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When Made in China Means Ethically Made

Manufacturing in China doesn’t automatically trigger thoughts of ethical manufacturing, but some brands are bringing those two concepts closery in line.

Speaking on the bold topic of “When Made in China Means Ethically Made,” at the Glossy Forum in New York Tuesday, Liz Hostetter, chief executive officer of made-to-measure company Ellie Kai didn’t deny that it’s a challenge. But she also contended that ethical manufacturing can be achieved despite China’s reputation for sometimes shunning standards to achieve price in apparel manufacturing.

The first challenge for Hostetter and Ellie Kai when starting the business in 2011 was to convince the supply chain in Hong Kong and China that small minimums on raw materials and finished goods— “sometimes by begging”—and a much faster turn time on production was needed for her business model that was part of a new wave of boutique businesses that had those requirements.

“The consumer was already there,” Hostetter said at Tuesday’s Glossy Forum in New York. “Our model was to cut-and-sew on demand to scale. We started doing 50 garments a week and we’ve scaled up to 1,400 garments a week within a few years. We realized along the way that ethics were important to this…and the only way we were able to use some of these supply chains and develop our own was because they were willing to be adaptable” and follow the standards that Hostetter had set.

[Read more about ethical manufacturing: Are Unethical Sourcing Practices Helping TJX Win at Retail Right Now?]

Ellie Kai can go from made-to-order direct to consumer in three weeks, according to Hostetter, “which by most standards is wonderful, but with consumers wanting things quicker and faster, we’ve had to work through things to facilitate that.”

The actual production time cycle is about 10 days and the company is able to have the order on a plane to the customer usually within 24 hours after it’s off the production line. The goal is to get the full cycle under two weeks. Hostetter said it took close to two years to find supply chain partners in China to be able to meet the quick response requirements and production standards the brand needed.

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Ellie Kai is sold through sales consultants who run social shopping trunk shows and then work directly with clients to select and customize each style. The garment is then ordered online through and sewn on-demand to a client’s specifications.

“One of the really important components is that manufacturing is done right, done with integrity, and care about our workers,” Hostetter said. This can be achieved in part by working with third-party organizations to assure high standards throughout the supply chain, she noted.

Hostetter said producing and sourcing in China does evoke a lot of debate “even across the dining room table” as to why the company chooses to manufacture there.

“One of the reasons we are not Made in America is because we haven’t been able to scale this model,” she said. “There’s a lot of debate about Made in China. There are a lot of horror stories, but there are a lot of horror stories all over the world. This is a global issue about how workers are treated – workplace environment, wages. The ethics around this conversation are so important. We’re raising the bar as a company, but ultimately the consumer is starting the conversation.”

Noting that the company is committed to nothing less than 100 percent ethical and sustainable manufacturing, Hostetter admitted that Made in China often “evokes the idea that it’s made cheaply and it’s made with not the most case that workers deserve.”

She defined sustainable as “making product that people actually want and they are going to keep,” so the made-to-order business model is meant to be sustainable in that it reduces the problem scourge of disposable clothing and the impact on the environment.

“At the end of the season we have very little inventory left over, so that’s the ultimate in sustainability in my view,” Hostetter added. “We’ve also found ways to be efficient within our facility.”