published), as they'll update this story once they get word of a definite date.