What does “Ethically Made” mean to you?
It was just over a year ago, in September 2017, when I started developing my idea for Q for Quinn. I had all sorts of “wants” for the socks: it had to be made of organic cotton, it needed to fit right (so the elasticity and shrinkage in the washer/dryer had to be perfect, the rubber grips at the bottom of our socks had to stay on and must be free from any lead, PVC or other chemicals (given how much my son bit his socks). Furthermore, after having learnt of the conditions of thousands of facilities in various parts of the world, particularly in Asia, I wanted full reassurance that the people making my socks were paid fair wages and worked in the best conditions possible.
I knew very little about socks manufacturing and given all my wants, finding the right supplier was going to be no easy task. I started here in Toronto / Canada. I figured it would be so much easier to manage and ensure quality and safety standards. After searching on the internet and a few phone calls later, I realised there were barely any facilities left in Canada that would still do baby and toddler socks – older kids and adults, sure, but not baby and Toddler sizes. I found one facility after much digging but their cost was over $7 a pair! I felt like this was too high of a cost for me to create and sustain a business. I mean would you pay $20 + for a pair of socks (or $60 for a three pack) for your child that they might outgrow in a year or worse a few months if you bought the right size?
I then started looking outside of Canada. I found suppliers in Turkey, Lithuania, Italy, the USA, and of course China. I went back and fourth with 20 manufacturers across these countries all with the certifications and “assurances” for ethical and sustainable manufacturing I was looking for. I got samples made and tested from manufacturers in Italy and China before stumbling upon a supplier in Sri Lanka through searching on Google. I don’t know why but it didn’t occur to me to look to Sri Lanka for socks earlier, even though I grew up there and my father ran a business for 38 years!
The Italian samples were of the quality I wanted but there was work to be done with fit and again the price point was too high. They also warned me that sometimes the grips contained traces of PVC and this was a clear no for me. I spent over US$400 for samples from what seemed a promising Chinese manufacturer. However, one of the socks developed a hole after just one wash and the grips were coming out in some of them! Completely unacceptable! I started to get worried – I was anxious to launch soon but I was nowhere close to finding the right supplier. The Sri Lankan facility promised to work on my samples, but they were very unresponsive at the time and I was starting to feel that it may not work out either.
It wasn’t until late December, when the sock samples from the Sri Lankan facility finally came. I was immediately impressed by how soft they felt. I washed each of them at least 35 times and other than a little fading they were just what I was looking for. I felt I had finally come close to finding the right supplier. Not only did they have all the certifications I was looking for, but being in Sri Lanka I was able to have my dad visit them several times to address any doubts I might have had. I decided to go with this facility based out of Kadawala, Dunagha, 2 hours drive from Colombo, established by a German national and now run by locals. I was still very nervous about placing my relatively large order, but I knew I had done my due-diligence to verify quality and health and safety standards (having also conducted tests through Intertek to confirm compliance with all safety standards).
Dealing with suppliers is never easy and I have had my ups and downs with this supplier – especially when 15% of my stock came mislabeled – the size on the label was incorrect! However, as far as quality and safety standards go I have full confidence in their work and this goes beyond just checking their certifications. This assurance comes from several factory visits, weekly and sometimes daily interaction with a number of their staff responsible for different parts of the manufacturing process, and just plain gut feeling from having been part of a family business for 38 years in Sri Lanka itself and therefore knowing how businesses are run.
The most important thing I’ve learnt from my sourcing experience is that you cannot blindly trust certifications and what’s being advertised. As a brand and business it is my responsibility to do the “soft” checks and physical visits in order to feel 100% comfortable my suppliers values are closely aligned with mine. The sourcing process and details of the selection also need to shared with my customers in the spirit of “radical transparency”. THIS is what “Ethical Sourcing and Manufacturing” means to me. What does it mean to you?