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How our traceability journey started
When we started out back in 2015 we had a pretty clear idea of what our essential wardrobe would look like. One of the pieces we were most excited about freeing from the fashion clutter was The Denim Shirt. A casual classic, known to be notoriously over-priced, exceptionally tricky to find in a good fit and most often available only with a plethora of unnecessary design details.
Development started in early 2017. We had a great base for the fit, coming from the recently updated Oxford Shirt 2.0 and a clear idea in terms of cut and details. Box pleat at the back, single button pleated cuffs, button-down collar, our custom mother of pearl buttons. No locker loop at the neck. Yes it’s debatable, but honestly how many hanger loops aren’t torn the first time you pull the garment off a hook in a hurry? Plus, hanging the garment by a single loop stretches the piece, creating marks and puckering. Anyhow, we had the cut & sew factory in Felgueiras, Portugal, lined up - the same factory already creating our oxfords with expert craftsmanship. The challenge was the fabric. You want a denim shirt to have substance. A dense weave, capable of enduring years of wear and wash, with just the right amount of texture to fade with time without losing relevance.
After months we boiled it down to a selection of Japanese and Italian fabric alternatives. Transparency was always a factor, but we hadn’t made Full Traceability our standard yet. We had mostly only visited our cut & sew facilities, but always dreamed of going all the way to the bottom of things. So for the Denim Shirt we wanted to visit the fabric mills too. Weeks of prototyping later we opted for the Italian alternative. A heritage mill working with some of the best brands in the world. It had everything: quality craftsmanship, close to home.
By summer 2017 we had the final garment ready for wear testing. By fall, Jakob and I concluded that we’d never had denim shirts like this. We’d nailed it. They passed the test with flying colors.
Launch was set for spring 2018 and we were now in a hurry. If we were going to a new site, we'd normally visit before production start but this was no longer possible. But hey, it was northern Italy. Easy peasy, right? The trip was booked for March. A few weeks before the visit we sent an agenda of what we were looking to see and film.
The day before heading down we got an email from the mill. It wouldn’t be possible to film and photograph the mill as we’d requested. Why, are there some kind of super secret super cool processes? Well no, it's just that the fabric is actually spun and woven in China. WHAT? So what the heck is “made in” Italy then? The quality controls…
We looked at all the documents of the fabric, the hangers and samples we had received. They all said “Made In Italy”. We discussed long and hard what to do and decided to let production progress. Made in China doesn’t mean it’s bad, in fact many Chinese mills have much more advanced machinery than European factories and average wages are on EU levels in quality facilities. But we did want to know the exact facilities and the locations in China we were actually sourcing from. The response: They couldn’t say. What’s more, they wouldn’t even allow us to mention that it’s actually made in China. Yep, now that’s too much. It’s not just false advertising or in-transparency. It’s preventing the truth from coming out.
So the "Italian" fabric arrived, we made a first round of beautiful denim shirts, listed everything we knew on asket.com, including the fact that the fabric was actually woven in China. Then we started to look for a new mill. It was a fantastic garment, but we just couldn’t work with that kind of partnership.
While we were still in disbelief and disheartened in our mission, we got lucky on another end. The Portuguese mill spinning, weaving and dying our oxford fabric (yes, truly located in Portugal) had traced their cotton back to its origin in California. So it was possible. Complete transparency in apparel manufacturing wasn't a pipe dream after all. That same day we decided to abandon the clearly inadequate “Made In” country of origin labeling used in the entire industry. Instead, we would provide our own Full Traceability label, committing to tracing our entire supply chain back to the farms and putting that info right into the garment. Awesome? We’d like to think so, yes. Impulsive? Yup. After all we were nowhere near that degree of traceability in other products. And we had just launched a denim shirt with no traceability beyond cut & sew at all.
Still searching for a new denim shirting mill, we had started working with a new, very large Italian yarn supplier for a different project (hint: launching this spring). They loved our traceability efforts and invited us join them on a UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development) project in Egypt during the cotton harvest. Hell yes! Our Head of Product headed down to discover the complexity of traceability, fair farming conditions and to promote traceability among government officials, factories and mills. Guess who else was there? The highest ranking official of the group owning our dear old denim shirt mill! We wouldn’t miss a chance like that. Our Head of Product pumped up, clenched her fists and confronted him. His reaction wasn’t the slippery-media-trained diversion tactic we expected. A bit awkwardly, he was sorry, sad even, to learn of our experience. They’d undergone some change in leadership and this wasn’t his way. He promised he’d rectify their mistakes. Much to his credit, he came through. Some days later we got all the information on their Chinese facilities and we were welcome to share it on our shiny new Full Traceability Page.
We decided to stick with the Italian mill. After all, it is a fantastic fabric. And they were now transparent. But still today we’re not 100% traceable in The Denim Shirt. The new challenge is pinpointing the exact origin of the cotton. And we've got a lot of work left in tracing the raw material of our other products. But knowing that it’s possible, and seeing that we, as a fart-in-the-wind-size player, can actually exert influence, has made us more determined than ever to provide complete transparency. Because, if we don’t know what is we’re buying, how can we ever make conscious purchasing decisions?
On April 24th we’ll celebrate the one year anniversary of our Full Traceability Mission. We’ve climbed from 69% to 71% total product traceability last year and are aiming for 80% by the end of this year. Will we make it to 100% by 2020? We don’t know. Is it possible? Hell yes.