I’m a designer and supply chain nerd who has spent my life working at the intersection of design, technology and international development. I strongly believe that in order to change the world, we need to change the systems that run it.
At Soko, a fashion brand I co-founded that connects consumers to global makers and handcrafted jewelry from the developing world, we are using design and tech to reboot the systems of global trade in the fashion industry.
In order to change the world, we need to change the systems that run it. Tweet This Quote
We founded Soko after recognizing a global need—as well as global opportunity—to disrupt the systemic patterns of poverty found across the developing world’s creative economy. In order to satisfy demand for a constant flow of cheap and on-trend goods, the global fashion industry relies on cheap inputs and economies of scale. This results in centralized factory production infrastructure that exploits both the people that make it as well as the planet.
There are two main theories of change within the ethical fashion movement:
First, we need to educate and empower consumers to change their behavior to buy ethically, less, more slowly, or only from brands that provide transparency about their production practices. Essentially, consumers should use their purchasing power to lobby and demand top down change from the brands they purchase from.
Consumers should use their purchasing power to lobby and demand top down change from the brands they purchase from. Tweet This Quote
The second advocates for policy and factory-driven supply chain and production reform at a global scale to avoid tragedies such as the Rana Plaza fire and countless other incidents. These cases have exposed that fast fashion is produced by modern day slave labor hidden from the consumer’s view by the allure of cheap access to trends.
At Soko, we are huge proponents of both movements—empowering consumer behavior change as well as global production reform. But we also believe that these efforts can be fast-tracked and scaled through innovative business models.
Working in bottom of the pyramid communities around the world, we realized that by leveraging pervasive technology and existing infrastructure in a new way, we could create a platform to enable any talented artisan to participate in international trade and production.
Ethical Fast Fashion provides the consumer market with products that are trendy, affordable, and socially and ethically produced. Tweet This Quote
That is why we advocate for a third approach—a completely new way of doing business in the fashion industry—that we call “Ethical Fast Fashion.”
At Soko, we’ve developed a model that takes existing consumer behaviors associated with Fast Fashion (fashion that only takes weeks for trends to go from runway to racks via quick, cheap and unethical mass production) and made them work for, not against, the poor and the environment.
Ethical Fast Fashion provides the consumer market with products that are trendy, affordable, and socially and ethically produced—a winning triumvirate for customer satisfaction and impact in which all stakeholders (producers, consumers and retailers) win.
We do this by matching marginalized developing world artisan production with real-time global demand for Soko’s designs. We currently manage a network of over 1,000 independent artisans through what we call our “virtual factory”—a mobile phone driven supply chain that coordinates opportunity, production and fulfillment with no centralized point of production or overhead. This results in a model so efficient and affordable that artisans retain an unprecedented 25-35% of revenue.
Artisans with access to economic opportunity prioritize and invest in education for their children. Tweet This Quote
Not only are we committed to transforming international trade, but also working with like-minded non-profits and NGOs to engage Soko artisans in unique fundraising models as well.
For example, for the holiday season, we partnered with Pencils of Promise to create a jewelry collection to raise money for building schools in Ghana. We feel strongly our collaboration will serve as a next generation example of fundraising where the partners and the products align in creating positive impact across the entire value chain, from ethical production to gifting that gives back. Providing artisans with dignified work and access to economic opportunity in turn leads to them to prioritizing and investing in education for their children.
There is a huge pool of incredible talent, entrepreneurship and high caliber labor trapped in emerging markets due to financial and technology limitations. There is also massive opportunity for entrepreneurs who can build business models that plug this talent into staggering global consumer demand for goods and services. Demand and supply both exist in droves.
Ethical, small-scale production can feed the mainstream consumer market and growing consumer demand for responsibly sourced products. Tweet This Quote
Now, entrepreneurs need to change the systems and infrastructure that can connect these disparate markets to help achieve our shared goals of poverty alleviation. This will also prove to all stakeholders of global supply chains that ethical, small-scale production in aggregate can absolutely feed the mainstream consumer market and growing consumer demand for responsibly sourced products and services.
As an entrepreneur, here’s what you can do:
- Redefine how you think about infrastructure.
What infrastructure already exists in the communities you are working in that can be employed (everything from hard infrastructure to social capital, technology, cultural practices, etc.)?
- Understand your business model as a composition of behavior changes.
Behavior change is at the root of economic self-transformation for the poor. Is your business model driven by clear incentives and designed in a way that could prompt the kinds of behavior changes mentioned in the article—from the supply change to customers?
- Don’t reinvent the wheel.
Decentralization is a hot topic in industrialized economies (the “Uberization” of everything). But business in the developing world does not necessarily need to be decentralized, as it is often already built on a foundation of loose, distributed production and service networks. Think about how to engage this instead of reinventing the wheel!
- Determine the “stickiest” parts of your business model.
Just because a solution promises to be transformative does not mean that it will be used. Early on, figure out the stickiest factors of your business model that are strong enough to convince people to not only use the service or business, but also build loyalty for the long term.
- Focus on incremental—not radical—change.
Radical change, be it financial or cultural, can often be more destabilizing than helpful. Building a business model that enables incremental growth of your constituents is key to ensuring you can successfully take advantage of the opportunities listed above—and that your business grows and develops in tandem with the growth of your partners and constituents.
Interested in the Soko + Pencils of Promise Partnership?