For the third TNFN meets interview I met up with Charlotte Instone, founder of Know The Origin; one of the most innovative brands around. Charlotte is so passionate and inspiring and over a cup of tea at their East London offices, we had a long chat about her journey from studying fashion buying to founding a brand that’s build on the belief that transparency and sustainability can be matched with style and at a price everyone can afford. This interview is a long one, but Charlotte had so many intersting points I didn’t want to cut things short, so please read on to learn more about the founder of one of the most important new brands around.
Q: Where are you from and how did you end up in London?
A: I’m originally from Chesire, a small village between Manchester and Liverpool. Each year there’s a festival where everyone dresses up like Victorian people and march through the city. It’s in December, so it’s really cold, but everyone just sort of commits to it. And there’s a real sense of community there which is lovely. I wanted to do something in fashion and there’s not really an industry there for that, nothing really creative, so I applied for a bunch of different universities and in 2012 I ended up moving to London to attend London College of Fashion. There’s so much going on here in London, so it just made sense.
Q: What is your background and how did you become interested in sustainable fashion?
A: Before I came to uni I knew nothing about sustainability, but then I met this girl, Saran, who was vegan, she forced me to read this book by Safia Minney called ‘Naked Fashion’ and it was talking about the effect of sweatshops and the effect of GM on farmers and I just never thought about any of those things. I knew sweatshops existed, but it hadn’t really registered and then in our second year of uni the Rana Plaza factory collapsed, and I think that was just the visual representation of everything I’d been reading about and I just couldn’t turn my back on it. So, then Saran and I decided we only wanted to buy from ethical brands and started putting a list together. I think there were 722 ethical brands out there, but none of them where affordable, and not many where the right style, which meant we either had to compromise on style, price or how ethical they really were. So, we decided we wanted to create something that met our criteria and we actually spent the rest of our time at uni building the business. Every project we did and every lecture we attended we used to ask questions. We got a grant to go out to Bangladesh and visited like over 150 factories and producers and it was an incredible experience to see the impact the fashion industry has on thousands of lives. We spent time with trade unions and met people that had been involved in factory fires and still hadn’t received compensations five-six years later and weren’t able to get jobs, because they’d been involved in those incidents they suffered from PTSD and because of that couldn’t get jobs. They were trapped in the cycles of poverty. And I think, just seeing the effects of this on their families was really harrowing. We spent three days hearing stories of survivors of the Rana Plaza collapse. We met women my age that had been trapped in the rubbles for three or four days and hearing their descriptions of that… On the last day, I asked them ‘what would be their dream?’ and I remember, one of the women said she just loved making clothes, but she wanted to do it in a safe environment, not working 12 hours a day for pennies. And I just think that that is a basic human right, that shouldn’t be a dream.
I think actually being at the site of Rana Plaza was just… the scale of it was huge and they said that in the area there had been many smaller incidents like that, and I think meeting the people involved had such a big impact. We spent a lot of time with an auditing firm learning about the cultural side of things and how factories operate and we went to a lot of Fairtrade factories and seeing the other side of things was just amazing. To see that it actually can be done differently. We met a guy whose family had been running sweatshops for generations and he was supposed to inherit it, but he didn’t want to run it the same way, so his family didn’t give him the factory. Instead he build this new factory from scratch and it’s amazing. And just seeing people that aren’t settling and finding new ways of doing things was really exciting.
That was a really long story, but yeah. That’s actually how things started. Since then Saran actually went on to study medicine and that’s definitely the right thing for her, I’m so proud of her for doing that and I’m just so grateful that she was so passionate about these things and got me involved.
Q: In your own words; what is Know The Origin? How is it different from other fashion brands?
A: KTO is a women- and menswear brand and we are fully traceable all the way from seed to garment, so you can go to our website and see the whole process of how our clothes are made and where they are made. It’s different because we not only work with businesses that are Fairtrade and organic, but also has an impact on the communities that they work in, so the whole purpose is to create a product that actually has maximum social impact while also taking account of the impact of the environment. And we’ve just been nominated by Ethical Consumer as their top-rated ethical brand, which is really exciting.
That’s also how I would like to carry on building the brand, because the impact of fashion is really not good and even if you’re trying to do everything the best that you can, you’re still going to have an impact. But for us, it’s just trying to do it in the best possible way we can.
Q: What do you hope to achieve with Know The Origin in the next five years?
A: A big team. Haha. This year we’re having our launch party with a pop-up shop here in London in Shoreditch, and we’re going to be joined by other brands that are also fully transparent about their supply chains. I would love to have that store as an experience for customers to learn about where their things come from. And as we grow over the next few years I would love to be in more stores and hitting international stores as well as UK stores, and possibly even have our own physical store.
Ultimately, the long-term vision is to have a store on every high street that offers an alternative to fast fashion, something that is beautiful and affordable and fully ethical. So that you don’t have to hunt or only be able shop online to buy something ethical.
I would love the brand to evolve and be pioneering in transparency and not just be fashion, but a department store like Selfridges. I think that is the future of where retail is going. But that’s a very long-term dream.
I’ve visited a lot of People Tree factories that have been able to grow because of People Tree and I would love to see that impact with my own brand and be able to support new ethical ventures. When I was in Bangladesh we met Karpoona who, when she was 12, worked in a sweatshop because her father had a stroke and she had to leave school. She worked 16 hour shifts without a day off. She went to this training programme that a charity had put on about garment workers’ rights and she learned that she legally didn’t have to work that many hours that many days, so she went back to the factory and started unionizing the factory workers. By the age of 14 she had about 1000 people in this union in her factory and she was obviously fired, because that’s not ideal for the factory owner. But she’s a really amazing woman and for her at that age to have 30-year-old men in her union was incredible. She went on to join BCWF, which is the biggest trade union in Bangladesh and since they started they have trained thousands of women and men and started unionizing other factories. I love that because it gives an opportunity to invest in changing the industry. Karpoona is one of the most determined women I’ve ever met. She’s been in prison and her co-workers have been killed and she tells me that we have an incredible voice in the West and we don’t realise how powerful it can be. She said, she will die doing the work she’s doing, but she’ll still keep doing it because it’s so important. And I would just love to support that.
Also, the environmental impact of fashion is huge and climate change is very real and the impact of that is impacting the most vulnerable people around the world in developing countries like Bangladesh. We’re going to have more refugees in the next 30 years from climate changes than we are from any civil war and that’s terrifying and I think what Patagonia are doing; investing into new forms of production is really exciting.
Phew, I’ve got a lot of work to do.
Q: Working with sustainability in an industry where the majority is not, how do you stay motivated?
A: I think that is motivating. I’m shocked that what we’re doing hasn’t been done before. It’s 2017 and we have access to so much technology and we have access to information and intelligence and yet, we’re still doing things the way that we’re doing. I think it’s really exciting that there is a different way and that we can be part of that change. I think less that 0,4% of clothes are produced ethically and I think that’s really overwhelming and exciting at the same time.
In Bangladesh, a lot of the factories are owned by members of the government so legislation is being kept the way it is to benefit them instead of the workers. Since Rana Plaza there’s been a lot of changes and that’s amazing and we are seeing changes in the industry; in Bangladesh there is, for the first time, legislation on maternity leave. But there are places around the world where sweatshops thrive and businesses definitely move their production to these places to get cheaper deals. I think, with the rate of production, with the speed that is happening still, I think there will be another Rana Plaza. I really hope there isn’t, but there’s been more factory collapses and factory fires in the last year, so I think there will be more incidences. Without the incentive to change from measuring the business on profit, I don’t think things will change.
Q: What does a typical day look like for you?
A: It’s different every day and it’s definitely not glamorous. It’s really different because the team is so small we do many different things. I like that as a small company you can do something and instantly see the impact. You don’t have to go through a lot of approval, you can change quickly. Sometimes it’s hard because you’re responsible for a lot, but having an idea and seeing it happen immediately is great
Q: What are the 3 best things and the 3 most challenging of running your own fashion brand?
A: I think I’ll start with the three most challenging things because there are a lot more of those.
So first of all, I think not comparing yourself to what other people are doing is difficult, because the brands that I admire for doing great things have been going for 10 years or longer, and they are at like chapter 20 and where at chapter 1. I sometimes look at their stuff and think ‘oh we’re so far away from that’. I think, just being kind to yourself and remember that we have come so far in a year and focusing on that continual progression instead is good. The second thing is the level of responsibility because ultimately the book stops with me if it doesn’t work, and that’s exciting in a lot of ways, but that can also be a lot from time to time. The third, is not always knowing the answer. Because I’m a real ‘doer’ and this is my first job, and because I haven’t had those years of experience from working in the industry. Sometimes I’ll have no idea how to build that part of the website or something else, but then I’ll try and find people that are amazing at what they do and bring them in to help me out.
The three best things are; building something that I’m really passionate about and enjoy. It’s such a privilege to work with the factories we do and meet the people and to have those connections is really cool. And then the flexibility of running your own business and being part of this movement at such an early stage of it. I think, in 20 years from now we’ll be able to look back and see that we were the first fully transparent ethical brand making products for that customer and that is really exciting. I’ve even saved some of our first labels and I look at them now and I’m like ‘what were we doing?!’ but, it’s really cool to see something develop. Because this business is so close to my heart it was really scary to put it out there, but it’s been met with amazing feedback and it’s been such a good experience.
Q: Who are the three people within the sustainable fashion industry that inspires you the most?
A: Definitely Karpoona, because she’s just such an incredible woman, she’s this really strong, passionate woman who doesn’t take any shit. The second is Safia Minney, and meeting the producers that we have and hearing them talk about her has been amazing. She has really pushed the organic and Fairtrade part of the industry and now People Tree are in over a thousand stores and growing. The last one is Anjali, who runs the Mandala factory and that factory is just incredible. She closes the factory and has free breast cancer screenings and health checks for her staff and their families. She doesn’t have to do it and it doesn’t make sense in terms of profit to close the factory, but she does it anyway and that’s really cool. She’s build it from a very small factory and has been honest about that she’s making it up as she goes along. And she’s doing a great job.
Q: Any last words?
A: Come check out our store in Shoreditch, London at 32 Charlotte Road, EC2A 3PB from the 1st-17th of December.