Fair threads

Two female graduates are fighting for the ethical production of designer clothes and a revolution in consumer awareness

Fashion industry supply chains can be complex, convoluted and opaque. It’s far too easy for everyone involved in the chain to remain blissfully ignorant: designers and retailers may know their distributors, but don’t know who the original suppliers are. Farmers have no idea where their cotton ends up, or can’t afford the cost of organic certification. But two enterprising female philanthropists are trying to insert transparency into the industry with the launch of JUST (projectjust.com), a social enterprise that connects designers to ethical suppliers.

Modern history’s deadliest garment factory accident – the collapse of Rana Plaza, a commercial building in Bangladesh’s Savar district that housed thousands of garment factory workers – served as the defining impetus behind the project. “Is this the price of fashion? Over 1,000 lives lost? Over 2,500 people injured, some permanently disfigured or disabled? And for what… cheap clothes?” questions Shahd AlShehail, JUST’s co-founder. “I couldn’t stomach the fact that some of these lives had perhaps contributed to making the clothes that you, me, our friends, and our families have worn.”

We are working towards the day where ethical fashion choices are the norm

Shahd AlShehail, CEO, JUST

AlShehail and her friend Natalie Grillon fell into a deep discussion about what they could do to make a difference. AlShehail explains: “We realised that the both of us, in fact practically all of us as consumers know nothing about the people and the processes involved in getting our clothing from weaver to factory to retailer. Is the material produced in an environmentally friendly manner? Are the workers responsible for our favourite T-shirt treated fairly?”

As the first concept of its kind, JUST seeks to engage with customers who want to establish the authenticity of the material and the story behind the clothing. “Customers can discover the stories behind their clothes just by scanning the QR code on the item tag. Each item will have a brief synopsis of the materials used, the supplier it was sourced from, and even the weaver. I see it as a wonderful way to humanise our clothing, evoke the story of the people who will benefit from your purchase.

AlShehail contends that the market for ethically and sustainably produced fashion is growing, gaining more serious attention from the fashion fraternity and from regular consumers. “When a major high street designer, such as H&M, which is the world’s largest buyer of organic cotton, makes a commitment to switch all their cotton to better-quality, more regulated cotton, it’s a clear sign that things are changing.”

Fair threads
A handloom silk weaver in Varnasi, IndiaImage: Todd Shapera

Barely a year since they began working on their idea, the pair have made tremendous strides in advancing their young enterprise. “We already have 50 folks on board, a mix of designers and brands, mostly in the US, but we also have brands from Spain, New Zealand, Australia and the UK. In terms of suppliers, we have 20 right now, with more steadily coming on board,” says AlShehail.

With JUST poised to redefine the fashion industry, what does AlShehail see in the future? “We believe real change happens as an accumulation of small changes made day in, day out. Regardless of who we are, every single one of us engages with fashion either passively or proactively. We are working towards the day where ethical fashion choices are the norm."