Where Do My Clothes Come From?

An Interview with Know The Origin

By Caitlin Ruggero

“The factories we rely on aren’t just full of machines, they’re full of people.” Know The Origin, a London-based fair-trade and ethically transparent clothing brand, was founded by Charlotte Instone in 2016. She spent her dissertation year as a student of the London College of Fashion helping the victims of the notorious Rana Plaza factory collapse that devastated Bangladesh in 2013. Touched by the experience of meeting survivors, charities and ethical producers, Instone became interested in understanding where our clothes actually come from and the corruption involved. SUSTAIN was able to interview Charlotte and her team at Know The Origin (KTO) about the impact sustainable clothing has on the planet and the benefits of knowing where your garments come from.

The dedicated and hardworking men and women behind KTO clothing pose with founder Charlotte Instone in their factory in South India.

The dedicated and hardworking men and women behind KTO clothing pose with founder Charlotte Instone in their factory in South India.

SUSTAIN: The fashion industry is the second most unethical industry in the world. How have things changed since Know The Origin got started? Is it your goal to inspire other “fast fashion” producers in this region to follow suit with Fairtrade and Organic principles?

KTO: Yes, unfortunately the disastrous impact of fashion production on the world is a hard truth. Know The Origin has only been producing clothing for just over a year and change is slow, but definitely happening! We want to encourage brands to use the amazing producers out there who are already going above and beyond in supporting their workers and environment.

In addition, KTO wants to encourage brands to have better communication and relationships with their producers and workers, to ensure they can work together in conditions where people can thrive and protect the local environment.

SUSTAIN: I saw you mention the health dangers of harmful chemicals that are present on most of the clothes we wear—what are the main benefits of using organic clothing as opposed to synthetic materials? Does the higher price of natural and organic materials pose a challenge for the sustainable fashion world?

KTO: Firstly, organic fibers don’t contain or use any of those toxic chemicals we see polluting water systems, local agriculture [or] even our skin tissue. Synthetic fibers are essentially made of plastic—we already know the horrific environmental impact of the oil and plastic industry—and more discoveries of microfibers (tiny synthetic fibers from our clothing) in our ocean polluting our ecosystem are being uncovered! In terms of economic cost, natural fibers are more expensive, but more and more people are willing to pay that little extra because they know the greater social and environmental cost synthetic and non-organic fibers have. It is a challenge to the sustainable fashion world as we are essentially competing with the low-price, fast-turnover world of fast fashion, but customers are starting to demand more from their products and brands in terms of ethics—and the conversation around fibers goes hand in hand with that.

KTO sources its 100% organic cotton in India.

KTO sources its 100% organic cotton in India.

SUSTAIN: What was the inspiration for your 15-piece collection? I was really intrigued by your collaboration with Jennifer Duckett Prints; as a lover of unusual patterns, I would definitely don the Abstract Three T-shirt! Would you be able to indulge any future plans for collaborations? How does Know The Origin stand out compared to other fashion labels centered around basic clothing pieces?

KTO: Honestly, it came out of the frustration we know so many people have: why is all ethical clothing so expensive and ugly?! At KTO we were just after simple, wearable pieces that managed to be stylish whilst remaining affordable; that formed the basis of our collection! We loved collaborating with Jennifer Duckett because ethical fashion should be fun, and she really showed that! We are always open to collaborating with people who are passionate about sustainable fashion; it’s so great to build that community and encourage each other. All of our basic pieces have a fun twist to them so that they still feel fashionable—and their super soft feel is an added bonus!

SUSTAIN: I really admire Know The Origin’s project to find zero waste packaging options and alternatives to plastic garment wraps for shipping. What are some other aspects of the fashion industry that could be modified to be more eco-friendly? Do you believe that it’s possible to accomplish these changes in the near future?

KTO: We never want to limit what the word “sustainable” means, as it’s not simply a box to check off! There is always room for growth and KTO definitely wants to be pursuing that. One of the areas of the fashion industry that needs some serious eco-innovation is the dyeing process. At the moment we use low-impact AZO-free dyes (no nasty cancerous toxins) with a producer who reuses 95% of the used water to run the factory—so we are pretty proud of them! Hardcore environmentalists push for vegetable dyes but these tend to fade quickly, so people are more likely to throw away that garment sooner. We definitely think changes are coming, but we still need more eco-passionate innovators to make that difference!

A member of the Mila family, KTO's main manufacturer in India, works intently on a clothing piece.

A member of the Mila family, KTO's main manufacturer in India, works intently on a clothing piece.

SUSTAIN: How has Know The Origin bonded with the families of the fabric producers in India? How would you compare the working conditions of the people you work so intimately with, such as the Mila family, to other factories that mass produce clothing for fast fashion companies?

KTO:  This is such a big thing—trying to create that sense of community across all producers. Whenever we get the chance to visit our producers in India we make sure we spend time socializing and getting to know the residents. It means we’ve spent lots of amazing evenings having dinners with employees of our producers or celebrating with everyone at factory rooftop parties! Mila in particular is so fantastic; we have heard too many times the phrase “it’s in the nature of the work” when people refer to garment factory conditions being so terrible. Mila completely challenges that and creates a new standard of working conditions. There are just 15 employees and Girish, the factory manager, doesn’t strive for the quickest assembly line but instead aims for everyone to receive quality training so that everyone can earn higher wages. It’s a completely transparent environment and people are always up for a great picnic.

KTO founder Charlotte Instone working closely with her manufacturers.

KTO founder Charlotte Instone working closely with her manufacturers.

Know The Origin currently has a pop-up shop open until June 3rd at 49 Hilton Street in Manchester, UK. If you don’t happen to be in the United Kingdom right now, KTO offers worldwide shipping, including personalized fair-trade clothing. If KTO has taught us anything, it’s to be more aware and empathetic of the people around us—especially the ones who are working hard to create the clothing we wear every day. Take a second and think about the people behind these clothes and not just the ones wearing the finished product. Repay them not only with money, but with dignity and respect.


Photographs Courtesy of Know The Origin