A Supply Chain That Empowers Women From Start to Finish

A garment’s country of origin isn’t that garment’s full story. Canadian belt manufacturer Unbelts is looking to prove that the fashion industry and consumers have a responsibility and an existing means to provide high-quality clothing-production jobs around the world. Plus, this 2017 Best for the World honoree is out to make women feel awesome in their pants — a goal that is also worthy of global adoption. We spoke with Unbelts’ founder to learn more about how she envisions a shift in “Made in America” or “Made into Canada” into a more transparent, global label that ensures transparency and fair treatment all the way through the supply chain.

Claire Theaker-Brown, founder of Unbelts.

Unbelts founder Claire Theaker-Brown is used to the questioning looks that often come with shoppers looking for ethical fashion, finding her belts, and then checking the “Made in China” label. But it doesn’t change her commitment to providing fair, flexible, steady, living-wage jobs to women in China as part of her product’s supply chain.

“Regardless of where a garment was sewn together, there is a very long, intricate supply chain that goes all over the world,” Theaker-Brown shares with B the Change. “Recognizing that a garment has a long, international journey is behind it is important, and those workers who live beyond our own national borders deserve respect.”

Unbelts’ mission is two-fold: To help women feel amazing in their jeans, and to provide quality work to seamstresses and menders in China. Unbelts, originally Flatter:Me Belts until earlier this year, are designed to be worn a lot — they come with a 500-wear warranty — and the company would like to have the worn belts back for repairs.

Unbelts is a 2017 Best for the World honoree. Find the full list of Best for the World companies and all of our stories about these companies setting the gold standard for people using business as a force for good.

In this interview with Best for the World honoree Unbelts’ founder, we learn more about the full scope of fashion’s supply chain and what the garment industry is doing (and needs to do) to be better stewards of people and the environment. Plus, don’t miss the TED Talk Theaker-Brown gave at the bottom of this interview.

Give us a little background on the company’s origins.

I created this product out of sheer desperation — I blamed my body for not being the right shape to fit well into jeans, and I needed a better belt for me. When I started talking about it, I realized that fit problems were a lot more universal than I had thought; it’s not just an individual flaw of mine. Over time, I learned that it’s an overall flaw of pants.

The decision to manufacture in the way we do also started as a very individual experience. I moved to China in 2008, after graduating from university with an industrial design degree and a minor in Mandarin. The Great Recession hit right after I arrived in China, and I didn’t think moving back to Canada in that climate would offer me much opportunity. My skills were unique and sought-after in China, so I stayed and worked for a nonprofit before starting what I then called Flatter:Me belts in 2011.

I was living in Shanghai, and I noticed that women were sewing outside every morning in the neighborhood. I got to know two women in my community who did mending and I got to know their needs a little bit better. I learned that they weren’t a good fit for a full-time factory job — they had family obligations and minor disabilities, like arthritis — but they did need stable income. The hardest thing about taking odd jobs for them was that the timing and income was unpredictable.

Photo courtesy of Unbelts

I wasn’t able to offer anyone stable employment, but I could offer a contract to sew a few hundred belts. I took those belts and matched them to retailers, and I feel I was very lucky. I had found a product that didn’t exist in the world and a problem that solves a specific problem for a large number of people. I was able to use those first sales to start building our manufacturing and to start offering stable employment to the women I knew in Shanghai.

I chose to build the business gradually. Since moving back to Canada three years ago, I’ve learned just how unusual my start to the business is compared with most entrepreneurial journeys. I don’t think I would’ve been able to start this slowly if I hadn’t been living at the source in Shanghai, where I could support myself working part-time in other jobs until I could support myself fully with the business.

How does your worker treatment differ in concrete terms from what you’ve seen in the garment industry?

The phrases “ethical fashion” and “sustainable fashion” are starting to become buzzwords, and with buzz comes skepticism. When I talk about what makes us “ethical” or “sustainable,” I have to process that with the caveat that this is very much a work in progress — not because of what I am limited in doing, but because of what I am trying to gain an understanding of.

Sometimes, there are really interesting cultural differences at play, where I think I can offer something different for my workers that I assume is better. But it is not actually better. For example, I believe in limiting workdays to seven hours, but the workers don’t always want that. They’d rather concentrate work in a season and work longer hours, and then go home and spend more time outside of the city not working for us at all.

I have learned a lot by living in China and getting more involved in clothing manufacturing. There are a few factors that make garment jobs “bad”: demand for a lot of garments for very little money produced very quickly. I try to remove those three pressures. Our workers are not under pressure to produce a ton of product; to turn products around really quickly; or to produce those products too cheaply, meaning they are not asked to work for less money than they need to support their families.

Unlike most manufacturers, we have a long turnaround time. When we place an order, we give workers six to eight weeks to fill that order, compared with a company that can copy runway looks in two to three weeks.

We also calculate our prices and wages from the bottom-up, instead of the top-down. We price our products according to what we need to pay our workers to give them enough to live on, instead of pricing our products and then paying what it takes to make profit on it. We know what China’s minimum wage is, but we talk to our team of about eight to 12 sewers and ask what they need to afford living in Shanghai, which has a really high cost of living. Our workers’ family situations are usually pretty unique, too. So our wages are determined on a more individual level with worker input, and our prices reflect that.

What changes are happening in the industry that have you excited? What changes are you still wanting to see for real systems change?

What I’m excited to see are things that could cause some cynicism. For example, when I see H and M introduce a conscious collection, I get excited. It means the big brands are responding to a true, articulated consumer need on a scale that businesses like mine just don’t have the resources to do, no matter how much heart we have. To see big names introduce conscious collections is to say they have heard from the customers, and that response recognizes and validates the new demand for transparency. I think it could be easy to look at those actions and have a negative point of view, to say it’s all just marketing, it’s all just talk. But, the talk, to me, is really important and shows that somebody is listening.