Written by Tracey Creed. Tracey is a digital marketer, photographer and writer, the digital strategist at Ceres Organics who freelances in her spare time for other sustainable brands doing good things. Follow her work on Instagram here.
Learning more about ethical fashion with a long time leader - Mandatory Menswear.
When we think about conscious consumerism, ethical consumption or whatever you want to call it, the fashion industry seems to be the last industry to address the issues we face – globally. Tell us a bit about Mandatory’s beginnings and how you got into ethical fashion.
Mandatory was founded in 1997 by designers Clare Bowden and Fiona Edwards who switched from their respective established women’s wholesale labels in response to noticeable demand for choice (and fit) in good menswear in Wellington.
Mandatory operates as an independent men’s outfitter on Cuba Street with a manufacturing studio space a block away. Garments are produced in small runs, in season, in Wellington, and customers are offered custom made garments for the same price as off the rack using end customisation and in-time production methods.
Mandatory has steered away from wholesale, preferring to keep the physical and financial costs of production to a level that delivers directly to the market. This approach allows for meaningful, highly appreciated work for employees (all creative) and a quality product that customers continually return for.
The ability to supply actual demand is the way waste is reduced and costs are managed - this has seen us last the distance. Garments designed, fitted, made well and sold for purpose are worn often and last longer while looking better than their mass-produced, cheap counterparts.
A $10 tee shirt has a cost that a disconnected consumer is not going to realise. The Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013 illustrated this powerfully. Do you think kiwis are really aware of the ethical and environmental impacts of the fashion industry?
I think Kiwis are more aware in recent times. In the last few years we’ve observed an increase in questions about where our garments are made and what they are made of, it’s encouraging to see. It is a point of pride for us to be able to point out the things that we make here in Wellington and to be able to name the people who hand made them. We’re also seeing a positive shift in what people consider ‘value’.
Social media plays an incredible roll spreading awareness about some of the ethical and environmental issues within the industry; we’re seeing a much more informed consumer.
Many of our clients are from SME’s, quite a few are in trades related industry in some form and most others would have relatives and associates working in similar small business and producer fields, thanks to New Zealand’s size and history. Our clients relate quickly to the process we follow and the reasons for it. We don’t want to waste time and resources to create stuff that no one really wants until it is just temptingly cheap. Knowledge is power.
At a certain point time poor people realise they want quality and an efficient result, good products and assistance. Not to be alone figuring it out when it is not their area of expertise is worth the spend.
Ethical fashion covers a range of issues, child labour, fair trade, and sustainable production to name a few. How do you decide what you will and will not stock in your store?
We have set ourselves up to be a reliable store to sort wardrobe plans, dreams and necessities. We look to carry well designed products that will sell, fit the requirement and satisfying our will to work - they need to be creative and interesting products that people will care for and enjoy owning. Good purchasing, consultation and selling, with ethical and sustainable production must go hand in hand with good design to create pieces that endure.
There is an expectation for quality and uniqueness with the brand and we feel it’s important that the accessories we stock reflect that. The lower transport costs of these products that are not dependent on fit make them great to source from small ethical producers.
What are some of the obstacles you face to source and stock more sustainable products?
Affordability. As a brick and mortar store, the wholesale price of a sustainable product still has to be viable for people to buy it. Sometimes the margins on these types of products aren’t realistic for a small store like ours where we’re paying steeper overheads.
Another obstacle that faces smaller stores like us in stocking sustainable products is the producers’ or distributors of those products choosing to retail against us online. This can dictate already conservative margins and incentivise customers to research in store where we are paying to carry inventory but who know they can buy the same product online from a supplier.
If makers of sustainable products don’t work together with retailers in a supportive way that mutually benefits it can be hard for us to be an ongoing stockiest of those products
Leather is a by-product of the meat industry, one of the major causes of climate change and cause of land degradation, air and water pollution. Tanneries are also listed as top polluters. You do sell some vegan ‘leather’ goods. Do you think the options are increasing for leather alternatives, as the market is demanding more environmentally and socially responsible goods?
We are proud stockists of Matt&Nat who make manly vegan bags and luggage with linings made from recycled plastic bottles. The bags are good looking and people are drawn to them. Several designs look and handle like leather which has a lot of appeal to our customers.
We began to stock them because we noticed an increase in consumers looking for leather alternatives. If the sustainable, responsible alternatives are stylish and attractive and comparable in price then customers are likely to choose these over classic leather. It’s our hope that as consumer demands for ethical alternatives continue to increase, designers will respond with attractive and socially responsible goods to meet those needs.
Undoubtedly we should be making less leather products, taking better care of the hides, designing well, reducing, reusing, repurposing, recycling. The leather products of 20 years ago were well made, fetching high prices and still hold their value in vintage stores.
Leather has no place in cheap bulk shops as to develop it properly and safely is expensive. The mass production leather garments, bags and shoes in cheap stores each season are land fill following their pollution, exploited labour, and seasonal price dumping, (which kills off the independent stores).
Fast fashion cycles have a major impact that many of us are not aware of. Latest figures show that 100 million kilos of textile waste end up in New Zealand landfills annually. What do you think needs to change for there to be a larger scale conscious shift?
The second hand stores are awash with valueless crap – we all see it. As a menswear label we find that most guys DO in fact keep their clothes, some a lot longer than they possibly should! If clothes are made well they last longer and customers have come to expect that from our garments. Viewing garments as an investment and not a commodity is important.
I think people need to seek out and embrace more help to buy clothes successfully. There is quite a lot of on the spot pressure in shops and online. It is incredibly easy to waste money on clothes and buy things that are not quite right.
Garments should be better made with better base materials, costing a bit more to get people to slow down and think through what they really need. Higher relative prices in the past did factor in qualified assistance in shops and tailoring services to support a successful outcome, which is more wear. We must stop the wastage and this does not need to be at the expense of style and creative dressing.
This new level of demand creates a wealth of both environmental and human rights issues, do these sorts of conversations end up taking place on your shop floor?
Absolutely. People are very interested in our approach and the team’s take on working in an industry with such a bad reputation. We are passionate about fashion and fabrics, as many before us. We are respected for our skills and fairly paid. It’s often through communicating with our customers in store about what we do and why we choose to do it that they are reminded that there is another way to shop. A way that is better; more considered, more supportive to local makers, more economical in terms of cost per wear and one where they also get a really positive, helpful shopping experience and a great result in their garment. Conversations on the shop floor about real clothes and the real people making them is a refreshing change for a consumer who is fatigued by the thought of attempting to find something ‘good’ while scrolling through the plethora of cheap clothing and bargain sites.
At Conscious Consumers we believe that when shoppers are empowered with information they can take action with values based purchasing decisions. How many of your customers are shopping with you as a vote against fast fashion?
Probably a considerable number, certainly our shop aligns with their wish to do so – we are a satisfying tick on their personal path to being conscious consumers! We are a small system in a sea of pre-produced season in, season out widget flogging. Not all guys have actively sought local make – but our skill set is what many need.
We offer efficiency: curated collections, our small store is skillfully merchandised to showcase specific product demand – for work / social/ events and qualified staff can tweak and rejig concepts into reality within a good time frame. The garments are well built /fitted so these garnered garments are set up to be used a lot with less fuss, less shopping.
A considerable range of skills and machines are assembled and drawn on by our small team to create this in line production system, it is not something that is easily duplicated due to the demise of manufacture in NZ (skills training/machine maintenance) and at the 20 year mark the challenges keep coming. Many clients have recognised how special and fragile an operation like this is and have stayed closely involved over many years.
As Vivienne Westwood said, ‘buy less, choose well, make it last’. Good advice. What advice would you have for people wanting to embrace slow fashion?
We love this quote and its one that we reference in our company often. Our advice to consumer would be to be fussy about the fabrics and the fit of your garments. Invest in things you love that you will wear often. Support the craftsmen and artisan makers who have skills and passion for making things- its those things that translate into the garments and increase your enjoyment for wearing them.
Mandatory is an accredited Conscious Consumer business. Look them up on our app to learn more about their business, or drop into their store in the middle of Wellington's trendy Cuba Street.