Back in January, I was given the opportunity to chat with Charlotte Instone, one of the co-founders of new start-up Know The Origin. I’ve been following Know The Origin (KTO) for a while now, ever since a friend shared their page on Facebook, and absolutely love what their ideas and philosophy. So when the chance to chat with one of the brains behind the latest addition to the ethical and sustainable fashion scene came up, I was not going to refuse. Charlotte was so inspiring and passionate about her business that I wanted to share what I learnt from her with you.
What is Know The Origin?
KTO is an ethical and sustainable fashion brand, started and run by Charlotte Instone and Laura Lodge. Both graduates of the London College of Fashion, they were aware of the negative consequences of the fashion industry thanks to trips to factories and documentaries like The True Cost. They aim to provide a sustainable and ethical alternative to the fast fashion found on the British high street without breaking the bank at the same time. From the fields of cotton plants through to the finished garment, KTO works alongside their partners at every stage of the process.
Where did the idea to start Know The Origin come from?
For Charlotte, her journey to being the co-founder of KTO started at the London College of Fashion. While studying there with the intention to become a buyer or merchandiser at Selfridges, the Rana Plaza disaster happened. The collapse of the clothing factories, crushing thousands of people, made her reassess her impact on the world. She became more interested in sustainability and even started a sustainable society at university.
This interest in sustainable fashion only grew with her dissertation. Her choice to focus on Bangladesh, Rana Plaza and the impact of the garment industry led to her visiting the country and meeting some of those affected by the disaster. One woman she met had even lost her marriage because she had lost the ability to have children because of the Rana Plaza disaster. This all led to Charlotte asking questions about how to make the whole process sustainable AND ethical while desiring to work with people who shared her vision to change the fashion industry. These were the seeds that eventually led to start of KTO.
Since then, the brand’s development has been shaped by her various travels around the world and meeting those involved in the process that creates our clothes. She has regularly visited contacts in India, including cotton suppliers, and supports factories with ethical policies towards their employees. One of the factories that they work with doubles up as rehabilitation for women from the red light district in Kolkata, allowing them to rebuild their lives while earning a fair wage. Partnerships like this represent the concept behind KTO.
How did Know The Origin find a price range that was affordable and fair to all those involved in the manufacturing and retail process?
When it came to the end result, there were two key words. Fun and affordable. The other aim was to create a sustainable and ethical high street brand that was comparable with Topshop or Zara. However, the costs of using organic and ethically produced clothing means that the price would have to be 10-15% higher than most high street brands.
One film that Charlotte directed me towards for understanding pricing in the fashion industry. This film was part of the inspiration behind their desire to create a sustainable high street brand. One of the examples that Charlotte mentioned was H&M’s promise that 20% of garment workers would have a living wage by 2020. This means that 80% of workers will not have enough money to live on even by 2020. It was examples like this that inspired a desire to create a brand that paid a living wage to those who made it.
Two of the ways that KTO has found to achieve an affordable price range without cutting wages or quality were to (1) work with the factory’s capacity and (2) to recycle unused fabric. By working with the factory’s capacity, they can employ people throughout the quieter seasons and produce clothing at a steady rate throughout the year. This way, KTO is able to have a steady income and provide constant employment. Alongside this, KTO’s use of recycled fabrics in their clothing (check out this stripy top) and to create the paper for their swing tags keeps prices down. Plus they increase KTO’s sustainability by not sending loads of fabric to landfill, which also apparently decreases costs!
Working to a factory’s capacity and using recycled material helps create an affordable and fair range.
What challenges did Know The Origin face to create a balance between affordability and ethics?
Compromise was a key part of developing KTO’s brand. However, the compromise was on variety. Part of choosing to be both organic and fairtrade meant that they had to refuse some manufacturers because they were either fairtrade or organic. Though this has limited the variety that KTO offers it has stopped them from straying into grey areas.
This has resulted in KTO imposing strict standards on who they work with. It has also forced KTO to be more inventive with offcuts as the providers that meet these standards have a higher minimum order. So KTO is making use of offcuts by buying them from the factories (cheaper than new fabric) and recycling their own offcuts. Alongside the eco-benefits of recycling, this keeps the prices lower without having to compromise on quality or ethics.
The only drawback to this approach is that in order to keep the retail price affordable, KTO makes less profit. This effectively amounts to Charlotte and Laura choosing to make less money than a regular clothing brand. Running a London-based fashion start-up is hard enough. To voluntarily make less profit shows the dedication they have to sustainable fashion.
Which countries have Know The Origin visited that are involved with making or selling the clothes?
Originally Charlotte had wanted to work with Bangladesh. It is a country that has become synonymous with abuses in the fashion industry and Charlotte wanted to be part of that change. She had also visited the country several times and started to build up working relationships there.
Unfortunately, Bangladesh’s cotton is not fairtrade or organic. Instead, KTO has looked to India for organic, ethically-produced cotton. As a result, everything is now sourced from India with Charlotte and Laura being involved with every stage. Even more exciting, they have visited a factory in Burkina Faso, which could become a new partnership.
The motivation behind KTO is helping businesses build themselves up in order to eradicate poverty. This is also the motivation behind how KTO chooses the countries it wants to work in. However, as Charlotte told me, only demand for businesses like KTO and their partners will keep them going. Creating demand is the customers’ role.
If we start to demand sustainable and ethical clothes, companies will have to make them.