Safe, Ethical and Transparent Fashion: If We Can Do It, Why Can’t You?

Posted by Emily Roberts on Monday, May 20th, 2013

INDIGENOUS brings ethics, transparency and accountability to the fashion industry.

INDIGENOUS has decided to speak out about the current labor issues in the apparel industry given the recent tragedy in Bangladesh. Back in 1994, INDIGENOUS CEO Scott Leonard traveled to South America in hopes of creating a small fashion company focused on products that captured the spirit of indigenous artisans. It did not take long to see the deplorable conditions and tragic life circumstances of so many in the knitting trade. It also did not take long to see the ravages of non-organic cotton farming on the land and on the health of farmers and their children. The traditional livelihoods of generations that have relied on knitting and farming were literally killing those they should be sustaining. There are just some things in life that you can’t turn your back on and, for Scott Leonard, this was one of them. This was the moment that INDIGENOUS Fair Trade + Organic fashion was born.

Over the course of the past two decades the INDIGENOUS team has worked tirelessly to help improve and elevate the lives of artisans and farmers and their communities, and the results are astounding. Fully 75% of artisan knitters in our network are now no longer at risk of poverty. All work in safe, healthy conditions with benefits and the opportunity to make a better life for their families. Many have grown to start their own fair trade workshops and to employ and help others. There are now 500 boutiques, multiple catalogs, a deep partnership with Eileen Fisher and tens of thousands of customers who support our safe, ethical and sustainable way of doing business. It takes work for a brand to make these changes, but the results are worth the effort.

Fair trade artisan at loom. Fashion worth wearing and worth talking about. That’s why we are issuing this industry wide challenge, and at the same time offering our support, to every fashion brand: “If we can do it, why can’t you?”  We are asking everyone— manufacturers, retailers, and consumers—to share our commitment to fashion that honors people and planet, and to take and share a simple pledge:  “No one should have to suffer and die to produce the clothes we wear.” 

There are not many legitimate reasons that fashion brands can’t do as INDIGENOUS does. Some say consumers won’t pay the price for fair trade, organic and ethical fashion.  We believe once consumers know where their clothes are made, who makes them, what they are made of, and the social impact of their purchase they will do the right thing. What INDIGENOUS is interested in doing is creating consumer awareness by providing full supply chain transparency. We believe that there is no one who wants a garment born of pain, suffering and inequity. We also believe that that most people will happily pay a little more when they know for a fact that the simple act of buying one blouse or sweater over the other has given someone else the opportunity for a better life. There is plenty of objective data to support this premise.  This idea is not limited to the apparel industry, but includes any consumer product made in the developing world.

Many fashion industry executives claim full transparency is too hard to accomplish, too elusive, too big to get their arms around. At INDIGENOUS we believe they are not trying hard enough, and they are not using the right tools. This Fall every INDIGENOUS garment will include a QR code on its hang tag. This code launches our “Fair Trace Tool” application. The Fair Trace Tool shares the story of the artisans who make our clothing, information about our supply chain and social impact survey data. The social impact survey data is collected using a new SMS/cell phone based survey technology.  Every six months we gather data from the artisan workforce on working conditions, economic well-being and other factors. We then share this information with our employees, investors and our customers. This and other technologies make it possible to survey workers privately, via confidential voice response, away from employers and managers. It is an entry point to deeper workforce engagement in shaping the work environment.

INDIGENOUS fair trace toolLast, we have said transparency takes effort, but it’s completely doable. Our objective is to make it even easier for other apparel brands. The Fair Trace Tool is a proprietary application, and could be a major competitive brand asset. INDIGENOUS will share our transparency practices and license our Trace Tool technology with ANY brand that publically accepts the CHALLENGE that they will produce clothing in a way that is safe, ethical and honors people and planet.

Thankfully, we are not in this alone. Other brands in the fair trade and organic fashion space are doing their part. Boutiques and other retailers who are opening their doors to fair trade and organic fashion are doing theirs. There are a growing number of consumers who are insisting on consciously produced fashion.

Now is the time for a groundswell of consumer support. In all, we spend over a trillion dollars a year on clothes. Our spending on clothes truly has the power to change the world for good. We are asking you as consumers to take the PLEDGE: “I will find out where the garment I am about to purchase came from and who made it. I will not wear anything that people are suffering and dying to produce.”  It’s that simple. When you take steps to learn about your clothes, and spend in a way that demonstrates your values you are changing the fashion industry.

In conclusion, we must move quickly and collaboratively so that no more lives are lost or family futures compromised in making the clothes we wear. The good news is INDIGENOUS has a way that works. Incidents like the tragedy in Bangladesh just don’t happen in our supply chain. From our inception we have embraced the following principles:

  • We Provide fair wages in the local context
  • Support safe, healthy, and participatory workplaces
  • Supply financial and technical support as well as shared community planning to build capacity
  • Ensure environmental sustainability, (including using: Organic certified cotton, GOTS processing, and Oekotex 100 approved dyes)
  • Respect and embrace cultural identity, of families and community
  • Build direct and long-term relationships
  • Educate and collaborate with partners on sustainability

INDIGENOUS is inviting every fashion brand to learn with us, and to join us in working for the day when no one suffers or dies to create the fashion we all wear. We are inviting the fashion industry to join us in fair trade practices and innovative production supply chain tools that enhance transparency. 

We are asking those of you who are reading this as a fashion consumer, to stop and ask before your next clothing purchase, where did this garment come from, who made it and what am I supporting when I buy it? We also asking that you pass this letter along to as many friends as possible and ask them to make the same commitment.

Everyone at INDIGENOUS thanks you with all our heart for helping us to change the lives of millions of people around the world by simply being thoughtful about your choices as consumers.

Scott Leonard and Matt Reynolds are available to talk to anyone from any industry or the media who want to take transparency and fair trade to the next level. Just ask!



Fair Trade + Organic

PS. If you have a moment, please listen to Debbi Smith’s brief interview with Scott and Matt about how the choices in our closets are connected to real people.

INDIGENOUS organic + fair trade fashion. Supporting artisans and bringing ethics to the fashion industry.



Posted by Anna Herman | May 21, 2013

That’s great. We are making a difference it just needs to be more of one. My customers care & so do I . It is really nice in the Eco Fashion world that we don’t see each other as threats rather another company on our side to help change things for the better. At Herman’s Eco we say “Remember The 4 W’s Where was it Made, out of What, By Whom & What were they Paid”. I will post it around. Anna Herman

Posted by Dallas | May 21, 2013


Posted by Karen Righthand | May 21, 2013

Scott, I’m happy to share your letter broadly. I was just returning from Peru when the Bangladesh collapse happened. I walked through the Andes and have now a much better understanding of your work and where it comes from. You are right, we must make these choices to save our planet and propagate fairness. We reap what we sow, right?

Posted by soul role | May 21, 2013

Mahalo for the great works you are doing and for helping to raise consciousness on this issue!I have a small business in Hawaii Handcrafting organic fashion and hope one day to expand and help provide employment in my economically depressed area.It has been an amazing experience to realize that SO MANY people ARE willing to pay a bit more for ethical clothing,and not just the wealthy.
Many blessings,
Nancy @ Soul Role

Posted by Susan M Davis | May 21, 2013

Thank you Matt & Scott for all you are doing. I fully support you and not only take the pledge, but will spread it as far and wide as my reach extends.

Indigenous is a brand with heart and it’s an honor to wear beautiful clothing that truly reflects the values of positive sustainability and care for people and the planet.

Posted by Dave | May 22, 2013

I wonder if there’s an opportunity for Indigeneous to broaden its reach NOW by reaching out to other mainstream brands - like Eileen Fisher - and use the platform these brands currently have with consumers to broaden its reach. Consumer-up movements are exciting but rare. Mainstream brands have access. Would be great if one of them introduced an “Indigenous” line or sub-set of their seasonal offering for S/S ‘14.

Posted by Rich Cohen | May 22, 2013

At Distant Village Packaging we stand with you!

Posted by joe sibilia | May 22, 2013

Scott and Matt.  Solid piece of advice, inspiration, challenge and tool.  You are making a difference for many people.  Congratulations.
Your friend, Joe.

Posted by Claudia | May 22, 2013

Timely and well said. The challenge and trace tool are great motivators for better conditions right here at home in our production houses in LA. I hope to learn more and shrapnel this story with our production managers. Keep doing the right things for the right reasons!

Posted by Maureen McNicholas | May 22, 2013

Thank you for doing this!

Posted by Jerry Green | May 22, 2013

Brilliant move, boys.

Your flag flies upon a firm foundation.

Fair trade tool! WOW! How can I get one?

I’d like a green one in alpaca.

Posted by Tanya Narath | May 22, 2013

Thank you Scott and Matt! I will take the pledge and will do everything I can to help spread the word. Your Fair Trace Tool sounds impressive, and I really appreciate your generosity in sharing it with others who accept the challenge. You and the entire Indigenous family are an inspiration for a better world!

Posted by E. Kremble | May 22, 2013

After devastating fires in sweatshops, I hope people will open their eyes to what we as consumers are supporting by buying from retailers who use and exploit workers in third world countries. This Fair Trade Tool is a great idea. We can no longer close our eyes to what is happening in the industry Thanks so much guys!!

Posted by Nadine Garner | May 22, 2013

I support your great work! I am a college professor at Millersville University in Lancaster, PA, and I teach about social, environmental, and economic sustainability in the fashion industry as part of my undergrad course in child and adolescent development. I name Indigenous Designs specifically as a role model of sustainable leadership, and I even wear your clothes when I teach so that students can see a real person making the commitment to supporting sustainable fashion. It is an eye-opening experience for my students to learn about the abuses (and also heroes such as yourselves) in the fashion industry. You have my unwavering support and admiration!! I an helping to plan a large-scale Human Rights Conference on campus this fall and would love to involve Indigenous Designs in some way.

Posted by isa haynes | May 22, 2013

It would be great if you could give a breakdown of the price structure as well i.e. what goes to the farmer, the miller, the wholesale, the shop etc

Posted by Edward Baumheier | May 23, 2013

Scott and Matt,  Thanks for taking this stand.  I keep referring people to your website and INDIGENOUS as a model for what we all should be doing and paying attention to.  Keep up the good work.  We hope to be able to visit you again soon.

Posted by Bonnie Siefers | May 23, 2013

Keep doing what you do. Indigenous continues to be an inspiration to eco designers and shoppers alike.

Posted by joy sassoon | May 23, 2013

I will not support the unethical treatment of people and environment. Someone has to stop it in their own way…My boutique supports humane and sane!

Posted by Alexia Marcous | May 23, 2013

Thank you Scott and Matt for making Indigenous a shining example of how a company CAN be transparent, good for workers, stylish and very successful.  Thank you for issuing this challenge and asking for our pledge.  You have mine!

Add A Comment