Sunday, April 13, 2008

Greening the apparel industry

One of the fun spaces in which Moniker can innovate apparel is in environmental impact.  We've made a great start by making the decision upfront to use only 100% natural fibers in our garments.  Merino wool, cashmere, silk, linen, cotton -- not only are they beautiful to touch and wear, but far more sustainable than petroleum-based polyesters or acrylics.  

The next step is to find (or develop) luxury-grade fabrics that employ more sustainable dyeing technologies.  We're starting up conversations with a few of our fabric suppliers to identify options that we can introduce into our fabric library on a trial basis.  As a side note, it's depressing to discover how little the major apparel brands have done to advance the development of more eco-friendly fabrics.  (The problem, I suspect, is that more and more major clothing brands have become mere 'labels':  they contract manufacturing out to third-party workshops, and they don't pay too much attention to 'how' the product gets made (workplace standards aside -- now that the Nike's of the world have been stung for ignoring that aspect, everybody pays attention to it).  But so long as a product meets the label's demands for quality and cost, environmental factors can be ignored.  

A further step will be to start calculating the total environmental cost of fulfilling each order, including not just materials but also transportation, and make that information available to our customers so that they can bring it into their purchase decision-making.  

I'd like to bring these innovations into Moniker by the end of the year.  I think it's do-able.  

Now if we can just get our governments to put a price on carbon...

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Fifth Element: Passion

A few days ago I was pitching Moniker to a business case competition panel and I recounted this story…

"I’ve heard start-ups need four key elements to be successful.

One, a great team. No question, I think Moniker has the best team. From Ivy League scholars to award-winning professionals, the four of us are the best at what we do.

Two, a great idea. We think we’ve got a great idea in open-source luxury and a great partner in Trinity Apparel to make our idea become a reality.

Three, cash. We’ve all been serious savers throughout our working lives and have been able to self-fund to this point, making cash an non-issue to date.

Four, luck. I believe luck is in the eye of the beholder. One person will fall down the stairs, break their leg and lament over their bad luck. Another person will fall down the stairs, break their leg and feel lucky they didn’t break their neck.

So yes, I think we're lucky and have all the key elements in place to be successful."

In reality, I think there’s a missing element from this story, a fifth element.


Before I “officially” became an entrepreneur I remember chatting to a young couple, Dan and Garnet, who started up a Web-based focus group business. They were telling me about their business and how they got started at their kitchen table with one computer.

The hours Dan and Garnet put in at their “day jobs” to keep their household running meant they had to spend evenings and weekends at their kitchen table working on their business.

At the time I thought they were crazy. When did they have fun? Weren’t they drained from a day of work already? To put in another eight hours of work before starting the insanity all over again was inconceivable to me.

And yet Dan and Garnet did not look burnt out at all. In fact, they were energetic and glowing with pride talking about their business, which was just beginning to take flight.

I now know I was looking into the faces of people with a true passion. And this story has now become my reality.

I work a day job to help keep the household running, and when I arrive home I start my second day of work. Weekends are not spent going to movies, Sunday afternoons are not spent on coffee dates with friends.

Nope, I’m at my kitchen table with my computer working on Moniker.

To prove the point, here I am, at 11 pm on a Saturday night. My husband is out with friends and I’m at home working.

Everyone thought I was crazy to turn down a fun night out on the town.

That’s exactly what I used to think...until I found my passion.

NB: Dan and Garnet's hard work and dedication did pay off. It's been eight years since that fateful conversation and Dan and Garnet now run a wildly successful business called iTracks.

I know they have office space now, but I'll bet they can still be found at their kitchen table most nights, working.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Big Picture: a day with Al Gore

Al Gore is in town this weekend.  He's training 200 new members of his Climate Project -- I'm lucky to be one of them.  

Tonight he gave his now-famous slide-show presentation; tomorrow he'll be leading a full-day workshop to walk us through the logic and structure of the slides, the narrative he's trying to convey to his audiences, and some helpful tips that he's accumulated over his many, many public appearances.

No, there's not an obvious link between climate change and luxury apparel.  But that doesn't mean I shouldn't get involved.  

The environment is the context for everything we do, work and play.  It's not a 'cause' or an 'issue' that I can choose to get involved in, or choose to opt out of.  

What troubles me most about the climate crisis is that all the tools we, as a human race, have for evaluating risk tells us that we need to take action -- serious action, urgently.  

How did a naked ape, totally unimpressive with regards to speed, strength, or senses, manage to conquer a planet inhabited by elephants, tigers and wolves?   Our brain.  That's it.  That's our one advantage.  Because of our brain, we have an idea of 'the future'.  The 'future' doesn't exist.  It's just an idea -- a complex idea, but one we humans can grasp and work with -- the ability to expect stuff to happen on the evidence of past experience. 

Our brain, and the tools we've built with it (like science and technology), tells us there's a 90% probability that we're causing the earth to warm, and warm quickly.  This is bad for a lot of reasons.  For example, if sea level rises 5 metres (which will happen if Greenland or West Antarctica melt entirely away, as they're trending to do), then 450 million people who live on the world's coasts will have to move.  (Can you imagine the strain that's going to put on our politics?  The conflict that mass-displacement will create...scary stuff.)  

Now, for 150 000 years, our strategy as a species has been to foresee these consequences and adjust our behaviour to prevent them (or at least slow them down so we have time to adapt).

What worries me is that, where climate change is concerned, we seem to have abandoned that strategy.

To bring all this back to Moniker: (1) Al Gore wears a very nice suit.  (2) I've signed up to make a few dozen of Al Gore's presentations to student and community groups over the next year, raising the issue of climate change.  Public speaking is one of my passions -- I honor the opportunity to influence people with my spoken words and ideas.  Maybe that's where my passion for 'professional wear' comes from.  It's when I'm in a suit that I'm doing what I love best.  

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Beyond Giving: an essay and a policy.

“We make money so that we can give it away.”  Ratan Tata, Tata Group.  

That’s my view, too.  

“Doing good” is a big field now.  So big, in fact, that analysts and academics have begun to break it down into sub-categories.  In last month’s issue of Foreign Affairs, Klaus Schwab (chair of the World Economic Forum) lays out four: corporate philanthropy (i.e., writing cheques); corporate social responsibility (taking care of the people affected by your business); corporate social entrepreneurship (making products that save the world - e.g., Muhammad Yunus’ microcredit program); and global corporate citizenship (making long-term investments in social issues like education, health and the environment).  This fourth category is Schwab’s own contribution to the taxonomy, and I think its doom is to be another one of those buzzwords that sounds nice, that everyone agrees with, but which nobody can define.      

Right now, it’s a race to show your caring credentials.  It’s hard to find a start-up that isn’t trumpeting its own efforts to ‘save the world’.

But I’m skeptical.  It feels insincere.  

In Moniker’s own industry of custom apparel, there’s one, Indochino, that tells a good story about going to Shanghai, and finding a community of stay-at-home women tailors, and building them into a production network with improved wages.  But I have to wonder: did the founders go to Shanghai with the intent of improving the lives of stay-at-home seamstresses?  Or did they go to Shanghai with the intent of finding cheap garments they could export back to North America at a profit?  I can’t help but believe the latter.  

If the former, it’s an exceedingly odd humanitarian cause to take up, for two reasons.  First, their quality of life is already excellent vis a vis the developing world generally.  Any Shanghai resident is already enjoying the top 10% of health care, education and infrastructure that China has to offer -- and the top 1% of the developing world as a whole.  More help is always appreciated, of course, but no one with a serious agenda to fight poverty sets up shop in Shanghai.  That’s like taking the stairs instead of an elevator and telling people you’re a mountain climber.  (By the way, anyone who IS serious about it needs to read The End of Poverty, by eminent American economist Jeffrey Sachs.  I had a sit-down with Sachs’ research director, John McArthur, at Columbia University last week.  He’s never been to Shanghai (although he’d love to visit); there’s too much urgent work in Africa.  (Another must-read I just finished is The Bottom Billion, by Paul Collier.)

But back to Shanghai for a moment, if your mission is to advance the lot of self-employed seamstresses in China, then rather than help maintain their self-employed labor condition, one should invest money in skills training for them and help them gain employment in a good garment house that adheres to international labor standards -- where in addition to ongoing skill development, they would enjoy more stable wages, cleaner work environments, improved access to medical care, child care, and education.  (Of course, that would undermine his own business model, which depends on cheaper self-employed labor.)

(Side note: A good example of positive employment in the Chinese garment industry is Peerless Clothing.  Peerless Clothing is the largest suit-maker in North America.  They own the North American licenses for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Chaps (among others):  if you live and North America and own a CK suit, it’s made by Peerless.  It’s not quite Moniker quality, but for ready-made off-the-peg stuff, it’s good.  

I had a sit-down with the North American VP of Peerless Clothing, Eliot Lifson, earlier this week.  I found out that they do 70% of their manufacturing overseas, mainly in China (in a city called Dalian).  It turns out Peerless has some impressive labor policies -- most notably, to hire office staff from the pool of factory floor workers.)

I’ve got a different solution to the challenge of corporate caring:  give away equity to the people who need it more.

My inspiration for this is Ratan Tata, chairman of India’s Tata Group.  Tata is one of India’s biggest and most respected conglomerates.  In addition to automobile and telecom divisions in India, they own some big brands in global markets: Tetley Tea, Jaguar, Land Rover.  

But what’s special about Tata is that it’s 2/3rds owned by a charitable trust.  In other words: when you buy a Jaguar, 2/3rds of the profit goes, ultimately, to charity.

To me this is a new, fifth, category of corporate do-gooding:giving equity.  And I think it’s the ultimate form.  It offers longer-term stability than writing a cheque.  And it offers opportunities beyond cash, such as corporate governance experience.  It also demands the greatest sacrifice on the part of the giver -- and thus, the greatest commitment to the cause.   

I’m going to continue fleshing out this idea in the weeks and months to come, but already a clear intent is forming in my head: to gift a significant equity stake in Moniker (say, half of my personal holding) to a separate charitable trust, administered by a separate board and set up with a mandate to, for example, end extreme poverty in Africa.  

That way, when I buy a Moniker suit, I’ll know half my profit is going to the people who need it most.

If I'm serious about corporate giving, isn't this the logical move?