I recently had the pleasure of talking with Natalie Grillon, co-founder of Project JUST, following the Women and Sustainability in Social Entrepreneurship event June 4 at The New School in New York City.
Project JUST is a platform for transparency in the production of apparel. It includes a database of ethical fashion suppliers by specialty and geographic region that designers can search. Launched in April, Grillon said her goal is to communicate directly to consumers and create a mind-shift in what people want to buy and what people think of as good-quality clothing.
“We want quality to mean something that’s sourced ethically,” Grillon said.
“It can’t be of good quality; it can’t be chic; it can’t be sophisticated; it can’t be something that you want to wear; it can’t be fashionable [if it’s not sourced ethically]. That’s the value that you look for when you are shopping, not just does it look good; is it beautiful in its essence as well?”
When a fashion brand works with Project JUST, their final product on the shelves will include a tag with specific information about that garment’s “story”: a map showing the location of the garment-factory, information about how many people work there, and the supply chain from, for example, the organic cotton farmer to the factory.
“We have to do the work of telling the stories of our supply chains so that everyone can relate to it,” Grillon said. “Human connection, at the end of the day, that’s what’s going to make people care. That’s why we think real-time data is important. It has to be a combination of accountability and storytelling.”
At The New School event, about 40 people, mostly women, shared questions and challenges facing women in social entrepreneurship. The discussion also revolved around challenges not unique to women, but for all entrepreneurs.
Grillon said she found this more helpful than labeling challenges as women-only. She said challenges are unique depending on the industry or the personality of the entrepreneur.
“If we focus on challenges or weaknesses and stereotype that as being something all social entrepreneurs that are women face, I think it’s doing us a disservice,” she said.
Fashion can be a particularly challenging environment for a social entrepreneur because it’s traditionally focused on design and not on social impact, she said. While some fashion industry insiders don’t believe the Project JUST model makes “business sense”, Grillon thinks this will change as consumers become more educated buyers.
Grillon started talking about the concept about a year ago with Shahd AlShehail, a fashion executive in Saudi Arabia. Grillon previously worked for a company that managed fair trade production from thousands of small organic cotton farmers in Uganda. “These small farmers, their lives were being impacted in an incredibly positive way,” Grillon said, but then the cotton was sold to “who knows where” for manufacturing.
Following the garment-factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 people, Grillon and AlShehail decided to make their business a reality.
“We have to do this. This is not just a business opportunity, this is peoples’ lives,” Grillon recalled of their conversation following the disaster.
“Lack of supply chain transparency is causing people to die and that has to be solved.”
[Ugandan Organic Cotton Farmer Image Courtesy of Natalie Grillon]