IMAGE: MANE PROJECT
Lizzie Turner - Founder and CEO of MANE PROJECT, home of New Zealand sustainable fashion brands Arc & Bow, and Bare Bones.
“Our products are handmade by real people, so we can make a difference in the communities where mass production and introduction of automated machinery is having a negative impact.”
Mane Project (an acronym for Made at No Expense) is a New Zealand company with ethical manufacturing processes, fair trade and sustainability at its core. Lizzie Turner, the founder and CEO tells me all the brands clothing is manufactured from organic cotton in three ethical factories in India, and she knows the owners and many of the staff well. Lizzie has chosen manufacturers which have an open door policy so her team can visit at any time. The suppliers have certifications which are independently audited such as Fairtrade (FLO) and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). Some of the materials are hand loomed, and when printing is required the brand chooses traditional print methods like hand screen-printing and block-printing, always with AZO-free certified dyes, highlighting its focus on providing people with jobs and supporting local communities. But what’s most important to Mane Project is that the manufacturers it works with care deeply about their environment, community and culture, and how this comes across in the way they run their businesses.
Mane Project has always had a strong desire for transparency and trust, and its products were originally manufactured in China. I sat down with Lizzie to find out more about the transition to more sustainable manufacturing practices in India and how her customers relate to the brands sustainability and ethical manufacturing focus.
“Our products are handmade by real people, so we can make a difference in the communities where mass production and the introduction of automated machinery is having a negative impact.” says Lizzie.
I’m interested to go back to the beginning and hear about when you first started your company and then the catalyst for you in shifting to fair trade and organic production?
The transition definitely came about from my experience with a Chinese factory I was working with. I had gone over to meet with our agent in Hong Kong and visit the factory making our clothes, and was told at the last minute that it wouldn't be possible to visit with the factory in China. This concerned us as being able to visit was one of the reasons that we chose to manufacture with this factory. It was supposed to have an open door policy. The friend I was travelling with met the agent with me, and we both felt assured after the meeting. The agent talked about how the factory employed members of the owners family, and it felt really genuine. Perhaps it was, but we never got to visit the factory to see for ourselves. I had been planning to go back to China to visit the factory but became pregnant, so this delayed things. By the time my son was one and I was able to visit the factory, I was turned down. Each time I asked to visit, they would have a different reason why I couldn't, and the more questions I asked the less information I received. This caused me to wonder, who had been making our clothes! I felt uncomfortable so I started to look for certified factories to use, but this proved very hard in China! I am sure there are ethical factories there but we just didn't know how to find them, so we started looking at fair trade as a certification. This catalysed us moving production to India and this also opened up organic cotton to us as a material.
It’s really important to me to know who is making my clothes, so we can trust the people we are working with.
Can you describe your customer, and if it has been a challenge for you to develop product that is accessible at the right price for the market?
We have very long term relationships with a couple of stores, and are able to negotiate with them how it works, but apart from this have moved away from wholesaling, which gives us a lot of flexibility. We have found we fit into the 25-35 age bracket comfortably. We work backwards from the retail price that we’ve found is acceptable to the market and take this into consideration from the design stage.
With purchasing still being very much price driven, how does this work for your brand in terms of telling the sustainability story. Is this a big part of your sales strategy?
I think the NZ market is quite fresh to the concept of sustainability, perhaps a little slower than Australia where consumers are starting to get behind and support sustainable brands. In New Zealand our customers are really just starting to learn about sustainability, and we come across some people who have been quite militantly converted and then they can’t go back. You can’t un-know what you know. Kiwis can be slower to trust, and take longer to catch on to some of these global trends, because they want to do their research first.
Has being certified made a difference?
I think the certifications are important as it gives us a basis to start talking about it, but I don't think that our customers see them and say 'cool' and decide to buy. I think its the process of understanding and learning that is the most effective. More than anything, it's the information that we have on the site. It gives the customers a sense of self discovery and ownership; “I’m making these decisions for these reasons”.
"If you’re going to be transparent, you need to be transparent about your journey."
Would it be fair to say it builds your trust up with customers, that all the information you provide is so thorough and comes across as authentic?
That's right, and also the fact that we are learning too, and we are clear about that. We are on this journey with our customers essentially. If you’re going to be transparent, you need to be transparent about your journey. We are always learning more and we want to let our customers know about it as we do. I think as soon as you become judgemental you turn people off and you lose them. You need to build a sense of partnership with your customers.
ARC & BOW | MANE PROJECT
ARC & BOW | MANE PROJECT
Do you find that your customers look at your website for this information before they make a purchase?
We want to know our customers well, so we really study the data, and it's fascinating to know their journey on the site. There is such a pattern over time which really helps us with the way we work. We see our partnerships with influencers like Matilda Rice as a way to educate a new group of people about ethics and sustainability.
Can you tell me about the workers that make your clothes?
One of the things that I feel so comforted by is that at one of the factories we work with, the owner has a doctorate in Philanthropy - her whole life is based on creating an space where people can work, where they are paid a healthy wage in a great environment. They do the majority of our Arc & Bow product. She is so supportive of her team and has created a real family environment so I totally trust her; She has been to NZ, I've met her, seen her passion and feel assured that she runs a good factory.
We have another factory that use Fair Trade certified cotton and are also GOTS certified, and they are very transparent, so we are starting to get to know the workers by name which is really special. We are also working with artisan hand-weavers who are incredibly open and send us pictures frequently. I’ve found working with these suppliers in India to be a different atmosphere than I had when producing in China. I have been able to find factories to work with that have a global perspective on the environmental impact, and how this impacts the people and the community. There is a real care to their community; the whole way they do business is based on this.
I'm interested to know if its been challenging or perhaps rewarding to set up this supply chain. How would you describe it?
The brands i’ve created have been very strategic. I really worked on minimising the size of the collections and then the complexity of the collections. I was already working with fairly simple items and emphasising the fabric, especially with Arc & Bow. So making a change like this was not largely complex. Dealing with minimums is probably the biggest challenge, however we have found ways to make this work. Working with our Indian suppliers, we really need to make sure that we give them specific information but other than that the transition has not been hard. When you work with remote suppliers you really need to make sure that all the information is supplied.
NOT JUST A PRETTY FACE TEE MANE PROJECT
GIRL EFFECT TEE
I’d love to know more about the hand loomed materials?
We use this for both brands. Last winter we used hand loomed denim for Arc & Bow, and for Bare Bones we used hand loomed white cotton and a woven grey marle for a jumpsuit and a dress. The fabric has this really interesting characteristic to it and is so lovely to wear. The factory we work with has set up many hand loom machines in a big workroom and they are really trying to get the next generation on board. For us to be part of this is really inspiring. It's seen as a lower job in India and they are trying to change this mindset by creating this great workspace for any gender. Its women and men, although traditionally it was done by men as it is physical labour. We have a stripe being made at the moment which will be available soon.
We have also thrown seasons out - we don't need to create seasonal product because we control our own sales. We can have that in mind but we don't want to restrict our customers to wearing things for only a certain period. We are doing a pair of pants that can be worn year round for example. Seasons are a wholesaling thing so we don't need to worry about that.
There is a focus on a sort of user-led design process at the moment, with customers informing a brands design, is this something you are participating in?
We do this on social media, especially with Bare Bones where we ask our customers to let us know if they want us to repeat certain styles. Arc & Bow is more directional, although we always try to design prints that are timeless. Seasons are outdated. It's better for cashflow not to have seasons. We are able to work in season effectively and get deliveries in 8 weeks. So we can react to our customers demands in this way.
Thank you for sharing your ethos and the journey of your brand Lizzie!