Look at the tags sewn in T-shirts made by the startup Known Supply and you’ll find something unexpected—a woman’s signature. Names like Lamunu Kevin, Paolo Perales, and Thangamani, a seamstress from South India.
Thangamani has been churning out T-shirts for years, but it was only when Known Supply contracted with her employer that she was ever asked to put her name on her work. Punch her name into the brand’s website and up pops a sari-clad woman’s smiling face and her story: She’s working to make sure her kids get a good education, she’s socially conscious, and reveals, “I love cooking.”
If realizing there is a human being with hopes and dreams behind the clothes on your back makes you think differently, that’s pretty much what founder Kohl Crecelius wants to happen. Known Supply, which makes organic cotton T-shirts and other basics in ethically minded factories in Peru, Uganda, and India, launched nine months ago. Their shirts cost around $30 and are sold on the brand’s website, as well as at Whole Foods and REI.
“My theory was that if we could understand the people behind our product, we would think about purchasing differently,” Crecelius says. “That we would realize that our story is bound up in the story of others.”
When the company sent me a blue T-shirt and I saw the signature, it was a powerful moment that made me think about who made all the other clothes in my closet.
The truth is that the $3 trillion global apparel industry is so vast and complicated that many brands don’t know the conditions in the factories where their products are made. Many are in low-wage countries like Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, and Cambodia, where facilities are sometimes dangerous—or deadly. In 2013, the Rana Plaza clothing factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,129 and injuring 2,500 more. The facility made garments for well-known brands like Walmart, The Children’s Place, The United Colors of Benetton, and Mango.
When I’ve talked with supply chain experts in the past, they explain that many big factories often subcontract work out to other factories, further obscuring product origin. Kimberly Smith, who helped run production at brands like Gap and Artizia before becoming head of product at Everlane, says it is important for brands to visit factories regularly to make sure they are treating workers fairly. Everlane refuses to work with factories that subcontract, she says, and often makes unannounced visits to its partner factories.
Unfortunately, Everlane’s standards are not the norm. And many brands–both large conglomerates and tiny startups–don’t really know or care about foreign workers. For consumers, “Made in China” or “Made in Bangladesh” do nothing to really tell them how their clothes are made.
Crecelius makes the case that even small brands can ensure their supply chains are ethical. In 2007, he launched another startup called Krochet Kids that taught refugees in Uganda how to crochet to make hats for the U.S. market. That effort was so successful that he set up another center in Peru, where women could contribute to the brand’s product line. In both cases, Crecelius was able to build a factory from the ground up, and while they were small operations, they gave him insight into every aspect of the manufacturing process.
“I really came to fashion by accident,” he says. “Clothing has always been a means to an end. We wanted to connect our customers to the people who made them and say, ‘These are friends we have gotten to know in Uganda and Peru.'”
With Known Supply, Crecelius wanted to scale this model by building out existing factories and partnering with the factory in India. He points out that startups don’t need to do all this groundwork alone: They can rely on third-party organizations, like Fair Trade, which certifies factories and guarantees fair wages. Known Supply also works with reputable nonprofits in the communities near its factories to provide mentoring programs and education.
“We lean heavily on partners to ensure we’re accomplishing what we set out to do, which is to provide great jobs and opportunities to people–predominantly women–who otherwise wouldn’t have them in these regions,” he says, “and to help customers in the U.S. connect with these people and recognize the shared humanity we have.”
Crecelius visits the factories on a regular basis to stay connected with the workers and tell their stories to American buyers. The brand’s website contains a database of all the workers, where customers can look up the name on their shirts to learn about their life, and even thank them personally. That’s how I found out about Thangamani.
Known Supply is working with other ethically minded retailers, like Whole Foods, and chose the T-shirt because we all wear them.
“The T-shirt is this ubiquitous thing that everybody needs,” he says. “We also saw the T-shirt as a mechanism for us to connect more people with the makers of their products. But it’s also a mechanism for us to partner with other big businesses and help them produce in a more equitable way.”
Crecelius says more people care about ethical manufacturing. Socially conscious millennials and gen Z consumers are driving the movement and are willing to pay more for items that are traceable. They can identify brands that are really making a difference, and those that are just paying lip service to the idea of helping workers.
“I think we’re at a point where customers are able to read through the lines when brands aren’t doing things in an authentic way,” he says. “I think it all comes down to increasing your customer’s access to information. The younger generations grew up expecting to know what a company is actually up to, and whether they are doing their due diligence.”
Crecelius hopes he’s upping the ante in the industry by having workers sign the garments they make. “I want people to know that this clothing is different from other things that they’re buying on the shelf,” he says. “It has transparency through to the actual maker of that garment.”