Growing past DIY: Responsible Production (Part 2)
Growing past DIY: Responsible Production (Part 2)
Last week we talked about how YOU are going to growing past DIY(part 1) so you can start selling to those retailers and boutiques that you dream of being in. The first step is to get clear about your Unique Selling Proposition so that you know what part of the process you can share with a partner.
Today we're going to cover the different kinds of production partners and how to make sure you pick one with the ethics and sustainability you value.
Type of Production
Growing your business does not have to be a trade-off between people, planet and profits. You can build a sustainable and profitable business in a socially and environmentally responsible way.
The nature of your products, the price points, the volume of business you will outsource and the frequency of orders you will place with your production partner will determine who is willing to work with you. Assuming that it is a match, you will have to determine whether they meet your criteria for social and/or environmental responsibility.
Before you start looking for a partner, list down the criteria and what’s “non-negotiable”. Generally, there are three types of producers that you can choose from:
1. Small batch producer groups that specialize in craft and artisanal handmade products, sometimes using age-old production techniques.
These are usually community based production groups, self-help groups, women-owned coops or managed and organized by larger non-profits where all the profits are used for the benefit of the larger community. Products are very unique, handcrafted, has a great story as it has a huge social impact and contribute towards preservation of art and craft. Unless a designer is associated with the organization, there can be barriers to communicating your designs, meeting production timelines can be slightly erratic due to availability of the workforce and response time can be slower as compared to other organizations. Organizations like the Aid-to-artisans and Handmade Toy Alliance have resources to make the connections. If your product needs long hours of hands-on time, international small batch producers are a great alternative.
2. Small to medium size production units that have most of the process in-house starting from design all the way to finishing and quality control
With this option, it is easier to communicate your design specs and changes, get better response time and have more control on production timelines and quality, since it is all done in-house. Your products are handcrafted in a more controlled environment, without huge variations. However, service levels can get impacted if they have too many customers or larger customers that give them more business than you do.
Since most of these units specialize in a single technique (cut & sew, embroidery, metal-smithing, leather etc), you will have to find different production units for your various product lines. For example, if you are an accessories brand that has cotton and cashmere stoles, leather handbags and silver jewelry, you will have to find four separate production partners and manage them. Organizations like SFMADE in California can get you connected to local producers. This is the most commonly used option both for domestic or international production.
3. Buying houses are organizations that do not produce the goods themselves but collaborate with other production units to find the best fit for your requirements.
You can source a variety of products without having to run to different specialty producers. The communication aspects are better managed by the buying house as compared to the other two options. They act as the “general contractor” to ensure that the products meets your design, packaging, quality and sustainability requirements before being shipped out to you. However the challenge for most small designers and brands could be that their business is not large enough or consistent enough to get the attention of buying houses. This is only an option if you are sourcing internationally.
Third Party Certification vs Responsible Production
If your brand essence is built around a certification like “fairtrade” or “certified organic” then looking for a production partner that has the certification is a no brainer. On the other hand if you think that certification is the only way to prove that the goods are sustainably or responsibly produced, then you will have to do a whole lot of scouting to find a certified production partner. Certification is not the only solution for building trust in your customers mind. Conscious consumers are looking for transparency (who made the product, under what conditions, how was the material sourced etc...) so they can make the decision if the product meets their sustainability criteria or context.
Remember sustainability is a spectrum. No product is 100% sustainable. It is important to understand where the product falls in the sustainability spectrum. There are a lot of small production units globally that produce sustainable products but are not certified since most certifications are expensive and take years to get. It does not make the products any less sustainable. Moreover certifications have a very narrow focus and deal with only one aspect of sustainability – either the environment (like “certified organic” but no indication about the kind of labor used) or social (like “fairtrade“ which does not indicate if it polluted the environment) – thereby giving a false sense of security to the consumer who would otherwise probe further.
As consumers demand more transparency, there will be less greenwashing. Transparency will be the pre-requisite for every product/brand and third party certification means nothing if you don't look at what they are certifying.
Similarly there is this general perception that all international producers are sweatshops and all products made-in-USA are produced responsibly, but the reality is nowhere close. Some garment production units in Los Angeles are equally guilty of exploitative labor practices as some in the developing world. “Made in USA” label can be a form of greenwashing if your product is made by such a producer.
Whether you outsource your production to a partner located in the USA or internationally, you need a holistic look at all aspects of production and invest in an audit by a reputed global organizations like SGS, to ensure that your products are responsibly produced.
An audit can range from a couple of hundred dollars to a few thousand depending on what is important to you. Do you want the production unit audited for labor practices or do you want a product quality audit or both? It is a worthwhile investment to make if “outsourcing production” is the key to your business growth.
Getting clarity on what’s important for you and your brand and then finding the right production partner will help your transition from maker to designer-in-the-making to designer that much easier.
Photo Credits :: Rwanda Knits
I've been working with members of our Pilot Program to find sources and partners for their designs and I know that you may have many questions about the process. What are your questions? Ask them in the comments!