When the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Dhaka in 2013 killing over 1,100 people, it sent shockwaves far beyond the families of those who had loved ones trapped inside. The event was a sharp call to action for citizens of developed countries who were buying clothes from the very brands who had workers hunched over machines in unsafe surrounds, without any particular regard for anything but the end price of a bargain piece of fast fashion.
One particular person who was deeply affected was New Zealander Nikki McAllum, the founder of new ethical fashion label for women and men, The Road, who had herself experienced the fear of an earthquake in her home town of Christchurch in 2011.
“These workers died because of our constant push for lower prices,” Nikki explains. “They died because of emails like mine asking for a faster delivery or a cheaper rate. It was awful. I felt responsible.”
Nikki, an intimates designer who still works commercially for prominent Australian brands alongside her new venture, was shaken.
“I think most of us have a time in our life when we’re searching for a purpose,” she tells Collective Hub. “I was going through one of those phases when I heard news of the Rana Plaza collapse. It got me. It got me deep in to my bones – that’s when I knew that things needed to change in the fashion industry. Once you get the jolt you are compelled to take action.”
For Nikki, action came quicker than expected. Turning up at Sydney Opera House’s All About Women Festival in 2014, Nikki had no idea just how profound ethical journalist Lucy Seigle’s session would be.
“[The talk] was on a Sunday – I quit my job the day after,” she explains. “Next I read her book, To Die For, which was an incredible eye opener on the unethical practice in the industry and from there I spent the next six months researching everything I could on ethical fashion.”
Her response was The Road, which is proudly transparent about all aspects of their production.
While Lucy’s book educated Nikki on some of the setbacks of the industry – the difficulty of finding wholly ethical raw materials, for one – she also found some practical advice elsewhere.
“The online Ethical Source Network was the most helpful in finding ethical suppliers globally. They have an extensive database of hundreds and hundreds of businesses and suppliers that are operating in the ethical space. They helped me to find three amazing suppliers in India who I visited as part of my research.”
Nikki now has the “golden ticket” of ethical guarantees, the global organic textile standard, which follows the journey of the fibre from seed through to manufacture.
“It guarantees not only that every process happens without harmful chemicals but also that every human being has been looked after along the way,” Nikki explains. “Every person involved in the process is paid a living wage and is entitled to decent working conditions and other employee benefits. We are also Fairtrade certified, this means we can ensure that the cotton farmers were paid a decent price for their product.”
While there’s an obvious benefit to those who merge with the product on its way to manufacture in terms of better working conditions and fairer wages, there’s something bigger at stake. That’s why the designer has reduced all classic tees for men and women to the initial price of $13.64, reflecting the real cost of a t-shirt without any profit or wage taken from Nikki or The Road. That’s the true, transparent price for growing, milling, weaving, dying, cutting, sewing and shipping a t-shirt in an ethical way.
“This is about education. Which is obviously the first step to changing people’s behaviour,” Nikki says of her decision to initially charge only the production costs for the core t-shirt range. “This is not a discount. I am choosing not to profit from this exercise – in fact, I’m paying for this lesson by not covering my overheads.”
While the cost of this exercise is to Nikki’s brand, she insists it’s the perfect antidote to those who usually pay for profit-fuelled production costs.
“It’s the people at the start of the supply chain that are paying: the garment workers and the raw material suppliers are getting next to nothing for that top.”
What really sets The Road apart though is the fact that Nikki believes that growth for her company is about more than just the building of her own successful brand: it’s about building a strong, sustainability-aware global perspective that will begin to accept nothing less than what is ethical.
“I hope to achieve sustainability and I hope to achieve growth. If I can achieve [sustainability and growth]… then it means we (the global we) are making some headway in the ethical fashion space. I encourage more businesses and start-ups to take the challenge and try to create and conduct business ethically.
“Because the more mainstream ‘we’ [in fashion] make ethical practice the more mainstream it will become. It starts with us.”