Women in Sustainability: Jo Salter
Jo Salter founded awarding winning ethical brand Where Does It Come From? in 2013 which has established ethical, transparent supply chains in India and Africa. With its goal to create ‘Kind Clothes that Tell Tales’ following no-compromise ethics and sustainability criteria, the brand has been featured in major press and magazines including Forbes. Where Does It Come From? is a truly innovative brand – the first in the UK (and maybe wider afield!) to add a code to garments so customers can trace the entire creation story.
Jo is an ethical business consultant, speaker and writer, supporting others in their sustainability journey. She regularly features on radio BBC Radio Suffolk talking about sustainability and transparency, as well as other radio and BBC TV appearances. In 2016 she set up Ethical Brands for Fashion Revolution as a community of ethical fashion brands campaigning for a better fashion industry. In 2018 she co-founded the Be The Change awards to provide a platform for new enterprises with a positive impact goal. In 2019 she was invited by DEFRA to be a Year of Green Action ambassador. Jo is a fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, a non-executive director of Khadi London and a member of Ipswich Fairtrade Steering Group. Jo is passionate about sharing her expertise with others to help them on their social enterprise journey – her vision is that all business will be ethical business!
We caught up with Jo during Fashion Revolution Week to get her insight on the fashion industry, how she started her sustainable fashion company, and what people can do to be more mindful when it comes to the clothes they buy.
Can you tell us a bit about your career history and what led you to launching Where Does It Come From?
I’ve been passionate about social justice ever since I can remember – being involved in voluntary work and fundraising from a young age. During my fifteen years working for a major Telecoms company I gained key experience and skills in business and technology, as well as an awareness of consumerism and overconsumption/waste. One penny dropping moment was seeing the huge numbers of t shirts being created for a large marketing event. I asked where they were from and who made them but the only consideration was cost.
I decided to become part of the change, initially setting up as an ethical business consultant whilst pursuing an Open University post graduate qualification in International Development (and becoming Mum to two sons!). I founded Where Does It Come From? in 2013 to create beautiful, ethical clothes that have transparent supply chains and share the story of their origins. I believe that enabling customers to get to know the people who made their clothes will inspire them to think differently, and ultimately to shop more ethically in general.
I currently run the business, which has now widened into a b2b supplier to the growing number of businesses moving to transparent, ethical textiles. I also write, speak and consult, to raise awareness of issues around transparency, fair trade and environmental issues.
What does sustainable fashion mean to you?
Fashion has changed dramatically over the last few decades – from people making their own clothes or buying high couture pieces to our current ‘fast fashion’ model. Increasingly we’ve been pressured to be on trend, refreshing our wardrobes regularly. Brands create cheaper and cheaper lines, while pushing back on their suppliers on costs. Prices of clothes in the UK are pretty much the same as they were in the 1980s (and the styles don’t always look that different either ). This change in shopping habits has led to a massive over production of clothing, including garments made with polyester and other plastic derivatives which will not biodegrade and leach plastic microfibres into our water and food systems.
Unfortunately the effect on the suppliers was to cut wages, working conditions and even safety for garment workers, 80% of whom are women. There is plenty of evidence of slavery, child labour and danger in the fashion industry – including the Rana Plaza disaster which we commemorate with Fashion Revolution week. Hearing of 1134 people dying just to bring us cheap clothes has triggered a huge response – calling for an end to abuses of garment workers and transparency within the industry so we can be sure that the people and planet are not being harmed.
‘Sustainable fashion’ is a wide and fairly vague term, but it encompasses a number of areas. The current buzzword is ‘regenerative’ fashion, meaning using eco-friendly farming, upcycling and generally circular production methods as well as ensuring everything is re-used or biodegrades efficiently at end of life. I would define sustainable fashion as where every step of production – including design and materials – has a positive (or at least no negative) impact on our planet and eco-system. At Where Does It Come From? we approach this through using natural fibres – I love organic rainfed cotton that doesn’t require water to grow!- as well as low-carbon and water processes such as hand weaving, hand printing and materials such as wooden buttons.
Ethical fashion encompasses not just the impacts on the planet but also how clothing production affects the people involved. Farmers of natural fibres are often forgotten, especially cotton growers at the other side of the world. Farmer suicides in India are growing, due to unbearable debt. Fair pay and working conditions for all garment workers is vital – they are the hidden fashion victims. Until clothing supply chains are transparent they can remain hidden so encouraging customers to explore where their clothing came from and who made it is a vital step. At Where Does It Come From? we put a code on every label so our customers can explore the story behind each garment, getting to know the people and processes involved.
How did you go about starting your sustainable clothing brand?
I set up Where Does It Come From? in 2013 as a Mum of young children, searching for detailed information about the clothing available in shops and online. I already had some awareness of trade justice but less on the environmental side. I had a ‘middle of the night’ moment when I came up with the business concept and name and pushed on from there. There has been a lot of learning in the meantime – first point being a clear understanding of why clothing businesses do not share the story of how their clothes are made. Many of them still don’t know, although this is now changing for the better.
I decided to set up Where Does It Come From? to offer an alternative – clothing created as ethically and sustainably as possible and with their total traceability from cotton farm to customer. Building the digital connection between the clothes makers and the clothes wearers through the garment story was key, as a way to lead behaviour change. Where Does It Come From? has the strapline ‘Kind Clothes that Tell Tales’ because they are kind to the makers, the planet and the customer too.
Creating our first transparent supply chain was a challenge and took 2 years and one failed attempt. Fortunately I was able to build an enduring relationship with an organisation in India that works on the principles of Gandhism – creating livelihoods for marginalised workers and using traditional eco-friendly processes and materials. We have worked together on many productions over the years as we’ve grown our supply chains into Africa and also the UK.
Finding a market has been an ongoing challenge in a world where price has been the top consideration and ethics fairly near the bottom. Now that sustainability has become more mainstream we are now seeing much more interest in process, impact and ethics. It is great to have the experience and skills to be able to support businesses in their journey to transparent and ethical supply chains – I love it!
What steps do you take to ensure the fabric and clothing you source are ethically produced?
At Where Does It Come From? we don’t see why our clothes have to cost the earth. The change we want to see is for customers to have access to fabrics and clothing been created with minimal environmental impact. We also want them to understand and value the processes and people that brought them their clothing – it’s good for mental health too!
Where possible we support existing grassroots organisations that are working to help communities – such as the Khadi infrastructure set up by Gandhi in India or the Mayamiko Trust in Malawi. We work with them to link the various elements of the supply chain to enable them to create clothing which reflects the market we are selling into – giving them valuable information to help them hone their product offerings. We work on a very collaborative basis, not a traditional supplier model, so that we build trusted, long term relationships and enable community building. This has involved traveling to see supply chains in person and working with charities to undertake due diligence.
We believe in becoming a ‘virtual team’ with our producers, getting to know the people. Their social enterprise goals must align with our own so that we know we all driven by the same passions.
With Fashion Revolution Week happening this week, people will be keen to learn more about how they shop more sustainably. What advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out in their sustainable fashion journey?
The word ‘journey’ is vital here. We are all in different places on that journey and it is very important not to become overwhelmed. There are so many areas to focus on that it is easy to give up! Sometimes it can seem that options are contradictory – for example vegan versus plastic free.
The first step I would advise would be to work out which values are the most important to you as an individual. This could be animal rights, natural fibres, organic, plastic free, circular economy and so much more.
The next step is around transparency – start with looking at clothing labels to see what they are made from – remember that polyester and nylon are actually plastic and other fabrics can be misleading. Internet searching can help here. If a label doesn’t tell you that an item is organic or fair trade then it very probably isn’t! Ethical Consumer Magazine and Good On You are good places to go to explore more ethical, transparent brands.
Thirdly, think carefully before you buy. Mass production is one of the fashion impacts most hazardous to our planet so only buying what you need is key. Also choose items that are versatile and that you know you will wear again and again. Often you’ll find you can ‘shop your wardrobe’ – it’s amazing what’s hidden in there (or do some swaps with a friend).
More generally there are excellent resources on the Fashion Revolution website and more gritty detail from organisations like Labour Behind The Label. You can find out more stats about the damaging environmental