The Art & Science of Sourcing Sustainably
Connecting Designers and Materials Suppliers
By Summer Rayne Oakes & Benita Singh, Source4Style
Issue 7 Spring 2011
Source4Style is an online marketplace that connects sustainable suppliers to designers and retailers through a user-friendly system of carefully curated materials, thus creating a 365 day-a-year virtual trade show. The idea for Source 4 Style arose from research conducted by founders Summer Rayne Oaks, Benita Singh and Adam Schwartz in 2009, which identified sourcing as one of the greatest challenges for designers. A fragmented market and the disconnected growth of sustainable designers and suppliers further complicated the problem. By reinventing the conventional approach to sourcing, utilizing technology to streamline categorization systems, complementing local with global initiatives, and embracing the individual designers’ interpretation of sustainability, Source4Style makes sustainable design possible.
Ask a designer to identify the most challenging part of their job and the answer will inevitably be “sourcing.” Sourcing, or the pursuit and purchase of materials and services to complete a design, a collection or a series of collections, is arduous, time-consuming and in need of systems and technology to streamline the process.
According to research undertaken by Source4Style in October 2009 and December 2010, designers source up to five times a year and can spend 75 percent, and in some cases more, of their total time sourcing for their collections. Because search cost is significantly high compared to other necessary tasks like designing and sales, this erodes valuable time needed to market the products appropriately to their intended customers, which inevitably compromises the success of the entire brand.
The challenges of sourcing become that much greater when designers seek to source sustainable materials. Emerging sustainable suppliers around the globe producing environmentally preferable and fair trade materials lack scalable channels to reach international buyers.
This lack of market access becomes only more apparent in a time when an increasing number of designers are looking to incorporate more sustainable materials into their collections. We call this the “sustainable design gap” —the parallel, but disconnected, growth of sustainable suppliers and designers seeking to reach those suppliers.
The Sourcece4StStylele Paradigm
The concept behind Source4Style came about in the fall of 2009 based on the initial research that the barriers to sourcing, particularly ethical sourcing, are extremely challenging for designers due to the reasons outlined above. At the other end of the supply chain, suppliers also gain the potential benefit of having a user-friendly marketplace that showcases and sells their offerings more effectively.
Source4Style is designed to be the B2B online marketplace that allows designers and brands to search and source more sustainable materials and services from a network of global suppliers (Figure 1-3)*. The marketplace opens up the inventory of materials — and eventually services — resulting in a 365 day-a-year trade show online, whereby a designer can review a material, compare prices of similar product offerings, order a swatch, book an order for sampling and production yardage, and connect with a supplier through in-site messaging or material customization features.
Because sustainability is a complex and constantly evolving subject, Source4Style collects up to 245 data points of technical, social, cultural, and environmental information for each specific material to capture a more robust snapshot of the material (Figure 4). Many of the environmental-related criteria are based on the Eco Index, the widely accepted internal environmental assessment tool for the apparel industry that was first undertaken by the Outdoor Industry Association and its affiliated members. At this time, materials are not given a sustainability rating or an overall lifecycle assessment. However, the collection of baseline data creates a more transparent supply chain at the material level so designers can source based on the criteria that meet their design principles and the principles of their consumer (Figure 5).
Sourcing in this way requires a subtle shift in mindset. Designers are not always used to sourcing materials directly online. In some cases, independent designers — or designers who generally spend anywhere from $5,000-$100,000 on materials every year – are sometimes unaccustomed to buying directly from the supplier (versus buying from a wholesaler). Source4Style gives the buyer the critical information to make the best purchase. The ability to purchase swatches and sample yardage prior to purchasing the material for production, allows for greater confidence in the product, without having to ever leave one’s office. We see Source4Style as both a supplement and an alternative to traditional sourcing via long sourcing trips, tradeshows, showrooms or online directories.
This shift in mindset and buying patterns along with the development of technology to help streamline the sustainable sourcing supply chain and the creation of a marketplace for sustainable materials will inevitably lead to crowd-sourcing a community around sustainable design, the first step in unlocking the ability to make sustainable design possible.
Sourcing in Academia
The complex intricacies of sourcing are not often emphasized in undergraduate level- design course offerings. Of thirteen U.S.-based design schools surveyed, five offer a range of sourcing-related courses, while the other eight provide little or no course offerings related to the challenging field of sourcing.
The University of Delaware offers the widest range of courses that touch upon an ethical component of sourcing, including Apparel Supply Chains and Social Responsibility; Socially Responsible Apparel; Producing Environmentally Responsible Apparel; and a course on Redesigning Green Apparel: Design, Sourcing and Packaging.
F.I.T. has one class focused on Supply Chain Management, which helps students develop a seasonal production plan as a final project.
Pratt Institute’s BFA in Fashion Design program, Cornell University’s Fiber Science & Apparel Design, California College of the Arts Fashion Design major, Parson’s BFA in Fashion Design, Drexel University’s Bachelor of Science in Fashion Design, Textiles and Interior Design major, and Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising all lack courses on sourcing.
In most cases, classes related to sourcing and supply chain management are not required of students. This means a vast majority of graduating seniors who dream of becoming designers or holding design-related positions will never experience the valuable skills and in-depth understanding of the sourcing environment before entering the workplace. Even though coursework in sustainable design, corporate social responsibility, and environmental ethics have increased dramatically within the past decade across most fashion design schools, in some cases from no programs to full degree programs, design students may only be knowledgeable of the principle of sustainable sourcing and not equipped in its actual practice.
Sustainable Sourcing: A Universal Challenge
Sourcing more sustainably, or the practice of having a more environmentally, socially, and culturally conscious supply chain is not just a challenge reserved for unseasoned designers. Sourcing, particularly sustainable sourcing, is a difficult task no matter whether you are a smaller independent designer or a large retailer and manufacturer.
This stems from a variety of underlying issues, in particular, the very definition of “sustainability.” There is uncertainty around the use and regulation of the term within a business trade and marketing context, which is further complicated by the fragmentation of the marketplace and the lack of sophisticated tools to reduce the search cost of materials and other services.
Defining Sustainability. The definition of “sustainability” is inherently difficult to address largely because it is based on evolving progress, and therefore is a constantly moving target. Additionally, different aspects — say “cultural” sustainability vs. “environmental” sustainability — can be directly at odds with one another. For example, a designer may decide to create a “culturally” sustainable collection that supports traditional hand-worked techniques from around the world. This helps preserve a rich cultural history, but a closer environmental life cycle analysis of the materials used may reveal that the production and shipping of raw materials and goods around the world may be environmentally unsustainable.
For materials to be considered “more sustainable” than others, it is important for a designer to not only assess the environmental, social or cultural integrity of the material itself, but to also consider it in a larger design production framework. This framework may include the overall “vision” the designer wants to achieve or communicate through the collection as well as a life cycle analysis of the materials and processes used throughout the supply chain.
Regulatory Uncertainty. In 2010 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) proposed a revision of their “Green Guides.” The guides are designed to represent administrative interpretations of laws to guide the public in conducting their affairs to conform with legal requirements regarding the use of environmental advertising and marketing claims. The FTC insists “conduct inconsistent with the positions articulated in the guides may result in corrective action by the Commission and declared unlawful by the statute.”
Currently the FTC places a considerable amount of emphasis on consumer perceptions rather than focusing on the improvement of business standards and practices. In a formal letter presented to the FTC by the American Apparel & Footwear Association dated December 10, 2010, AAFA maintains that it is “important to make the Green Guides reflect perceptions in the business community as well as a wide range of tools that are not intended to be consumer facing — but to provide supply chain partners with greater information about environmental or sustainable attributes of particular supply chains.”
In summary, in order for the Green Guides to be effective in a regulatory context, the FTC may need to determine and define processes along the supply chain in order to guide marketing claims and certification. If they do not, then certification bodies and manufacturers will set their own processes, as they have been doing over the last number of years, which will continue to yield confusion for both businesses and consumers.
Market Fragmentation. The production of textiles and trade has been a part of human history for thousands of years. The Silk Road was a highly interconnected ancient trade route that spanned 6,500 km across the Asian, African and European continents, and derived its name from the highly coveted silk developed in China.
Though sourcing materials across continents has always been common practice, the textile industry that we know today, which includes the mass production of materials and clothing, largely grew out of the mechanization of the industry in the earlier half of the 18th Century. In the United States, shortly after the American Revolution, textile manufacturing facilities and cotton production operations spread throughout the North and South. It wasn’t until the 1990s that manufacturing moved from the United States to countries where labor costs were cheaper and environmental and social regulations more lax.
The transition from more localized to more globalized production has created a large yet fragmented marketplace.
Today material and garment production happens throughout the world, from China, India, Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka to Pakistan, Turkey, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and many others. This inevitably makes it challenging for designers to locate the best places to source materials and production facilities from an environmental, social and competitive cost standpoint, particularly since many suppliers are unknown to buyers across the world.
Local and Global Sourcing on Source4Style. In creating a portal and marketplace for sustainable materials, Source4Style is as local in its reach as it is global. From hand-pounded bark cloth from Uganda to locally-produced organic cotton from the once vibrant textiles hub of South Carolina, Source4Style provides the tools — and the materials — for designers to design on their own terms and personalize definitions of what sustainability means to them. Those who want to use design to promote and invigorate local industries can filter their search results to source only locally. Similarly, those designers who want to drive the businesses of fair trade women artisans can source accordingly to find textiles that revive ancient craft.
Save the Garment Center, a Source4Style initiative launching in January 2011 in conjunction with Pratt Institute, will be the first grassroots campaign that results directly from showcasing suppliers and production units to a design community looking to source locally. A team of campaigners will be on the ground in New York’s Garment District organizing suppliers to showcase their companies and capabilities while receiving direct production inquiries through the Source4Style Directory.
While Save the Garment Center is getting underway, an initiative to showcase the most innovative suppliers globally will be underway in India. Source4Style workshops will take place in major textile hubs throughout India, including New Delhi, Ahmedabad and Pune in February, which will coincide with a comprehensive translation of the supplier back end into multiple Indian languages.
As a result of these complementary initiatives, the sustainable benefits of sourcing both locally and globally will be made both apparent and available to designers. The work of creating the sourcing platform that is both local and global requires the balance of promotion and unveiling: promoting suppliers in need of a market while unveiling both ancient and novel textile arts that have yet to be shared with the world. Source4Style is at work on both of these tasks by promoting, unveiling and connecting to build the bridges that make sustainable design possible.
Search Tools. After unveiling and promotion, comes the task of categorization and search systems. But how does a marketing platform with the vision of promoting every sustainable materials from around the globe make these materials easily searchable by and accessible to designers?
Technology-driven searches and systems have been vastly underdeveloped in the sourcing industry. Sourcing sites do exist online, but the vast majority of them serve more as a Yellow Pages or database of sorts, rather than a detailed inventory of materials and services that can be sourced on the spot.
Alternatively, trade shows have always been, and continue to be, an important means for suppliers to showcase their materials and products to interested buyers, but remain a high cost to both suppliers and designers with no guaranteed returns. The concept of a trade show has been in existence since the 16th century with trading bazaars at crossroads hubs like Istanbul, but they have yet to be infused with technology that matches buyers to sellers.
By creating the world’s first 365-day-a-year virtual tradeshow, Source4Style engages the latest search technologies to allow designers to find what they’re looking for and buyers to effectively reach their market. Sophisticated yet curated tagging systems, data collection on both sides of the supply chain, and the aggregation of data on every material all contribute to the automation of an industry in need of technology-driven systems.
On the Sustainable Design Horizon
Source4Style has taken the first of many steps in building our vision of making sustainable design possible. On the horizon for Source4Style and the field in general include increasingly sophisticated supply chain management tools; calculators to measure not just a sample garment’s carbon footprint, but the footprint of one designer’s specific supply chain; and mapping technology to promote vertical integration in a sector in which one garment can travel the world before it finds a permanent home in our closets.
Through a process of design curation and technology development; promoting locally and unveiling globally; and bridging the divides that exist in our increasingly vast world of materials, Source4Style seeks to change the sourcing landscape and the designs it yields.
Technology can be used to help sustain and improve age old practices without replacing them.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Connect sustainable suppliers to sustainably-minded designers
Design new systems that utilize available technology and make sustainable design possible
Embrace the ambiguous and evolving definition of sustainability
Createa platform for designers to design on their own terms
Complement local with global initiatives
About the Authors:
Benita Singh Co-Founder and C0O
Benita is a fair trade entrepreneur who’s been connecting artisans around the world to mainstream markets since her first trip to Guatemala in 2003. She co-founded Mercado Global, the non-profit organization currently provides employment to 300+ women artisans in Guatemala through partnerships with retailers like Levi Strauss & Co., Whole Foods Market and ABC Carpet & Home. After serving as the organization’s President for three years, Benita went on to work on the ground with crafts cooperatives across India – consulting on product development, scaling local enterprises to increase production capacity, and ultimately connecting groups across the country to outlets including Barnes and Noble and GAIAM. Newsweek named Benita among the “15 People Who Make America Great” in 2006 and was also named among the “World’s Best Emerging Social Entrepreneurs” by Echoing Green. Benita serves on the Board of Nest, a non-profit fair trade organization pioneering the concept of micro-bartering among women artisans for whom microcredit is inaccessible. She graduated from Yale University with degrees in Comparative Literature and International Studies.
Summer Rayne Oakes Co-Founder and CEO
Summer Rayne forged a career in sustainable style when she combined her degrees in Environmental Science and Entomology with her first sustainable design venture, The Organic Portraits Project, in 2001. She is now one of the leading authorities in sustainable design; author of the best-selling style guide, Style, Naturally; and founder of her own consulting company, SRO, LLC. She has co-launched environmentally-preferable brands with Payless ShoeSource, Portico Home, and most recently the first certified-recycled line of eyewear and optics with MODO. Summer Rayne graduated from Cornell University and is an Udall Scholar and PERC Environmental Fellow. Vanity Fair has named her a “Global Citizen,” Glamour anointed her one of “The 70 Women of Green,” AMICA called her one of “The Top 20 Trendsetters under 40,” and CNBC named her one of the “Top 10 Green Entrepreneurs of 2010.” Summer Rayne enjoys caring for her two dozen exotic insects and can often be seen walking them in her local park.