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A QUESTION OF ETHICS

April 30, 2019 7 min read

A QUESTION OF ETHICS

 

THERE IS MUCH TALK ABOUT SUSTAINABILITY + ETHICS IN FASHION – AND RIGHTLY SO – BUT WHAT DO THESE WORDS MEAN?  DO THEY HAVE THE SAME CONNOTATION FOR EVERYONE – OR DO WE ALL INTERPRET THEM DIFFERENTLY?  AND WHERE DOES PRICING + VALUE COME INTO THE EQUATION?  CATHRYN WILLS SHARES WHAT GOES INTO A SANS BEAST BAG, WHAT VALUE MEANS TO HER – AND ULTIMATELY, WHY CREATING PIECES WITHOUT ANIMAL PRODUCTS IS IMPORTANT TO THE SANS BEAST BRAND. 

 

sustainability /səsteɪnəˈbɪlɪti/

Noun - The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.  "The sustainability of economic growth".  Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance. 
"The pursuit of global environmental sustainability."

ethical /ˈɛθɪk(ə)l/

Adjective - Relating to moral principles or the branch of knowledge dealing with these. 

value /ˈvaljuː/

Noun -The regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.  "Your support is of great value"

 

For me, sustainability refers to a few things. 
An environment we can continue to live in with good health is key, as is living a balanced life with the planet + its various lifeforms.  I have an ongoing existential crisis about producing goods that, frankly, are not necessary for life on the planet. Yet, sustainability of one’s life in society is imperative - therefore, employment is needed.  Sans Beast is still a small entity – we employ 2 full time team members, a freelance designer on a needs basis, and I work in the business along with my partner John.  We work with material suppliers + manufacturers in China, which in turn, adds to these entities having sustainable businesses. 

In reference to living in balance with our fellow earth dwellers – I have always considered myself an ‘animal lover’.  Yet after many years of ignoring the fact that I was cuddling some species, and making handbags + shoes out of the skin of others – I woke up to my own ethical conundrum, and decided I could no longer do this.  Industrial level animal agriculture is not only not environmentally sustainable – it’s horrific for the animals + many of the humans, involved.

I won’t use this article to explain this further – there is SO much information out there to be gleaned, we can all make the choice to read, watch + learn.   Forks over Knives, Food Inc, Cowspiracy, Dominion, Earthlings – all important documentaries.  Peter Singer's Animal Liberation + Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals are both insightful books on the subject of animal welfare (and our inherent attitudes to various species) in our society.  Rather than animal skins we use ‘eco’ polyurethane for our bags.   ‘Eco’ refers to the material supplier not using toxic levels of chemicals in the manufacture of the fabric.  It adheres to REACH + CA65 standards.

The fabric we use is not quickly biodegradable + this can be off-putting to some.  This is fair enough – it’s certainly the ideal to work with materials that will find their way back to the earth easily + fast, and we’re not there yet.  We would also challenge the popular notion that leather is a completely natural product, as the overwhelming majority is put through a chemically-intensive tanning process.  Environmental perfection in manufacturing is a challenge for everyone.

There is an excellent 2017 report by the Global Fashion Agenda that rates several raw materials, cradle to gate, in terms of environmmental impact - and it highlights that leather rates substantially worse than synthetic leather on three out of the four measured traits - global warming, water scarcity, eutrophication.  Indeed, cow leather is in the top three raw materials in terms of negative impact - sitting amongst cotton, wool + silk.  Synthetic leather fares worse in abiotic resource depletion (the fourth pillar on which the materials have been rated) which is related to fossil fuels.  So, is synthetic leather really an inferior option on the environmental front?


 We come full circle back to the question of ethics + what rates as important to consumers. I believe there is a great deal of misinformation in the market - the main one being that leather is the natural bi-product of the meat industry + therefore we are being responsible by using it for product manufacture.  But just like any industry, supply is based on demand, and demand is often based on marketing.  Leather is a  co-product of the meat industry - and as perAPLF reporting in November 2018, the global leather goods market is worth USD 95.4 billion in 2018 and will reach USD 128.61 billion by 2022 at a growth rate of 4.36% during the forecasted period.  These numbers are not a lucky coincidence that there just happens to be enough animals slaughtered to cater to this market - it's by design + it's driven. 

We’ve chosen to focus on the inordinate damage that factory farming does to the environment as well as the exploitation of animals that exists in this industry, and combat these issues, with making non leather bags instead – and we work tirelessly to create bags that are well designed + manufactured to instil a loyalty to the product from our customer, thus inhibiting any desire to send it to landfill.  

On the subject of value – I believe we can get a little lost in this area, in the realms of fashion.  A ‘value retailer’ is generally considered to sell goods at a very low price.  In order for these goods to be sold at a low price, AND for the business to be financially sustainable, the retailer typically buys large volumes.  There is substantial negotiation power with a manufacturer if you can commit to keeping a production line full + orders regular.  Naturally there are also manufacturers in the world who will compromise on their workers’ rights + environments, in order to ensure a profit is squeezed from the extremely low cost price that the retailer is paying.  Yet, value to me is related to how much value I attribute to the process of manufacturing + of course, the final product – its function, its beauty, its collectability. 

“HOW CAN A PRODUCT THAT NEEDS TO BE SOWN, GROWN, HARVESTED, COMBED, SPUN, KNITTED, CUT AND STITCHED, FINISHED, PRINTED, LABELLED, PACKAGED AND TRANSPORTED, COST A COUPLE OF EUROS?” LI EDELKOORT

 

We produce our styles in relatively small volumes. We’re fortunate we have a manufacturer in China who is willing to allow us to grow slowly.  300 units per style is typically a bare minimum for a handbag factory to agree to an order + if this were the case on day 1, we would not have progressed. 

The factory incurs large costs throughout the development process + these costs are amortised into the final price that is charged to us.  They have a sample room which always has the most skilled + more highly remunerated workers within it. Getting a sample right takes time.  It also takes expertise in patternmaking, construction and materials, which can take years to build up.  Due to the high cost of running a sample room, we are charged double for every piece that comes out of here – this means our prototypes, our selling samples + any PR samples we make. 


Ideas are sketched + several iterations of an idea are reviewed before the final one is agreed on.  A paper pattern is made, a prototype is constructed, we comment on the prototype, do some wear testing to ensure it’s functional, make some changes, and proceed to the next stage of either sampling or sign off. I’ve always valued the process of sketch / review / tweak – the notion of buying pieces from other brands, to then deliver to a factory + request that they make a copy, has never been my MO.  As a designer in my earlier years, I’ve worked in situations where I’ve been asked to ‘just make it look like the original style we bought in London’ and this never sat well with me.  Even if you put the notion of blatant plagiarism aside – it negates the pleasure a team gets from actually building things from the ground up.  

I’ve worked with design teams long enough to know that whilst the road can be challenging when starting with a blank sheet of paper – the reward is tenfold when a sample comes in looking good. Once the sample is signed off + the pattern is approved, cutting knives must be made (3D metal shapes that allow fabric to be cut in multiple layers with a giant press).  A bag such as our Brief Liaison Tote requires 47 moulds / knives (image below). A portion of the cost of these moulds is again amortised into the price we pay.  Naturally, once a factory has made cutting moulds, it’s their preference to continue to make this style again + again – so they can offset the cost of setting up production.  If a brand changes its shapes every month (as is the case with fast fashion), the setup costs borne by the factory can be extensive.

 

Orders are compiled + fabric, hardware + thread are all ordered in the selected colours.  Our feature zinc alloy hardware is custom moulded – which means it was designed in-house here in Melbourne, then a 3D CAD drawing is done, before a hand mould is made for us to review, and finally, a production mould, before multiple units can be made.  The metal hardware is then plated in the desired colour – gunmetal, gold, silver etc, the metal is polished + cleaned, and inspected before attaching to the bags.  We make custom zip pullers, dogclips, studs, square levered rings for our handles, eyelets + branded motifs.  We believe this sets us apart – particularly for those who recognise it – as custom hardware is not easy, it’s not cheap + it’s most certainly not fast.
Production involves all the jigsaw pieces coming together.  The factory must be very efficient in order for them to be a profitable business.  Each process is grouped in the order that makes the most sense for construction, and each step is timed.

 

Stitching, gluing, trimming, hammering, edgepainting etc.
all occur along several lines of team members, until the final checking where the bags are packaged.  Development takes approximately 6 months, and production takes about 3 months.  Shipping + clearing another month. 

It is a labour + time intensive path.  Our collections are the end result of a process throughout which every person is valued for their role + expertise. 

Education on how we do what we do is essential to our story telling.  I don’t profess to the process, or the result, being perfect, yet speaking from the position of having worked in fashion retail for many years, I can only attest to a deeper sense of calm + peace personally, knowing we are not hurting animals in the Sans Beast world we are creating.  My ethics are more in line with this path I’ve chosen, and from the feedback received thus far, I know this path resonates with many.  Happily, that community is growing.  

 


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