At the beginning of our Pareto journey, we took a trip to Los Angeles to start establishing our supply chain (check out the recap of our trip in our last musing). We went into the trip knowing we needed traceability. We went into the trip knowing traceability was different from what other apparel brands were prioritizing. What we didn’t know was just how difficult traceability is to achieve. The learnings from the trip shaped Pareto in two ways: 1) they forced us to reimagine the process of building our traceable supply chain and 2) they forced us to reevaluate how we would approach “sustainability”. In this musing, we will dig into the first one – reimagining the process to build our traceable supply chain. Our approach. What we actually did. Where we are now.
Despite the challenges we faced – the constant no’s and why’s – we refused to budge on traceability. The only way to make the highest quality product is to work directly with partners at every stage of our supply chain, from the farm to the closet. Going to LA and trying to build our supply chain backwards (i.e., starting with the cut & sew partner and working back to the farm) was not working. When we returned to Chicago, we laid out the ways we could create our traceable supply chain and came up with 3 approaches...
1. We could continue down the path we were on, starting with cut & sew factories and working backwards. Maybe we were just getting unlucky?
We gave this a try for a few more weeks, but continued to encounter supply chain partners who were unsure of exactly where they source their materials from or just unwilling to share details with us in fear that we would work around them.
2. We could use industry certifications to “back-out” traceability. Maybe the paper trail that is needed for a product to achieve common industry certifications would include every stage of the supply chain and the partners involved?
We spent a lot of time researching the many certifications (e.g., GOTS, OCS) that govern the textiles space – this topic will get it’s own future musing! The headline: this path was also not going to yield traceability. For this path to work, the “paperwork” would need to follow the goods. To paint the picture (using a common certification like GOTS), when the cotton is shipped to the yarn spinner, the required paperwork from the farm would travel with it. When the yarn is shipped to the fabric knitter, the required GOTS paperwork from the farm AND yarn spinner would travel with it. Therefore, when the final dyed fabric arrives at the cut & sew factory, it would be accompanied by all required GOTS paperwork – from the farmer, yarn spinner, fabric kniter, and dyer. While we are excited for the future of certifications, from our perspective, they are not fully there yet. For numerous reasons, the paper trail isn’t as organized as we would need it to be (e.g., the inherent intricacy of the flow of goods, the necessary education for supply chain participants to ensure they uphold the paper trail process).
3. We could reverse the direction in which we were building our supply chain. If supply chain partners were disincentivized to share the stages prior to them with us when working backwards (i.e., from the cut & sew partner back to the farm), maybe they would be incentivized to share where they send their output (e.g., their cotton, their yarn) if we worked forwards?
Olivia’s time working in the food space really pushed our thinking here. It’s like farm-to-table, but for us, it’s farm-to-closet. By starting with the farmer and moving forward, it creates a win-win – they get to sell more of their product, we achieve the visibility required to make high quality product. We ask the farmer which spinners they sell their cotton to and then choose the spinner who aligns most with our mission. We ask the spinner which knitters they sell their yarn to. We ask the knitter which dye houses they work with. And so on. This may seem simple, but in the world of supply chains, this isn’t typical. This approach was game changing.
What We Actually Did
And so it began...the journey to start with the cotton farmer and build our fully traceable supply chain all the way to the cut & sew factory. The most commonly asked question we get is “How did you connect with your first farming partner?” One of our go-to documentaries, The True Cost, had a feature on an organic cotton farming co-op in Texas. Their story always stuck with us. We googled them, gave the phone number at the bottom of their website a call, and the rest is history.
We will never forget that initial hour and a half phone call with one of the farmers that reinforced that we were on the right path – not only to achieve traceability but also in creating a brand that we are truly excited about. From a traceability perspective, a big aha moment from the call was when he shared that most farmers never actually see the end product made of their cotton. They grow the cotton and then ship it across the globe...never getting the chance to know where it ends up. Our traceable supply chain really resonated with him, and as we had hoped, he happily provided us the yarn spinners that he sells his cotton to. From an excitement level, that single conversation was more energizing than all of our previous conversations combined. Hearing his story, his deep expertise, and his pride in his work was contagious and inspiring. These were the partners we wanted to work with on a day-to-day basis.
From there, it was detective work. Through each conversation, we got closer to our fully traceable supply chain. Our yarn spinner happily recommended fabric knitters. Our fabric knitter happily recommended fabric dyers. Etc. Building our supply chain forward was the unlock.
The impact our fully traceable supply chain had on our product quality became more and more apparent with every conversation we had. With the yarn spinner, we discussed things like twist multiples to ensure minimal pilling in our fabric. With the fabric knitters, we discussed things like the burst ratings to ensure durability. With the dye house, we discussed things like color fastness scores to ensure that our fabric would not fade overtime. With the cut & sew factory, we discussed things like stitch per inch to ensure garment longevity. None of this would be possible without knowing every hand that touched our product.
Where We Are Now
After a year of hard work, trial and error, and relationship building, we have our fully traceable supply chain. From the organic cotton farming co-op in Texas to the multi-generational spinning mill in North Carolina to the sixth generation fabric knitter in Massachusetts to the century-old dye house in Pennsylvania to the family-run cut & sew factories in Illinois and California. Not only do we know every hand that touches each piece, but we also know we have the right hands. We’ve seen how decisions we make with our partners at every stage enables us to make clothing that is built to look good, built for all days, built to last, and built responsibly.
While we’ve built an extremely strong foundation, this is just the beginning. Depending on the fabric type (e.g., jersey vs. twill) and end garment (e.g., dress vs. jacket), our supply chain will have to be different. Not only are supply chains extremely fragmented, players within each stage specialize in different capabilities. For example, a fabric mill that makes denim fabric is very different from a fabric mill that makes t-shirt fabric. Despite the challenges ahead, the foundation we’ve built while establishing this initial traceable supply chain will pay dividends as we grow – the relationships within the textile ecosystem that we’ve fostered, the credibility that we’ve established, and the best practices that we’ve collected.
While refusing to budge on traceability has not been the path of least resistance, we are confident that we can now deliver on our mission – making the best version of the clothing you actually wear.
In our next musing, we’ll dive into the second way in which the learnings from this trip shaped Pareto – how they forced us to reevaluate how we would approach “sustainability”. The meaningless buzzwords we heard during our trip paired with the subsequent conversations that we had with our partners at every stage of our supply chain, highlighted how much work there was to do in addressing the industry’s impact on our planet and people in a holistic way (hint, hint: traceability also becomes a huge unlock in making the most responsible product).
We want to hear from you...what indicates a high quality, durable piece of clothing to you when you are shopping? Are there other elements of our traceable supply chain that you’d like to learn more about?