Bringing transparency to the fashion supply chain
Take a look at the clothes you’re wearing today. Where were they made? Under what conditions? If you’re wearing natural fiber, where was it grown? Who harvested it? And were those workers treated fairly? Ever thought about it?
Natalie Grillon thinks about it – a lot. That’s why she co-founded JUST, a company launched in April 2014 that provides transparency in fashion supply chains and connects designers and consumers to ethical suppliers.
Grillon, who served in the Peace Corps as a natural resources management specialist in Mali, West Africa before coming to Johnson to earn her MBA, chose to do the Sustainable Global Enterprise Immersion as a student here. She went on to become an Acumen Global Fellow, completing a year of leadership development training and serving in Northern Uganda as an operations manager at Gulu Agricultural Development Company (GADC). She later worked directly for that organization, managing organic and fair trade agricultural product lines.
“The Acumen fellowship and the Peace Corps were the best experiences of my life,” says Grillon. “They expanded and shaped my world view and career path in so many ways.” She realized while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer that traditional aid methods weren’t effective in sustaining real economic development and creating pathways out of poverty for these societies. After the Peace Corps, she decided to pursue her MBA at Johnson to learn more about disruptive, sustainable business models for poverty alleviation in developing markets. Next, she says, “I wanted experience — to get my hands dirty, to see if this social enterprise approach actually worked.” Was it really possible to bring about positive social impact and simultaneously realize healthy financial returns? Moreover, she asked herself, “Did I have the capacity to do it, to work in these markets, and manage my own business?” That’s what led her to Acumen’s Fellows program.
Through her work at GADC, Grillon gained the financial and operations skills in a social enterprise context she had sought. “That gave me the opportunity to see the world as it could be,” she says. As a technical assistant with Acumen, which had invested in GADC in Northern Uganda — an area that is recovering from nearly 25 years of armed conflict and civil strife that displaced 1.4 million people and left it the poorest region in Uganda — she helped smallholder farmers who have returned to the land access global markets for their crops. “GADC buys from farmers, works alongside them year-round, teaching and encouraging them to adopt organic and yield-enhancing practices, and then certifies their organically grown crops,” says Grillon. With the organic certification, GADC can pay the farmers a price premium while also ensuring sustainability of the land and the consequent long-term economic benefits of these farming practices.
April 24, 2013, the day the Rana Plaza factory complex collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1,133 people and injuring many more, marked a turning point for Grillon. “I saw the news about the Rana Plaza tragedy while arranging for the sale of cotton to a broker,” she said, “and I wondered: Could the cotton grown organically here go to such a place?” Grillon was disturbed to think that Gulu’s cotton, infused with such positive social and environmental impact, could end up supplying a factory like the one at Rana Plaza. That’s when she began thinking about models to guarantee and spread transparency, traceability and ethical, sustainable practices in the entire fashion apparel supply chain.
Grillon shared her ideas with Shahd Al Shehail, who was also an Acumen fellow, and co-founder of a luxury fashion house in Saudi Arabia. Al Shehail had seen similar issues and opportunities. “We started researching the fashion industry and saw an opportunity to connect brands with suppliers in ethical supply chains to produce beautiful garments,” says Grillon. “We believe that bringing transparency to fashion supply chains will not only lead to accountability, but also create pride in a new definition of quality.”
JUST co-founders Al Shehail and Grillon became the new company’s CEO and COO, respectively. They enlisted Shruti Goins, formerly of Microsoft, as their director of user experience. Together, they have developed a technology that “delivers real-time data to designers on a catalog of authenticated, ethical suppliers through an easy-to-use dashboard, and with the help of QR codes, allows consumers to see the full story of how their clothing came to be.”
JUST’s site is now in beta while Grillon and her co-founder continue to vet suppliers. “Suppliers are finding us and coming to us via our network,” Grillon says. “We are looking for the best-in-class in terms of quality including mills, dyers, silk weavers, cotton supply chains, embroidery, and leather work.” Already, they list 40 clients who are interested, all of them based in New York City, which Grillon says is a hub for ethical fashion right now. “We’re reaching designers through our network, at meet-ups, and on panels at fashion and technology events,” says Grillon. “Small designers are looking for ethical supply chains. Some brands already trace supply chains, and want a way to convey that information to designers and consumers. There are many suppliers out there already exhibiting best practices. We believe transparency and market access for them will create a positive feedback loop in the supply chain; other suppliers will see the benefits of adopting more sustainable practices.”
What makes Grillon so confident that JUST will succeed? “The market is changing, and the consumer wants this,” she claims. “One in three consumers is willing to pay up to a 40 percent premium for an ethical supply chain. And yet, we continue to over-consume – it’s not sustainable. It’s hidden but people are suffering and dying as a result. Just as the food industry is changing and pursuing transparency and sustainability, the time is ripe for fashion to follow suit. Disruptive innovation is needed.”
“My generation, millennials, associate themselves with brands and want to know their values align,” Grillon continues. “They research and consume information on their purchases in a way previously not possible. They want to engage and JUST can make this happen. We can create real human engagement and pride in the clothes we are making and choosing to wear. We’re on the right side of history.”