Matthew Reynolds and Scott Leonard are the brains behind Indigenous, a disruptive fashion brand mobilizing 1,000 artisans in Peru to create apparel at a large scale- using only 100% organic cotton to boot. The brand was founded on ethical values, and this commitment is retained throughout the production process, from concept to launch. Today, Indigenous has collectively invested 37 million dollars towards the regenerative cottage industry, partnering with artisans and entrepreneurs to lift their communities. As experts and leaders in the sustainable apparel industry, Matt and Scott share with us their knowledge in building ethical businesses that are rooted in real, transformative change- and what small steps businesses can take now to head in the right direction.
What are the challenges and advantages of having a sustainable fashion company? For major retailers, which sustainable initiatives are easiest to implement, and which are the most challenging?
Scott: I’ll start with organic cotton. A lot of folks might think, “If we make organic cotton, that’s enough”. But as a brand, we always ask, “How do we take a systemic approach to that”?
At Indigenous, we only use 100% organic cotton- it’s in our bylaws as a B Corp. But the challenge for bigger retailers is expenses. 10 cents per kilo might make a huge financial impact for bigger brands, and even though those 10 cents are well-worth it, larger players may not want to touch it because they are pinching pennies. There’s not enough demand. In turn, farmers are also hesitant to grow organic if they find that brands don’t want to pay for it. Even if you have brands that want to support organic, it takes three years for the crop to grow and be certified. Cotton is one place where you can make a huge impact as a brand, but its got its setbacks. It can be difficult on a large scale, but easier for smaller brands.
Matt: It takes an incremental road map to be able to implement organic cotton to a larger brand because of supply, and the need to work transparently with the growers in converting from conventional to organic.
Scott: One of the easiest things brands can do is to start looking at how they are measuring up in sustainability. I recommend that they join Textile Exchange, where you can look at preferred fiber reports, and weigh out its environmental impact.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s HIGG Index is also a way to measure one’s supply chain and materials. Start looking at the facilities you use- how are your facilities measuring against environmental impact and humanitarian/labor practices? Are they looking at the certifications? That’s a very straightforward, but a good and high bar. The next bar is community development programs and fair-trade certifications.
How is your business model at Indigenous different?
Scott: Our model is slightly different than a lot of the other fashion brands out there because we are rooted in the cottage industry (labor force consisting of family units or individuals working at home with their own equipment).
For us, it’s insuring 100% social and environmental compliance throughout our supply chain. We started that way from day one, so as we scaled, we were already able to solve obstacle along the way because that was our founding commitment.
Matt: We are compassionate with others who are just getting into this space that weren’t founded upon those values. Since our first few years in business, we have been involved in steering communities about ethical labor standards, transparency, sustainable agriculture. We believe that a rising tide lifts all boats.
We don’t believe in competition, we believe in Coopetition – collaboration between business competitors, in the hope of mutually beneficial results.
Many major retailers are now looking to implement sustainability and corporate social responsibility into their operations and supply chain. What can they learn from your company, and what advice would you give to them in regards to maximizing their social impact in a real and authentic way?
Scott: It’s an ongoing conversation. The conversation is picking up momentum, and getting more intense. But the more you lean into it, the more you realize that it’s pretty bad out there for women and the environment. So when we start to talk about the costs, it’s a sort of a step-by-step conversation. When we’re proving the business case, we have continued to draw the parallel around efficiency and sustainability.
A direct connection is: if you’re saving energy, you’re saving money too. If you’re not wasting materials, you’re saving on costs. We show that it isn’t just about doing good, but also about earning a financial reward.
In your perspective, what is the business case for sustainable fashion? Why would an investor want to invest in this model?
Scott: If you look at the 2019 State of Fashion Report, this is the first year where 90% of the report is focused on sustainability, ethical, and circular practices. More and more consumers are wanting to know about how and where their products are made. It’s arguable that right now, the fastest emerging market in fashion is sustainable and ethical fashion. Everyone is trying to jump on board.
Those with competitive advantage are those who are authentic and do business with integrity. We’ve been forging a path of authenticity in a patient and methodical manner.
Based on the size of your business, what are the advantages you have in implementing sustainability?
Scott: Earlier on, it was more of a roadblock because we didn’t have the right dyes to make all colors possible. But the fact that we know we don’t do synthetics, and that we don’t support things that are bad for the planet, is a double-edged sword. We know what we’re looking for, and sometimes that’s a plus, but sometimes a challenge, because we know we want to improve that sector instead of trying to be for everybody.
From the actual labor aspect, it’s an unusual and particular sector that we’re in. Because everything is artisan made, it’s modular production in small batches. Scaling the cotton industry becomes an arduous task. It’s about maintaining consistency and replication in an industry that absolutely demands that. We had to learn along the way, master something that some people thought was insurmountable.
How could you possibly scale hundreds of artisans to make the same product? But we did that. And now we’ve been able to do direct consumer. How do we take all these impact fashion stories and how do we bring it forward to the consumer? It has something to do with great partners. That’s why I believe in organizations like Remake, to tell these stories. We need more people like them, more folks telling stories to the general marketplace.
We believe that there is a customer that is beginning to care. That’s what our Series B funding effort is all about. It’s about bringing impact fashion stories directly to the consumer, with all the information about materials, circular activity, and labor coming full circle.
We believe in transforming communities and elevating artisans. We’ve worked hard to make sure that these words do mean something, and not something green-washed. We are in this through and through.
Tell us about the impact you’ve made in your business. What impact accomplishments are you most proud of?
Matt: We are proud of the fact that we’ve contributed over 37 million dollars towards the regenerative cottage industry model of artisans living at the base of the pyramid. We’ve been at the tip of the spear, serving as leaders in transparency, and we continue to try and bring out that conversation into the industry. Even before the Rana Plaza factory collapsed, we created our Fair Trace tool app, where you can scan the garment and meet the people who make your clothes, view its social impact, and see where the product comes from.
On the back end, we partnered with Sourcemap. Most people in the developing world have basic cell phones, and we were able to ask survey questions to artisans anonymously, including economic indicator questions like, “do you own a refrigerator”. We were able to take all of that in, and measure the social and economic conditions of our supply chain, so that we can circumvent challenges and prevent tragedies like Rana Plaza.
Scott: It’s really important to note that this isn’t a charity. What we’re really doing is going out into places where poverty is pervasive and persistent. We find passionate entrepreneurs who are dedicated, but they happened to be born in an area where there are little opportunities. We put our hand out and partner with them. We’re doing a lot more than sourcing from a fair-trade supply chain. We’re always focused on building. We’ve built this virtual entrepreneurial engine, of 1,000 artisans living in economically marginalized communities, and we’re uplifting them through finance and clean sources of drinking water.
How has your involvement with SVC helped you and your company ?
We’ve been blessed in multiple ways through the community. Our greatest honor is walking side-by-side in collaboration with other sectors and industries with like-minded leaders. We’ve had the pleasure of having great support from investors like the The Barred Rock Fund (Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s). RSF is also one of our largest shareholders, and one of the biggest champions we’ve had along the way is Josh Mailman. Timothy and Rose Yee are involved and invested in our Series B. Other investors include Elizabeth/Lisa Martin, Beth Stelluto, and Jane Firpo. The list goes on!
Through SVC, we received long-term patient capital support and belief in what we do that has been virtually unwavering.
We also got amazing mentorship from Anita Roddick (founder of The Body Shop). She was a great inspiration to us.
To learn more about Matt & Scott’s work with Indigenous, view their website here.