A closer look behind the scenes of sustainable fashion
Interview with Holger Brodkorb, CEO of ragwear
When you buy GOTS certified cotton, it’s 30-35% more expensive than normal cotton. But I sell the t-shirt for the same price as the conventional t-shirt. This is an investment into the farmer, the earth, those crops and that process.
Fashion is considered to be one of the most environmentally and socially unsustainable industries in the world. Whether it be underpaid workers and poor working conditions, toxic chemicals used to harvest, process and dye cotton and other textile crops, or inhumane practices employed to gain animal products to use for garments, the impacts are far reaching.
While the industry as a whole has been slow to change, individual brands have been making efforts to improve their standards in order to provide more sustainable and ethical fashion to consumers. ragwear, a Prague-based brand of comfy, stylish and affordable “streetwear”, is one such brand. They achieved PETA certification in 2011, going entirely vegan, and added an organic collection for women in the autumn/winter of 2015.
A big question consumers often have when they observe companies taking such steps to “green up” is, are they genuine? It’s hard not to wonder what we can really trust. Because trust is all about relationships between people, our approach at greenglasses is always to focus on the people behind the brand, and what they believe in.
We had a chance to sit down with ragwear’s CEO, Holger Brodkorb, to dig a bit deeper into his motivations behind the brand’s steps to go vegan and organic. Sitting with him in his office overlooking the rooftops of Prague’s Holešovice district, we picked up on a trait we often observe among socially and environmentally conscious entrepreneurs: the motivations are highly personal.
Holger has been working in the fashion industry for 25 years and has therefore seen the gradual transition of the industry towards higher standards. He has also undergone his own transition, which turns out to be a powerful driver behind the brand’s movement in the direction of ethical and sustainable fashion. A personal health experience in 2011 was a catalyst for dramatic changes both in his own life and his business.
Yet having spent 15 years building strong relationships with his current suppliers for the ragwear brand, located in China, he couldn’t just completely change the brand overnight. Similar to transforming one’s own life, a step by step approach is also a more realistic way to change one’s business in a lasting and sustainable way. And there are multiple factors that have to be balanced and weighed against each other: health, environment, relationships with people and last but not least, business margins. Holger spoke about this balancing act with candor, sharing nuances about production in China and aspects of running a clothing business that we hadn’t considered before.
We left feeling even more convinced of our opinion that sustainable business isn’t just about the product on the shelf or the certificates it carries – though those things are important – but even more so about the people behind it, and their personal dedication to bringing about change, both in how they live and how they work.
See below for our full Q&A with Holger.
What are you doing to make ragwear more sustainable?
We first started implementing an organic cotton line into our A/W 2015 collection and we intend to widen the range from season to season. Besides the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified organic cotton and material from recycled plastic we are constantly searching for new, innovative and sustainable materials for our collections. To cut down the plastic waste we exchanged all our plastic bags with biodegradable ones.
Besides that we have a certification from PETA (“PETA approved vegan”), which we are really proud of. This is a very important step for us on our journey towards more sustainability, ‘cause the meat/dairy/leather industry is a disaster for our planet. To keep the structure, it’s not just about the certificate, but about starting a paradigm shift and a process that ultimately leads to better production realities.
Regarding the suppliers in general, we are now in the Fairwear certification process, which is a process that can take up to a few years. I just hired a person for it three months ago, so this is of course also an investment in the process. Now after starting everything we are sure we fulfill at least 80% of the criteria, and now the question is in what time period we are able to fulfill the rest of the 20%.
ragwear is not a startup, which means there are other brands that just start with the idea of being a sustainable brand… I’ve been in the business 25 years. Important is what you as an owner want to have. I know that we’re 100% vegan, I know precisely where we buy our fabrics, and I know we are in a continuous process. We have a team of 4 people only working on sourcing in China because we also have friendships there and we also have a responsibility.
Important is what you as an owner want to have. I know that we’re 100% vegan, I know precisely where we buy our fabrics, and I know we are in a continuous process.
And when you go to the factory there and see the people working, for you it’s a high enough standard?
You know, business in the end is just about relationships. Face to face, people are just people and I have a relation with our supplier in China for 15 years already… He’s a very nice guy who comes to Prague often. He does things in a way that other Chinese suppliers don’t do. He grew up with ragwear and he joins us on our way to more sustainability. We visit the factory at least once a year. The fashion industry in China has been very important for a very long time. This is how they developed very good skills and can assure good quality, and this is why we work with Chinese factories. I very much like China, but China is in very urgent need to change things – and is already changing a lot – because they are much more polluted than we are in Europe.
Is that something you’re working on with your suppliers, as far as how green they are?
…The standards in China are rising and rising and rising – it’s not going backwards at all. And China just doesn’t have the interest anymore to do the workload for the world. China has a huge own market already and they want to supply their own market. China is not the China anyway that it used to be. Standards are rising and China has a huge demographic problem… Now nobody wants to work in a factory anymore, because they want to go to school, they want an education, they want to travel, and they want to have a different lifestyle. So the employers are forced by the market situation to change.
The standards in China are rising and rising and rising — it’s not going backwards at all.
Do you as a brand owner have any power to change how your suppliers operate?
When I jump out of my brand owner shoes and into my private shoes, I would like to change the world like that [snaps fingers]. The reality unfortunately is totally different. You have to do it step by step. We just started the Fairwear Foundation process, which is an intense process…. The thing is, the world is in urgent need for change. I have also moments when I think it’s already far too late, but I’m also optimistic and I want to do something, I don’t want to just ignore it and continue the margin business, because honestly I’m tired of it… If you have even just a little bit of a sense for nature, you must realize that there’s something wrong.
Some things can´t be changed very fast when it has been done a certain way for the last 20 years. But the times are changing and we are happy to be surrounded by upcoming brands, interesting people and mind-changing creatives that inspire us every day with their approach towards a bright, sustainable future.
What do you think we can do as normal people, now? If we have an urgent problem, what step can we take now to change it?
You’ve already taken a good step in trying to make it part of your profession with greenglasses. If I open my eyes I see that I can do so much. For example, look at where we are right now: we’re living here in Prague… once a week when I go downstairs in my building to throw out the trash, I get so frustrated. But I don’t want to feel frustrated anymore. Just use this energy and turn it in the other direction… I put up a big board in the trash room showing people where they can go to recycle various things, like their batteries or electronics, and maybe one of the hundred people who go there will see it and change something. And spread it again. And maybe one of the hundred will work in politics and change something.
The city of San Francisco is aiming to be zero waste by 2020. If San Francisco can do it, why can’t Prague do it? Or any other big city? The problem is that the consumer as such is not forced to change; and that’s the problem we have here in Europe. So either in your own personal life you come to a cross-point, either you have health problems or any awakening situation – mostly it’s a crisis – or in other cases people just see something and they get shocked, by a photo. What I mean to say is that what we are all able to do is we can talk, we have a mouth, we can make something and put it on the wall – it doesn’t cost much! I promised myself that I’m really going to use my energy now… it doesn’t help me, my health, if I get upset. It doesn’t help anybody. But I can use this exact same energy, which is a strong energy, to help other people, and turn it into a positive energy. That’s I think what everybody can do, somehow…
I promised myself that I’m really going to use my energy now… it doesn’t help me, my health, if I get upset. It doesn’t help anybody. But I can use this exact same energy, which is a strong energy, to help other people, and turn it into a positive energy. That’s I think what everybody can do, somehow…
We are living in 2016. The world is in a difficult situation but still you can be grateful when you open the water faucet and the water is coming out. You can keep saying thank you until the day there’s nothing coming anymore. That will be the time when people start to notice, but by then it’s far too late.
What was the main thing you changed in your business, after your health experience?
Taking more time for myself to think, that was the first thing. For example, I have a library at home. I never really was a big reader in my life before, but now I’m a big reader. I read a lot. I was also mainstream media driven somehow. I stopped that five years ago. I was the person who has three newspapers per day. I just studied everything trading-wise and business-wise, but now my awareness shifted towards understanding how life works, in a spiritual but also in a biological way, and that influenced my work. My business is reflecting my personal health.
And then I noted in that process that margin is not everything. Margin is important of course, you need to pay the bills, the rent and your living, but in this margin you can also do other things. For example, our company margin in the last years got worse and worse and when I talk to my business consultants, they all remind me: “Oh! Again your margin got less and less and less”. And I tell them, “because we are producing more sustainable clothing but selling it for the same price”. So that means it’s not a loss of margin, it’s an investment into the Earth, into the process. So that’s just my personal commitment. When you buy GOTS certified cotton, it’s 30-35% more expensive than normal cotton. But I sell the t-shirt for the same price as the conventional t-shirt. This is an investment into the farmer, the earth, those crops and that process.
So that means it’s not a loss of margin, it’s an investment into the Earth, into the process.
Is the demand for sustainable products growing?
Sure, the awareness of the customers is rising – less maybe than I wanted… the vegan clothing is just an option, it’s just something for you to consider. Like maybe instead of eating meat seven days per week, you would only eat five. It’s the same with clothing. Instead of consuming seven days per week conventional clothing, consume maybe two days per week vegan clothing. Then you’re doing something good already. Or vegan plus organic is even better. So the awareness is rising, and that’s the reason why we want to be a big part in that. That’s the reason why our slogan says: “The first in vegan streetwear”.
Are you planning to open a shop?
I think every brand owner dreams of opening his own branded retail shop. The reality is very challenging. It’s the retail business, and I’m in the wholesale business. The retailers are my customers and I know the problems they face, and I have big respect for anybody who runs a shop. Our next goals are opening our own online shop within 2017, to gain some experience and get connected. And sure, Prague is a perfect place for a ragwear shop too. I’m convinced we are going to open one within the next two years.
Are you excited about Sustainability Day?
I’m an optimist… it’s important to do something in order just not to be frustrated. Our challenge is that we entered a certain kind of awareness. We got aware of things that other people are not aware of yet. We are kind of pioneers in awareness, if we can say it like that. I think your Sustainability Day is a fantastic tool to raise awareness. So in that sense I think it’s a very, very urgent and very good event.
Prague has 1 million or 1.2 million people and there’s a lot of youth in this city, but we need to be kind of more organized. In the point of awareness in the problems we are facing, the city is far, far behind other cities of similar sizes…
What will you be presenting there?
Luckily we still have something left from spring. We’ll be selling our organic clothing from the spring season. We want to make a special price action.
Thank you for your time.
Greenglasses and ragwear look forward to seeing you at Sustainability Day!