Our shopping strategy usually revolves around hitting that clothing trifecta: pieces that look good, fit well, and are affordable (or, at least, that don’t involve utterly obliterating one’s bank account). But what if your retail approach could involve a quick check of a brand’s manufacturing practices and ethics? Project JUST is poised to provide just that. The well-designed site, which launched two weeks ago, is a catalog and forum of research on fashion brands’ manufacturing M.O. — plus their environmental and social impacts. The objective: to bring transparency to an industry that’s been pretty fickle about disclosing much about the supply chain, and to highlight (and perhaps sway shopping in favor of) brands that are ethically sound behind the scenes. The site was founded by Natalie Grillon and Shahd AlShehail, who met in 2013 as global fellows at Acumen, a non-profit impact investing fund. Both women had pivotal experiences that helped spur Project JUST’s inception. Grillon had worked for a cotton company in Uganda that implemented an organic and fair-trade cotton-farming program to help farmers rebuild their lives after decades of civil war — the work was important, but customers buying the company's threads didn’t know the inspiring backstory. AlShehail also cofounded a Saudi Arabian fashion house that worked with regional women artisans; she thought there was room to improve how that supply chain’s story was told, too. The Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh a few months later led the duo to realize that transparency is crucial; fashion brands need to share the negative practices taking place, not just the heartwarming, doing-good stuff. “We didn’t set out to showcase the negative,” Grillon says. “But the more we learned about practices in the supply chain, the more we realized that, through our purchases, we were supporting practices with which we didn't agree, and we knew our friends wouldn’t, either.” Thus came the idea for Project JUST. After almost a year of development, this “Wikipedia for fashion supply chains,” as Grillon puts it, was born.
Project JUST applies a four-step filter to fashion brands: first up, self-reported information (i.e. from the brand’s site, 10-Ks, executive speeches, and sustainability reports). This covers size and business model, transparency, labor conditions, environment, innovation, intention, management, and community — “in many cases, unfortunately, it’s not a lot,” Grillon says. Then, Project JUST looks at what other NGOs or on-the-ground organizations have published about that brand’s supply chain (sometimes supplemented by further research or rankings comparing that specific brand to comparable ones on the market). Research on media coverage and investigative reporting comes next, followed by direct outreach to the brand, offering a chance to give honest input. Currently, the site features 47 brands, with a goal of 150 brands by early spring, including expansion into markets like Europe and the Middle East. You’ll find names like Reformation, Everlane, Warby Parker, Indego Africa, Duka, and Beru Kids, along with major chain retailers. Expect to see lots of smaller indie brands in the mix soon. Project JUST caters to what Grillon calls “female urbanite millennials” and Gen Z in the U.S., U.K., and Australia — and it's also aimed at those in the fashion industry. At the moment, for a smaller brand owned by a huge corporation (J Brand's parent company is Fast Retailing, which also owns Uniqlo, for example) you can only view information about the parent company's practices. But that should change as user-supplied information fills in the gaps for brands owned by large parent companies, Grillon says. The concept is quite similar to Australia’s Good On You app, which isn’t yet available stateside; Project JUST is uniquely focused on creating a space to spur ongoing conversation between shoppers, fashion brands, and industry activists about the topic, versus being primarily an information source for customers. Project JUST doesn’t have an app yet, but one is in the works, probably with shopping-centric maps and geotagging capacities. Grillon and AlShehail have been shocked by the disconnect factor, or “how little some of these brands actually do know about their supply chain,” Grillon says. “Many brands we've come across contract out their entire supply chain, only designing the item and sending it out to be produced, not knowing the factory where it will be manufactured.” On a brighter note, there are the covert do-gooders — labels “making incredible strides in improving their practices that have shied away from being transparent,” Grillon adds. But that lack of broadcasting means shoppers don't know about many positive practices already in place, and thus aren’t as trained to seek out ethically produced clothing. Grillon explains that "in some ways, this has prevented other brands from learning” from the quietly upstanding fashion labels out there.
Next up, Project JUST will roll out a biannual award in early 2016, called #JUSTapproved, for fashion brands that deserve some love for their ethically commendable efforts. “They have either set out to create a sustainable business model from day one, to improve or transform their operations in a radical way, are preserving or celebrating a craft or art which creates additional value in the clothing for everyone involved, or are working on an initiative we think could change the industry — small indie brands or big-name brands,” Grillon says. “We've heard from a lot of our followers that they are searching for a curated list of positive brands and practices that they can discover.” There will likely even be “#JUSTapproved” stickers given to brands, to indicate they're ethically sound. Beyond the current four-step process, Project JUST is now working on gathering and incorporating extensive crowd-sourced data — from shoppers, fashion-brand employees, journalists, NGOs, and industry execs — into the site, as well as editorial content using the site’s data crunching, and extensive annual overviews of each brand. This ensures that the data isn’t out of date (for better or for worse).
“Our mission is to transform the fashion industry into a transparent, accountable, and sustainable system that celebrates the stories, the people, and the resources behind the clothing,” Grillon says. “To impact and incite change, we believe that one missing — but important! — voice is the shopper’s. Empowered with information, s/he can make purchases aligned with their values, shifting demand towards positive practices and sending a signal to brands and the industry.”