When starting a company, there is a long list of things you could do first – draft up a business plan, set up your legal entity, decide on a name, create a visual identity...the list goes on. From the very beginning, we knew Pareto would be a product-obsessed company. The first thing on our to-do list was (of course) developing our product. While many of our tech entrepreneur friends could build their product from behind a computer by writing lines of code, we knew from the beginning that our journey to build our product would look very different. We would need to build an intricate supply chain (e.g., farmers, spinners, knitters, dyers, sewing factories) to bring our pieces to life.
And so it begins...we booked a trip to Los Angeles – a respected destination for clothing manufacturing in the US – to start formalizing relationships with supply chain partners and kick off product development for our first wardrobe addition. We’ll cut to the chase. This trip did not go as planned. Our objective was to leave LA energized and with a strong gameplan – who we would work with and how we would work with them. Instead, we left LA feeling even more disenchanted by the apparel industry. That said, we also left armed with learnings that have been pivotal in shaping Pareto into what it is today.
What the trip looked like
Before we left Chicago, we spent countless hours laying out what we considered must-haves for our supply chain and scheduling meetings with potential partners.
One of our must-haves was traceability. We knew that the decisions made at every stage of our supply chain would impact the quality of the final piece. The cotton fiber length from the farm and yarn twist multiple from the spinner would help decrease piling. The dyes and processes at the dye house would help minimize color fading during washes. The stitches per inch at the cut & sew factory would help increase durability. In order to be able to make these decisions, we needed to build relationships and gain visibility into every supply chain stage. In addition, traceability would allow us to make the most environmental and most ethical decisions. At the end of the day, the impact of a product does not just come from a part of its journey. A product's environmental and social impact is the sum of its entire journey – for example, fair pay and good working conditions at the cut & sew factory is critical, but what about at the farm, the yarn spinning facility, the knitter. All of this meant that, for us, traceability was a must.
We also scheduled as many meetings as possible. We cold called and emailed any and every cut & sew factory, knitting facility, and dye house in the LA area. We had no filtering criteria. We wanted to meet with as many potential partners as possible, knowing that we would learn something from every conversation. We also acknowledged that many of them would not have the desire, time, or resources to take on a new brand, whose orders would start small, despite what future potential could be.
The trip was a whirlwind! Once we arrived in LA, we borrowed Jess’ sister’s car (thanks Becky!) and traversed back and forth across the city. For each meeting, we came prepared with a pitch deck that explained the Pareto vision and samples of our first wardrobe addition. Just writing that last sentence makes us laugh (and cringe) – we will always be those Powerpoint-loving consultants deep down. Everyone was nice enough to flip through the slides, but it was pretty obvious that they did not care about our corporate jargon. They wanted to talk about real operational details, rightfully so. We dug into quantities, reviewed timelines, toured facilities, and of course, discussed every minute detail of the T-Shirt Dress we’d be making. At the end of each meeting, we would ask them for a few names of additional people that they would recommend we connect with during our trip. Once we got back to our hotel in the evening, we would email and call the new leads, asking to set up time for the next day.
We repeated this day after day. Meetings. Emails. Phone calls. Drop bys. More meetings. Emails. Phone calls. Drop bys.
What we learned
While we knew one of our most important must-haves, traceability, was different from what other brands were prioritizing, we did not realize how difficult it would be to achieve. Several barriers became more and more apparent to us as the trip went on, all largely the result of how the industry has operated forever. Here are the four key lessons we learned...
- An apparel supply chain is extremely fragmented
- The cut & sew factory (the last stage of the supply chain, where fabric is turned into a piece of clothing) is frequently the "connector" between the brand and the rest of the supply chain
- Supply chain partners are often disincentivized to tell you the players that come before them in the process (and honestly, many times they don’t know)
- The word “sustainability” frequently gets thrown around, and as a result, has become meaningless
1. An apparel supply chain is extremely fragmented. With every apparel supply chain, there are many stages, and at each stage, the form of the good changes dramatically (especially compared to other common purchases, like fruits and vegetables). For example, let’s take a look at a cotton T-Shirt Dress...
There are five main stages in the journey. First, a farm grows the cotton. Second, a yarn spinner spins the cotton into yarn. Third, a knitting facility knits the yarn into fabric. Fourth, a dye house dyes the greige fabric (greige means pre-dyed). Fifth, and lastly, the cut & sew factory sews the T-Shirt Dress. This journey is extremely fragmented, meaning each stage happens in a different facility, requiring unique and specific capabilities (just imagine how different a knitting facility looks vs. a dye house!). Also, each stage typically takes place in a different part of the world. The cotton could be grown in the US, the yarn spun in China, the fabric knitted in India, the fabric dyed back in China, the dress sewn in Bangladesh, and then ultimately, the dress sold in the US. This fragmentation is a key driver behind why apparel production accounts for an estimated 10% of global carbon emissions (check out this great TED-Ed video on The Life Cycle of a T-Shirt and NPR’s Planet Money series documenting “the world behind a simple shirt”). Depending on the piece of clothing (e.g., t-shirt, denim jacket, sweater), the stages look a bit different but are almost always extremely fragmented.
2. The cut & sew factory is frequently the "connector" between the brand and the rest of the supply chain. Due to the complexity and fragmentation of many of the early stages, the cut & sew factory (the last stage) frequently attempts to simplify the ecosystem for the brand by becoming a “one-stop-shop.” Brands decide which cut & sew factory they want to work with and, from there, the factory coordinates the rest, including sourcing fabric, dyeing fabric, sewing the garment, and more. The cut & sew factory removes any need for the brand to work with partners earlier in the supply chain. Each factory has books of endless fabric swatches, sourced from “their guys.” Brands choose which they like best, just like picking off a restaurant menu. Don’t get us wrong, there are many efficiencies that come with this setup – it helps brands bring product to market quickly. Going into this trip, we knew that this was the case; however, throughout the trip, it became even more apparent that this process was not going to work for the brand that we wanted to build. Traceability would be impossible without knowing every hand that touched each piece.
3. Supply chain partners are often disincentivized to tell you the players that come before them in the process (and honestly, a lot of the times they don’t know). Since traceability back to the cotton farm was a must-have for our product, it was key for us to ask clarifying questions with every partner we met. Where is this fabric knitted? Where is it dyed? Where is the cotton grown? When we asked these questions, we rarely were given answers. We realized that this was for two reasons. First, there is little incentive to share this information with brands. For decades, companies have profited from acting as connectors, bringing business to their contacts. For example, if the knitter tells a brand where they dye their fabric, brands have the opportunity to circumvent them and go directly to the source. The knitter will then lose out on their commission. This model is not necessarily bad, it just wasn't going to work for us. (See below for an example email thread with a large fabric knitter). The second reason, and most concerning for us, was that they frequently don't know the answer. This is because parts of the process inherently make it difficult – e.g., raw cotton is frequently aggregated between farms before shipped across the world, middlemen are frequently used along the journey to help facilitate transportation, customer service, sales, etc. For these reasons, sharing details about each step of the supply chain is very challenging, even for partners who are willing.
4. The word “sustainability” frequently gets thrown around and, as a result, has become meaningless. Brands are often criticized for throwing around the term “sustainability” and using it as a marketing lever. In the industry, this action is coined as greenwashing (check out this long, but spot-on article by Elizabeth Cline about the prevalence of greenwashing). It became very apparent during our trip that greenwashing is not only something brands do; supply chain partners are also guilty of using “sustainability” as a marketing tactic. In many of our conversations, partners used terms like “low impact,” “certified,” and “sustainably sourced.” When we dug deeper, we realized these terms had become meaningless. On what dimension is it “low impact”? What type of “certification”? How is it “sustainably sourced”? Many hope that by hearing these buzzwords, brands will feel good enough and check “sustainability" off the list. While it is great that all stakeholders are thinking about and referencing “sustainability,” it is not enough.
How it shaped Pareto
In the moment, this trip was discouraging. We left LA feeling even more disenchanted by the apparel industry. How do brands sleep at night not knowing every hand that touches their clothing? How is it okay for brands to not know the farmer that is growing the cotton that they sell? How is it okay for brands to not know which chemicals are being used to dye and finish their pieces? There is no way to ensure you are making the best, most ethical, most environmental decisions without knowing the full journey of the product.
We did give ourselves a moment to be discouraged but quickly realized that the whole reason we set out to build Pareto in the first place was to build something better. To build a company we were excited to work for, a company that we were excited to shop at, and a company that could make a true impact on the “sustainability” of the industry. Our supply chain approach would be another critical element of our journey towards better. What we learned in LA was pivotal in taking Pareto to the next stage. Here are the two main ways in which the trip shaped the brand – we'll keep these short because our next two musings will dive deeper into each.
1. It forced us to reimagine the process of developing our supply chain. Starting with the last stage, the cut & sew factory, and trying to build a supply chain backwards would not work for us. We would never be able to know the partner at every stage. As a result, we would never be able to make the highest quality product. Instead, we needed to build our supply chain from the first stage forward. By starting with the farmer and moving forwards, each partner along the journey would be incentivized to share where they send their output (e.g., their cotton, their yarn). This flow of information creates a win win – they get to sell more of their product, we achieve the visibility required to make the best product possible. We ask the farmer which spinners they sell their cotton to. We ask the spinner which knitters they sell their yarn to. We ask the knitter which dye houses they work with. And so on. One step at a time, we build a fully traceable supply chain, from the farm to your closet.
2. It forced us to take a step back and think conceptually about "what a sustainable apparel brand looks like." While the term “sustainability” is used by almost every brand today, there is still a lot of confusion and uncertainty around what it means. Yes, the industry's knowledge of “sustainability” is evolving rapidly, but a lot of this confusion is driven by the varying motives behind using the term. “Sustainability” is rarely addressed holistically and honestly. There are two main factors that contribute to the apparel industry’s environmental and social impact – how clothing is made and the quantity of clothing made. We always knew that the quantity of clothing made was being neglected by most brands, but we did not realize how much opportunity there still was to address how clothing is made. If we were going to build a brand that could make a true impact on the “sustainability” of the industry, we needed to break it down and educate our community along the way.
Phewww...for better or for worse, it has taken us a lot of time to process, synthesize, and document this trip. Please don’t walk away from this musing thinking that it immediately “clicked” for us or that it was a straight line from the beginning. In the moment, it felt like a wacky scribble. But after all, we set out to build a product-obsessed company, so here we are, obsessing over our product.
As always, we’d love to hear from you in the comments – are there elements of the apparel supply chain that are still confusing or that you would be interested in learning more about?