Why “Know Your Factories” Isn’t Enough

The concept of radical transparency is commendable. Breaking down the barriers in order to show the behind the scenes processes of what goes into the manufacturing of a product helps to demystify the alchemy of turning a raw material into a finished design.

However, that is only half the battle.

Yes, it is important to understand the brand’s design ethos. Yes, it is good to know the factory responsible for manufacturing the design. Yes, it is important to understand why the pricing is what it is. 

But that should not be where the transparency stops.

I believe that it is just as important to know the materials the factory is using as it is to know how the factory operates. Leaving out the fact that the design is made from some shit material, but is made in a really clean factory is like Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton answering a question: I will distract you with some rambling nonsense over here so you don’t look over there.

Now, I am not some free-love hippie (if you are, cool - let’s grab some beers and chat) but something has to give. Being full-time consumers with little regard for the impact our choices have seems to be shortsighted; it is impossible to continue thoughtlessly consuming at our current rate. We have to be better informed about our purchases which means we not only have to do a better job at asking our brands “why” but we as brands have to do a better job at challenging ourselves to do the right thing. To bastardize Vince Lombardi: “transparency” isn’t a sometimes thing; it’s an all the time thing.

To that end, there is a tension in designing this way. The more responsibly designed stuff (i.e. those “green” materials that are organic, renewable, up-cycled/recycled, etc.) costs more money to make, more money to source, and more money to use. And when it costs me more money to make them I have to charge you more money to buy them. And you don’t want to pay more money than you have to. So you decide that maybe you don’t need a new shirt or pairs of shoes after all.

Therefore, my choices as a designer become either make cheap shit I can sell cheaply or make expensive goods that people might not buy. You hear all the time “Oh if you make it really high quality then people will definitely pay for it. Quality always sells.” Unfortunately, the reality is we all talk trash about Walmart until we are cruising their aisles, looking for the cheapest chicken breasts or roll of paper towels. The same goes for t-shirts, shoes and so on.

I am not bold enough to believe that ICANCHU is going to change consumer behavior overnight. But I would like to at least allow the brand to help you think about it. In order for you to give a shit, I (and other brands out there) first have to communicate why you should give a shit (Patagonia does a great job with this). I need to help you understand why we are using bamboo and organic cotton. I need to share with you the thinking behind using merino wool in our designs. I need to be better at communicating what ICANCHU stands for and where I want ICANCHU to go.

The flip side to this is that it is easier said than done, as I am sure you have been waiting to weigh in with the question: but what about leather? Isn’t that as nasty a material to produce as anything? Yes. So aren’t I being hypocritical in talking about doing the right thing when I am still making leather designs? Probably. 

So how does ICANCHU rationalize that? 

For those designs that call for leather, I am trying to make sure that they will last you a long time. I want to use leather that is naturally tanned, not made with toxic chemicals. I don’t want you to buy a new pair of shoes every 8 months; I want the pair of Derbys that you buy to last you for years. I don’t want to sell you 3 wallets; I want you to have 1 wallet that will last so long you can pass it down to your kid. Longevity should be a factor in considering responsible designs, so while using leather isn’t the friendliest option, its impact is blunted by the fact that it will last you for years.

Some of these improvements can be (and are being) done overnight. We are actively seeking out and testing alternative materials that are both better for you and the environment. Which is exciting but still takes time to fully integrate into manufacturing. 

Better design starts with better questions whose answers require more time than fast fashion can spend thinking about and answering. So, know your brands and know your factories. But don’t stop there.