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New Zealand children’s wear fashion designer and founder of Oki For All, New Zealand’s first fair trade certified older kids brand, talks about making the conscious decision to delve into the slow sustainable fashion movement and create clothes that are cool and kind to the artisan, environment and her nine-year old daughter.
After working in the fashion industry for more than 20 years, I felt unsettled by the rise of modern corporations and consumerism.
Through successive trips to China viewing factories while working as a fashion designer and buyer, I got a sense of the poor conditions of workers’, the subsequent waste and pollution, and it started to get to me. I decided to launch my own children’s brand Oki For All that sat better with my conscience and the environment. This is the journey that got me to this point.
What I saw and heard
When I visited factories in China, we were never shown the work floor. The person I was travelling with told me that sweatshop conditions were hidden from ‘Westerners’ and that those factories I was being shown were the ‘better’ ones. She said, quite nonchalantly, that others would make me cry. She said people often slept under their work tables, there were kids around, and the spaces were dirty. I got a glimpse of what she meant. When I once got lost in a factory, I saw the toilet block for the workers – it was a single long pipe where holes had been cut into in to sit on. There were 3 low walls for privacy.
I heard that for some factory workers a ‘normal’ day can be 12 hours and sometimes longer. And this is an acceptable amount of hours to work, 6 days a week in the places I visited.
Yet, the factory owner drove the latest BMW (she could not drive, she had a personal driver) and was wearing a pair of $600 USD shoes.
As for the environmental effect, I recall being asked to put a caustic type of finishing wash onto a pair of shorts once, and being told “oh they will be ok, they haven’t banned the use of those chemicals yet”. Needless to say, I didn’t ask for that wash treatment.
Outside the factory, the incredible pollution of one particular city – Nan Tong – which sits on the Yangtze River, is staggering. Dark clouds of smoke are constantly billowing from chimneys, much of it attributed to the many garment manufacture factories there.
So much of what happens in the industry is because of short cuts we feel we need to make in order to get product on the shelves quickly. Things that could take time to experiment with and develop are dumped in favour of the instant quick fix method.
This is fashion’s dirty secret, and we in the fashion business turn a blind eye to this kind of behaviour. It really disturbs me that the public assumes that good corporate responsibility means that their factories are compliant, that staff have normal working hours, and that they have a bed to sleep in or a home to go back to.
I started to realise that there is a serious disconnect between the consumer and the people who make the product. It just felt like we had all lost focus with what’s important and were spending way too much time looking for cheaper and cheaper garments.
It was around that time that the Rana Plaza building collapsed which seemed like a metaphor for the entire fashion industry. But it also felt like personal responsibility sitting heavy across my shoulders.
Then the Kiwi children’s wear giant Pumpkin Patch collapsed under its own weight too, and I started to think about what I was doing in my life. I guess it was a crisis of conscience of sorts. I no longer wanted to be a part of the problem, I wanted to be a part of the solution.
I considered my own daughter, who at nine years old had a limited choice of garments and styles. It was either pink or purple and made in the sorts of factories that I had seen in my travels. It made me wonder what happened to the ideals of the baby clothing market, where we are spoilt for choice with ethically made and organic garments up to about age four. Why should there be a sudden drop off for her age group?
So I saved, researched, saved and delved head first into creating a new brand for kids 4 to 12-years old that met those aspirations, giving up the day job to get it going. I launched OKI For All this year with GOTS organic and Fair-trade certification. In fact, I am New Zealand’s first Fair-trade certified older kids brand.
I decided not to produce in China. There are a few reasons why but the main one was that I felt it was too difficult for me to go into that country, find a factory, and travel every six months to ensure everything was ok. For me, I wanted to start and establish OKI in the most ethically-compliant factory I could find, and then once established, start researching into other areas where I could make a difference. I looked at other brands that disclosed factory names and researched them. Fair-trade was my dream, and when I found Mila Fairtrade in India, I was ecstatic. As well as being transparent, the geographic area they are based in has a high component of similar factories specialising in ethical and environmentally-friendly manufacturing methods. As I am self-funded, taking the well-trodden road for the initial start-up was the best method.
I found a label in Australia, the-road.com.au who uses Mila as well, and was fortunate enough to get great advice and first hand information. It’s been incredible to connect with other people out there who are equally excited to start making waves of change within this industry.
About the customer
But it isn’t only about considering the environment and the people that made these clothes. It’s about the kids. OKI For All is about slowing down, and slowing down the rush for a child to grow up through those tween years. The clothing is functional and somewhat timeless. It looks good loose fitting as well as tighter when they grow. Colours are fun but not too gendered. And my daughter should love the clothes. And she does.
The challenge is convincing someone to buy a tee for $40 that is ethically made, when they can buy one for $10 and don’t care about the consequences! I also know that kid’s clothes get stained and they grow out of them, so I am working on how to incorporate those challenges into my model including a tie dye re-fashion service and recycling for credit.
Where to from here
I still feel like I’m green to this green thing! I have leapt in heart first because I am sick of the fast fashion train chugging along leaving chaos. I have only recently leapt of the train myself but I have a big vision for my brand but the industry as a whole, including starting a co-op factory with other ethical brands, and continuing the conversation to end this smoke-and-mirrors-manufacture that we currently face.
I want to end the use of rayon and viscose, spend more time recycling polyester and we need to relook at the way we make our denim. There are a few brands out there that spend a lot of time and money on researching fabric alternatives and recycling to make different uses for end products. We need more big name brands with money behind them to step up and do more of this, and stop leaving it to the little guys.
Right now, a huge driver for me is that at all points in the manufacture process every artisan is entitled to be paid a fair and living wage, work in a good environment and be respected for their artisanal strengths. I really feel that this is something that should be normalised and expected rather than niche and unique.
It’s not always easy, and I know that for the time being myself and other ethical sustainable fashion designers and brands are still on the fringes, but I am excited for the journey ahead.
In the meantime, I am proud to be on the slow train.