I'll be the first to admit that I love shopping for ethical clothing and accessories more than I love shopping for home goods. Clothing is easy, there's a lot of variety in where I can shop, and most pieces can fit into my budget without too much stress.
Sure, there's always thrifting for things like furniture and decor, plus a plethora of adorable fair trade decor and nick knacks, but what about sheets and towels and bedding and all of the items that you might not exactly want to thrift? googling "ethically made all natural pillows- NOT throw pillows " doesn't tend to turn up a plethora of results. I tend to wait until the last possible moment to replace some things for this reason (my college-era pillows made it up until last December- and they were embarrassingly lumpy and ragged).
We need more "everyday" ethically made products, practical goods. We need those goods to be made to last, stylish, and affordable. My vision for the future is to someday be able to buy everything needed to set up a basic, simple home in one place, and ethically made. We're getting closer every day, and my new friend Anne is one of the passionate people that is making it happen.
Anne shares my passion for making ethically made "mainstream". In one of the emails we've passed back and forth, Anne shared "My real aim, is to see everyday, trend-defying styles be made the right way, not just things that are classically 'fair trade' in how they look! Things that everyone uses, every day". I couldn't agree more! Anne's company, Elkie & Ark, produces beautiful, classic bedding (sheets, pillowcases, duvets, and more!). The company is relatively new but already challenging the status quo in ethical manufacturing.
I asked Anne to share some details on the process of setting up Elkie and Ark to be as transparent and ethical as possible- from fair wages to sourcing materials.
Anne: When I started planning the business, Elkie & Ark, it was important to me that it was as ethical and sustainable as I could make it, right from the seed to the finished product. I think this is vital that we take responsibility for what goes on in our full supply chain at all stages of production, right from the farm.
Workers who produce our goods are paid a living wage. Throughout all stages, there are over 1,200 workers employed within our supplying factories and over 15,000 including workers right back to the farms.
A living wage technically is higher than a fair or minimum wage. It is determined as needing to pay a worker sufficiently to provide for their whole family, to provide education for their children, income in old age and for health care as well as basic day-to-day living and social needs. It is set in discussion with workers or unions and is multiples of the official government minimum wage. In fact, I share most of my supply chain with one of only two of Australia’s fashion brands to receive an independently assessed A+ rating for paying living wages at both final and input stages of production.
On top of wages workers are given benefits valued at over 60% of their annual salary. These include health insurance for their whole family, paid leave, paid holidays, bonuses, a fair trade premium that is 5% of their annual wages, subsidized food and pension payments. Workers also have access to school scholarships for their children and an annual distribution payment from investments. Last year this equated to around one month’s salary.
But wages alone aren’t enough. For me, I want to know how it all feels and looks on the ground. To ensure workers have safe, fair working conditions and job security too. That they have basic things like long lunch breaks and are free from excess stress. That they also have work environments that uphold the International Labour Organization rulings and are free from discrimination.
Speaking with workers, what we found was that workers were choosing to stay working for the company for 10 or more years, that the factories are bright, easygoing places with a good vibe and that workers are confident that the business will support them and their families, without other family members needing to work. They felt they, and their families, were being looked after and that they could rely on this security over the long term. You and I would probably just think this is all fairly normal! I wish it was! And that is exactly, how I believe it should be.
Hannah: Wow, incredible. You've clearly done the legwork to ensure that Elkie & Ark is going above the current standard, even among other ethical businesses! Could you share the story of how you became an ethical business owner? What is the need that you saw in the world for your business and product, and how do you want your company to solve it?
Anne: I have always wanted to run a business that had ethics and environmental concerns at its core. I studied environmental science and business and worked building renewable energy projects globally. During this time I became aware of the power of everyday consumers, microfinance and business done well to change the world.
A critical point for me was working with girls at risk of trafficking in rural areas of Thailand. It was brutal and some of these girls’ families had turned their backs on them. Yet when educated and with safe means of employment once old enough, these girls had this phenomenal power to rally against traffickers or even their own parents and say “no”.
Another critical point, was during travels around India. I spoke frankly with large corporations. I asked why they hired young children. The answer came back “would you rather these children worked in the fields, or starved or were sold?” This hits home: to solve the problem, we need to deal with the poverty issue first and pay parents, mothers more.
The final turning point was when my newborn daughter was diagnosed with a condition that gave her little chance of surviving. I knew that we were in a really tough situation, yet I still had so much to be grateful for.
Many women can’t afford the healthcare needed to save their children, or just don’t have the safety nets we do or time off to look after children if they fall ill. While I had a few months worrying about my daughter’s survival, for many mothers, they had to worry every single day whether their children have access to clean water or sufficient food, or perhaps whether their children will end up being trafficked. Being grateful just wasn’t enough. I wanted to help women (the majority of textiles workers) to have the ability, through their work, to create better opportunities for themselves and their children.
My means of combatting it, in simple terms, is to pay more. Multiples more to workers and farmers. In fact, for our underlying product, I pay at least three or more times what I could buy the product for in the conventional market. This is what is needed to pay a living wage. By doing this, we can provide fair opportunity, empower workers and support education for their children. This is how I believe families and communities can stay safe from trafficking and get out of the poverty cycle for good.
Another way of combatting it is to offer people a product that is in itself beautiful, high quality, and comparable in every way to larger brands. I want to provide beautiful products. The same things you would buy at big brand stores. Just made better. No compromise on end product – but also no compromise on lives. I know that the essential things we buy, can have a positive impact on the people who make them too.
Lastly, I try to give consumers full transparency to really understand what goes on in making our textile products. In the recent “Behind the Barcode” report by the Baptist World Aid report it was found that while fashion companies are doing more to address the conditions of workers at the final stages of production (e.g. printing, dying, sewing, finishing) “Next to nothing is being done further down the supply chain” (meaning for the weavers, spinners, farmers, ginners). Somehow, these people are just forgotten. Yet these are real people, working incredibly hard producing huge amounts of the world’s yarn and fabric. The more consumers who understand this, the more they can demand from companies that they provide real transparency about what happens in their supply chains, right back to the farm. These consumer demands can truly drive change.
Hannah: So true! And important to remember that so many different hands touch our textiles from the field to the retail store! Tell us all about your supply chain! How many steps are involved in the manufacturing of the finished product, and how much control/information do you have regarding each step?
Anne: I chose to only use Fairtrade cotton in all of our cotton products, sourced from the Chetna Co-operative. This means we pay Fairtrade prices for all of our cotton (which means farmers aren’t subject to the fluctuations of the normal market prices that have lead to extreme rural poverty and in many instances in conventional farming, high rates of suicides for farmers who can’t keep up with the costs). We pay upfront (so farmers don’t take payment risk), and in addition, we pay a Fairtrade premium price to support community projects such as schools or women’s centres. On top of this again a percentage of all end sales goes back to the farming communities to support village projects. This supports the community as a whole – not just the fairtrade farmers.
The steps involved are essentially: organic farming (planting, growing, harvesting. A lot of research too!), then organic ginning, carding, spinning, weaving or knitting, dyeing, cutting, sewing, finishing and finally packaging!
I have full transparency into every single step of production. My team has visited the factories, and we can visit at any time we want to speak with employees or look into every step. This is key. You will see on my website that I outline the journey of our products and provide details of all certifications. In fact, each of our products can be traced through every step right back to the farm.
We work only with factories who are certified by the leading organic certifying body the Global Organic Textile Standard and use only cotton that is accredited by Fairtrade International. This adds more layers of transparency and auditing on top of our own information and checks.
I also ensure in our supply chain that we use factories that are not only organic in their production, but also minimize environmental impacts, minimize waste, water usage and produce and farm as sustainably as possible. I believe that being ethical requires also caring for the health of the environment people live in.
Hannah: Some consumers might balk at the price of luxury, ethically made linens. What are the benefits of purchasing fair trade sheets rather than shelling out the cash for a much cheaper set at a big box store?
Anne: We decided to charge in line with – or in some instances less for our products than - some of our conventional competitors. For me, part of combatting the issue, is to make ethically made products accessible to people who want to buy what they would normally buy, yet have a positive impact. But yes, this is more expensive than polyester blended sheets or lesser quality cotton sheets that are available at big box stores.
The benefits I believe are: Firstly, for the customer: if you are buying something, made with such care, then it needs to last. “Slow fashion” is an intrinsic part of being ethical. I have selected only long-staple cotton and ensured that design elements like finer stitching or generous seams are incorporated to make my products more durable and to last. I don’t follow seasonal trends, so that these products can outlast many seasons. I encourage users to pass their baby products on to friends, families or charities once their kids have grown. I have made sure the basic product has benefits for customers and solves a few comfort and usability points, even before we look at what goes on behind the scenes. Things like the softness of the products, the lack of toxic chemicals that can have terrible impacts on our skin or hormonal systems, and small design features that just remove niggling issues! Like fitted sheets that are sized so that they actually fit on the bed. How much of a nightmare can that be? I am currently creating products to size specifically for some US beds that we might not cater for currently too.
The other big benefit is simply that much, much more of the end price goes back to the makers and farmers. My margins are considerably smaller than my conventional competitors – or even organic suppliers - and I like the fact that this instead goes back to the people who worked so hard to make them. In terms of organic and sustainable production, this also provides a huge benefit to the environment in which we all live. Our health and wellbeing is intrinsically tied to this. In fact, organic cotton has been shown to be a more sustainable fabric than even conventional hemp, flax linen or bamboo viscose when assessed across water use, energy use, land use, toxicity to humans and the environment and emissions.
And lastly, I have to say, from experience, I remember that from the very first time I slept on our sheets, I slept better too. I know that might sound odd, but knowing you are helping people feels wonderful. I think humans are intrinsically wired to want to help others. Knowing you are doing that, while feeling you are doing something special for yourself, certainly helps getting a better night’s sleep.
Hannah: I'll have the chance to test that theory- definitely come back on Saturday for my review of a set of Elkie & Ark sheets as part of the ethical bedroom makeover I'll be unveiling! In the meantime, check out www.elkieark.com to view the product range!
I think that Anne has given us lots to thing about- from what truly constitutes ethical pay to why paying more for your products matters. Let's continue the conversation over on instagram- post any thoughts/reflections you might have, or questions for Anne and the Elkie & Ark team!