Bangladesh and Beyond: Project JUST Inspires Ethical Shopping

project-just
By Re

More than 1,100 people were buried alive and dead in the Rana Plaza factory collapse of 2013—well more than half of whom were women and their children in nursery facilities within the building. Those who survived the eight-story fall took bites from their own flesh and drank from pools of their own blood and urine to survive the blistering heat as cries for help had long silenced and body-searches would soon subside.

What happened at Rana Plaza—one of the hundreds of similar buildings in the congested, potholed streets of Savar, an industrial suburb of Bangladesh’s capital, where workers are heralded at low wages in palpably grim conditions—is deemed the deadliest garment factory calamity yet and structural failure in modern human history. Authorities filed murder charges against dozens for their roles in the avoidable collapse as the world watched with condemnation but feelings of powerlessness against the epicenter of the country’s $20-billion garment industry.

“There’s a strong belief among millennials that climate change is an issue and a disbelief that we can’t take action. There’s a disillusionment with the chase after money, after seeing the recession, seeing people burn out at work with anxiety and depression and fighting piles of debt from student loans, being overloaded and constantly stimulated with the pace of life. There’s also an ability to easily access information and, consequently, to expect honesty and transparency from the private and public sectors. This all feeds into this zeitgeist of wanting to do something, even if it’s just a small thing, and so develops this connection to where our clothing and our food comes from and wanting to know it’s made right,” said Natalie Grillon, co-founder of JUST, which was conceived just months after the Rana Plaza collapse.

Rooted in the belief that transparency creates understanding, which in turn inspires real change through the accumulation of small choices we make every day, JUST empowers shoppers with data and storytelling to shift demand towards positive practices and ethical brands. Ultimately, JUST champions the worker or farmer at the bottom of the supply chain.

“Our mission is to transform the fashion industry into a transparent, accountable and sustainable system that celebrates the stories, the people and the resources behind the clothing. To impact and incite change, we believe that one missing but important voice is the shopper’s. Empowered with information, [shoppers] can make purchases aligned with their values, shifting demand towards positive practices and sending a signal to brands and the industry,” Grillon said. “We believe in a world where clothing should not only express our identity, but our values, as well—where beauty is defined not just by the way a piece of clothing looks, but also by the story of how it came to be.”

Grillon began her career working with smallholder farmers in East Africa with the Peace Corps before she was selected as one of 10 of more than 1,000 applicants for the prestigious Acumen Global Fellows Program, a non-profit impact-investing fund. The role took her to Uganda to Gulu Agricultural Development helping smallholder farmers grow organic and fair trade produce, including cotton. Co-founder Shahd AlShehail, on the other hand, had founded an all-female luxury fashion house in the Middle East focused on empowering artisans. With Acumen, also as a Global Fellow, she moved to India to work on early childhood education for an education portfolio company.

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During a visit to India, Grillon met with AlShehail to discuss their interactions with the farmers and artisans. Both had witnessed the injustices of poverty abroad, the workers’ tangible feelings of dignity and justice in their work, that having a sustainable income—one not tied to NGO’s products—meant job security and peace of mind in knowing their market wouldn’t disappear and that the skills they were all taught were an investment in the preservation of a well-developed craft that would have otherwise died. The women were motivated to voice the stories behind the clothes we wear everyday, and expose some of the untold stories of poor practices in the industry. JUST was officially born in February 2015.

“We had the honor of working with incredible farmers, artisans and garment workers and we were both inspired by their diligence, their craft and the way we saw their livelihoods improving through incredible programs that supported and involved them,” Grillon said. “We were interested in how we could better tell their story, bring out their voices and, in turn, offer them greater opportunity and dignity. When Rana Plaza happened in the fall of 2013, we realized that not only were these beautiful stories untold, but that there were also stories of abuse and injustice hidden behind our clothing…It was clear at that point that all these stories must be told so that the shopper can enable real change towards positive impact with every purchase. Everything we buy is a choice and a vote for dignity and opportunity, and we must take that responsibility seriously.”

Millennials are consulting eight or more sources of information before making a purchase; in fact, 88 percent of consumers research before they buy, consulting an average of 10.4 sources. JUST’s online platform, Project JUST, has become the tell-all forum and open catalog of more than 150 fashion brands. Project JUST’s technology integrates available data sourced from supply chains, distills and analyzes the information, and then assesses it by a panel of experts and the online community. Each brand is researched and categorized based on social, environmental and aesthetic factors to bring manufacturing practices to light and enable informed purchasing decisions.

Brands are researched, assessed, profiled and categorized based on eight vectors: size and business model, transparency and traceability, social efforts, environmental efforts, innovation, intention, management behavior and community CSR efforts or multi-stakeholder initiatives. Research is sourced from a multitude of places: self-reported information that comes directly from brands and is publicly accessible (i.e. sustainability reports, 10-Ks, company websites, press releases etc.), third-party information published by industry outlets via investigative reporting (i.e. Not for Sale, Rank-A-Brand, Good Guide, etc.) and a deep dive into press features.

Everything we buy is a choice and a vote for dignity and opportunity, and we must take that responsibility seriously.

“You always love having a good story when someone asks you, ‘Where did you get that?’ The appeal is in the story, but also fundamentally in the connection to the person who made it. By telling the stories of brands both large and small, we’re helping shoppers connect to those makers and workers and their livelihoods,” Grillon explained. “Then, by shopping and supporting those brands and their makers, we’re voting for their empowerment. We should ask people more often where they ‘got that,’ and expect a response that has more than just a brand name.”

Fashion supply chains are incredibly efficient in price and time through resource allocation, Grillon explained. But this means that there’s an enormous amount of subcontracting through the many steps it takes to make a garment. As a result, brands are all-too-often largely unaware of where their raw materials come from, and sometimes far too unsure that the final production actually happens in the factories they audit.

“Incentives for factories are aligned towards price and time, not towards safety of workers or sustainability of environment and, until that changes, there will continue to be this efficiency that leaves workers and communities unsafe,” she added.

While Grillon noted that she and AlShehail understand a lot of people may not necessarily be ready for the information they offer, they also know that there’s an incredibly passionate group of people who are. They’re eager to launch new partnerships and features with other media outlets and brands, as well as launch JUST Approved, awards for the most transparent and ethical brands. JUST Approved is expected to launch in April to coincide with Fashion Revolution Day.

We should ask people more often where they ‘got that,’ and expect a response that has more than just a brand name.

“We want to highlight the brands who are leaders in fashion and show that through their values, communications and operations. They have either set out to create a sustainable business model from day one to improve or transform their operations in a radical way, are preserving or celebrating a craft or art that creates additional value in the clothing for everyone involved, or are working on an initiative we think could change the industry—small indie brands or big name brands. We’ve heard from a lot of our followers that they are searching for a curated list of positive brands and practices that they can discover,” Grillion said.

Most recently, brands are starting to exhibit honesty and transparency about what they don’t know and then finding out something they hadn’t known before, Grillon said—such as when Patagonia announced they had found human trafficking in their second tier.

“You also see a shift away from audits and this monitoring and evaluation, towards training, engagement and commitment to long term partnerships,” she added. “Our theory is also that by empowering the shopper to make informed decisions, they will choose to buy from brands with positive practices, in turn causing a shift in demand that can influence the industry to move towards sustainability for the planet and people. This means higher wages for farmers and workers, safer working conditions and more sustainable methods of making apparel.”