What’s the Story Behind Your Leather Jacket?
A clothing label often gives shoppers a glimpse at the basics they should know about a garment—where the shirt comes from, what it’s made of, if it shrinks in the dryer (if only)—but it doesn’t often tell the story of how that garment was created and by whom.
That’s where Project JUST, an online fashion forum and catalog, comes in.
Founded by Natalie Grillon and Shahd AlShehail, Project JUST aims to share the stories of the workers who create, design, and harvest the materials that go into a garment with those who purchase it. The online site, which Grillon describes as “Wikipedia-like,” allows users to connect with those involved in the making of their clothing by sharing information and learning about the sustainability practices of the brands they buy from.
“When Shahd and I started researching the fashion industry, we saw a huge gap in how consumers know where their clothes come from,” Grillon told TakePart. “This platform is our way of encouraging conscious consumer shopping and helping people make empowered decisions about what brand practices they want to support.”
Project JUST draws on a recent trend in finance known as ESG, which stands for "environmental, social, and governance." Companies’ performance in these areas, investor research has shown, tends to correlate with their stock price. Partly as a result, companies are increasingly focusing on corporate social responsibility, or CSR, by reducing their emissions, pollution, and toxins in the workplace; becoming active in their communities and encouraging and enabling employees to do so as well; and improving labor standards and workplace and boardroom diversity.
Grillon and AlShehail met as Acumen global fellows, spending two months of leadership training together in New York before being transferred to work for nine months with businesses overseas—AlShehail worked in Bangalore, India; Grillon in Gulu, Uganda.
Grillon was placed at a cotton company called Gulu Agricultural Development Company that purchased cotton from some 30,000 contracted regional farmers producing cotton, sesame, and chilies in northern Uganda. At the time, the country was recovering from a civil war, and the cotton company was helping farmers rebuild their lives.
“It was exactly what I hoped to see in sustainable global development, but there was this element of knowing the shopper didn’t know the positive impact that the cotton in their clothes had on these farmers,” Grillon said. “That’s when Shahd and I started to talk about why we don’t know the story behind how fashion is made.”
It wasn’t until the collapse of garment factory Rana Plaza, which killed more than 1,100 people in Bangladesh in 2013, that their conversation turned into Project JUST. Grillon said she got the idea when she was sending a cotton order to a factory.
“We didn’t know where the factory was,” said Grillon. “It occurred to me that not only do consumers not know where their garments come from, but farmers don’t know where their products are going. Then I looked down at my shirt and thought, I don’t even know if my shirt came from a factory like that! Not only are these positive stories not getting told, but we don’t know if we’re supporting the bad practices.”
When the online forum launches on Dec. 10, Grillon said, it will provide reports on the sustainability and ethical practices of some 150 brands based on data gathered from independent audits, NGO sustainability reports, and other third-party resources, including articles, activist posts, and a committee of volunteer experts in the fashion industry. The ratings reports for each brand are broken up into eight categories: social and labor practices, environment, transparency, size and business model, management, innovation, intention, and positive community practices. Users can also contribute information to brand pages by creating a profile and posting comments.
In January the forum will be releasing a list of brands that excel in each of the eight categories, along with stories about how they are achieving that success. Recognizable brands that Grillon and her team researched include Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, J Crew, and H&M (you likely won’t find a stellar report about H&M’s labor standards, considering 61 percent of its factories in Bangladesh reportedly don’t have working fire exits).
Today, an estimated one in six people worldwide works in the fashion industry. Grillon and her team have had the opportunity to meet and learn more about some of these workers creating clothing in factories in India, Kenya, Uganda, Turkey, and more.
“One of the privileges we get is to meet the people in these supply chains, including farmers, garment workers, and artisans,” she said. “The most rewarding part for us is hearing their stories.”