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Ethical Fashion Offerings Ramp Up as New Brands Build Sustainable Supply Chains

Style and sustainability are no longer estranged concepts and start-up brands are finding increasingly savvy ways to build better supply chains.

Sourcing and creating ethical fashion was so important to the founders of Alice + Whittles, a line of socially responsible footwear, that they quit their jobs working as UN relief workers to do it.

“Greening the supply chain, from my perspective, is taking responsibility for the supply chain to start, really looking from outside the common structures that are in place in terms of manufacturing and maybe circumventing those, and having a human connection at every level,” brand co-founder Sofi Khwaja said on a panel at Sourcing at Magic Tuesday. “There’s a massive market coming upstream that’s ready for this sort of thing.”

Because Khwaja and co-founder Nicholas Horekens couldn’t speak for where their garments and gear came from and how workers along those supply chains were treated, they decided to work on creating a label where they could trace products right down to the cotton seed.

The two spent five months in India, visiting factories, learning about conditions and processes, and sourcing materials to make a pair of completely ethical and totally traceable espadrilles. The idea hit Kickstarter in March 2013 and in roughly a month, Khwaja and Horekens had raised $40,000 to make the espadrilles that started Alice + Whittles.

Now, with responsibility embedded into the brand from its beginnings, the company’s design ethos is simple: “We begin our design process thinking about the essentials in our wardrobe. The pieces we carry with us around the world. Those we can’t do without. We design with function, form and material in mind—removing unnecessary elements to create simple, modern silhouettes,” the company website reads.

The espadrilles have since taken on added iterations for both men and women and the company’s latest endeavor is a vegan rain boot, handcrafted in Sri Lanka. Prices per pair range from $90 for a women’s espadrille to $260 for a lace-up rain boot.

One key to sustaining an ethical, transparent supply chain, Khwaja said, has been getting to know the people who make for them, taking a personal interest in their lives and livelihood, working with them and then sharing those experiences with the consumer to portray the brand’s purpose and meaning. The other key, according to Khwaja, has been relevant product.

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“No matter what we do on the social side, we want to make a product that people know and love. First is design.”

And more than design and ethics, Alice + Whittles is about focusing on relevant product and sustainable production.

“You walk into a booth and you’ll see 200 different SKUs. We have five,” Khwaja said referencing the Footwear Sourcing at Magic and FN Platform shoe shows taking place in Las Vegas this week. “We take the time to create designs that we like and scale that; slow fashion and fashion essentials that we can commit to.”