What Goes into Making a Socially-Conscious Garment?

This post is in collaboration with Maven Women

Ethical fashion has become quite the buzzword lately. From celebrities, to the blogosphere, to fashion magazines, it seems like everyone is talking about conscious consumption. And for the most part, that’s a good thing.

But it’s no secret there are companies who take advantage of well-intentioned consumers with dubious ethical claims. So how do we, as shoppers, know when to say, “I’m not buying it,” both literally and figuratively?

I believe the answer is by educating ourselves to ask the right questions, and honoring brands who are able to answer those educated questions.

That’s why I love Maven Women. I’ve covered them several times here already, because they can walk the talk when it comes to creating ethical garments.

Several weeks ago, Maven founder Rebecca Ballard and I invited questions on Instagram about what goes into making a socially-conscious, sustainable garment. And you guys delivered. Today, we’re bringing you the answers to those questions.

I hope you find the information inspiring and useful as you move forward in pursuing more conscious consumption. I also hope it helps you know the type of information we should be expecting clothing brands to be able to provide.

The Maven Women Manufacturing Process

Who makes your clothes?

The Maven Women Global Artisan Collection is made in India, and their American Eco-Innovation Collection is currently being developed in Los Angeles and will be made there.

The Global Artisan Collection is created by Mehera Shaw, an artisanal, eco-conscious, fair trade manufacturer in Jaipur, India. Mehera Shaw’s artisans dye Maven Women’s organic cotton fabric and block print their dress liners by hand, using centuries-old techniques that preserve craft heritage in rural India. The gorgeous block-print lining is my favorite detail on my Amira dress.

All staff at Mehera Shaw are full-time, salaried employees who are paid on time, paid a living wage, receive annual bonuses and can receive emergency loans for education, illness and family concerns. Staff work in clean and safe conditions with regular lunch and tea breaks and clean drinking water, do not work excessive overtime and receive pension funds.

For the American Eco-Innovation Collection, Maven Women has partnered with Lefty Production Company, a woman-owned manufacturer in Los Angeles. They are so transparent in their processes that Rebecca sent me some photos of Lefty Production’s studio for me to share with all of you throughout this post.

The incredibly talented Bahareh Zahedi, Development Manager at Lefty Production Company, works closely with Maven’s founder Rebecca to create impeccable designs that fit and flatter in just the right way.

Rebecca adores Marta Miller, the founder and owner of Lefty and a fellow mompreneur. Marta has created a workplace with so many special touches – family members are always welcome, and Marta brings her one-year-old son there two days a week. When Lefty team members get married they even get to design and create their wedding dress for free!

Rebecca is pictured with Bahareh as well as Molly Wilcox, who manages the Maven Women account. Molly and Rebecca are trying out some designs they are developing in Bahareh’s design studio.

I would like to know more about factory conditions and ensuring worker safety – what is the ideal standard for Maven Women?

Quite a few of you asked what Maven Women defines as the ideal standard for garment manufacturing, and Rebecca offers a simple, clear definition. Rebecca explains, “The ideal standard is a factory that I would work in myself or recommend to a friend or family member to work in. I’ve visited both factories we work with in India and Los Angeles and I loved the warm atmosphere of each. I also believe that management in both the factories would listen to workers and honor their voices.” Rebecca expresses this sentiment often – that to truly have a fair working environment, standards must be led by workers’ voices and needs.

Rebecca previously worked in Bangladesh through the non-profit CriticaLink, where she was the founding Board President, so she knows many Rana Plaza first responders firsthand. This experience helped to inspire her to have such personal involvement in the Maven Women manufacturing process.

Rebecca loved seeing the team that cuts and presses fabric at Lefty – a husband and wife team whose adult son works beside them! It’s hard to find people in America who have the technical training to create impeccable garments, and passing this training down in families is a priority of Lefty.

This is where the sewing for the American Eco-Innovation Collection happens – in spacious rooms with friendly atmospheres. Rebecca walked into some of these rooms unannounced and found a lovely environment.

I would love to hear more about how Rebecca walks up the supply chain and researches the ethics and sustainability of raw material suppliers.

When Rebecca first started Maven Women, she wanted to go all the way to the farm where the cotton was being grown for her pieces; she wanted to have an incredibly high level of transparency and traceability with each material component. However, she learned that it wasn’t possible for a brand that’s small in size to always create their own fabric from scratch; it requires a really large volume and extensive financial resources. Over time her hope is to scale and create her own blends that have 100% traceability and sky-high social impact, and for now she uses the best materials she can find at a scale that works for a new business.

Maven Women uses cotton that is Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified. In addition to being organic, the cotton also follows International Labor Organization guidelines.

This commitment to the “best materials” also includes the recent creation of an eco-friendly Ponte de Roma fabric in conjunction with Laguna Fabrics, a family-owned company in Los Angeles. “It’s the first Ponte I’ve seen made primarily of organic cotton, a major achievement for us that was three years in the making. You’re going to love our new Ponte pieces like The Chelsey and The Elizabeth, which will be in presale soon,” says Rebecca.

How are items like buttons and zippers sourced?

Maven Women doesn’t use any buttons in their designs, but they do use zippers, hook and eyes, and content/care/brand/size labels. Rebecca wanted to source all of these sustainably but simply doesn’t know of any way to do so when it comes to zippers and hook and eyes. Her hope is to one day manufacture her own or partner with another group in this endeavor. She also struggled to find labels made ethically. However, Maven Women does have their brand cards and hang tags made sustainably in Los Angeles, the location they also ship from, creating a vertically short supply chain from fabric spinning through product shipment.

Are companies thinking about how they pack and ship their clothing?

“I don’t think many companies think about packing and shipping, but we do,” says Rebecca. “We use made in America, recycled materials. Our packing is done by Elisha C., a fair trade company whose founder is the head of Fair Trade LA. We also use carbon offsets whenever possible with shipments, which we are able to do with our internal UPS shipments – we use USPS for our customer shipments.”

Inclusivity in Ethical Fashion

I understand that the expense should certainly be higher than fast fashion items, but when I see a pair of boots costing $650 or a simple sweater for $500, I wish I could understand the reasoning behind that pricing as it is terribly inaccessible to anyone with low to moderate income. And a lot of these brands seem to exclude people who are above a size large as well.

I know this is a hot topic in our community these days. As you’re probably beginning to see, making clothing is a lot more complex than most consumers understand it to be. It’s time for some real talk. 

The evolution of the Karyn dress.

Rebecca chatted with me about how complex pricing is. It can be based on what the market will bear as well as the “keystone.” The keystone is a pricing methodology that multiples the cost basis by a factor of two to dictate the price, and it’s the simplest way to universally markup goods. It’s not uncommon for clothing brands to charge 3-4 times the price if it’s direct-to-consumer or 4-6 times if it’s for wholesale. Maven Women did a major survey of their demographic to understand what women tend to pay for similar conventional fashion pieces and their willingness to pay more for ethical and sustainable pieces, and used that information to determine their price.

Regarding affordability, most people purchase far more clothes than they need. Clothing used to be around 10% of household spending and it’s now closer to 3%, yet people buy many more items than in the past. It wasn’t uncommon at all for someone to buy a dress in today’s equivalent of $100 for regular wear 100 years ago, but today that isn’t as much the norm. Fast fashion has distorted our view of what clothing should actually cost.

Frankly, everyone, we need to give up the idea of a $5 t-shirt, or a $40, highly tailored dress. Those simply are not realistic prices unless you’re shopping secondhand. It’s also worth noting that the prices set forth in this question are well above what Maven Women charges for their dresses.

Moving onto sizing. It’s far more expensive in product development to produce a larger size spread, but brands will create sizes when the demand is there. Rebecca tells me she would love to create more inclusive sizes for Maven Women, but at present their size XL is their least popular, and they have a bell curve around their size small. They are coming out with a new size based on demand – an extra small petite.

Promoting Socially-Conscious Garments

What do you think about certifications and other transparency standards?

Rebecca has written a fantastic, three-part piece for the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator, which you can find here.

Looking Ahead

Is scaling up to more styles something Maven plans to do? And, how difficult is that to do as an ethical brand?

Yes and yes! Maven Women is entering into presales for several items this month and would love to have your support, plus these items will be at a discount. If you sign up for their email list and vote on your favorite upcoming pieces, you’ll get an even deeper discount.

“It’s been challenging for us to find the right technical design and patternmaking skills to create truly top notch pieces. We’ve worked with a number of well-intentioned people on this journey who just didn’t have the skills to make the type of pieces we need. The skill set of technical patternmaking, design, and really understanding what fits and flatters a woman’s natural build is a major gap in this space and is one of the reasons why we haven’t released more pieces sooner. However, the great news is that we found the perfect match at Lefty Production Company and we have some wonderful pieces in store!” says Rebecca.

The top of The Sica dress in development. It looks great here, and in a fitting Maven saw it was a bit too conservative so they are lowering the neckline. They also did some fancy work here on the seaming of this top and were excited that it worked in their fitting. However, that fancy seaming will cause Maven to use more fabric, as they now need to line the top to get the right stitching, and it is also more expensive to cut and sew. They’re going to do it, as it’s right for this stellar style, but it’s one of the many reasons why you can’t get a dress like this for $40 – they can’t even make this piece for that price in the United States.

Closing Thoughts

Bringing socially-conscious garments to market takes tremendous financial resources as well as personal resilience. “I’ve seen many small, sustainable companies that I love close over the past few years, as it’s so hard to make it in this space. That’s why if you like what we or other small, ethical companies are up to it’s really important to offer your support when you have a clothing need,” says Rebecca.

For me, it has been such a joy and privilege to get to know Rebecca and support Maven Women. I cannot say enough how much this brand means to me, both for the incredible work they are doing and for their collaboration here on The Wholehearted Wardrobe. I promise a Maven Women dress will be a treasured item in your wardrobe for years to come – I know it is in mine.

For 10% off your Maven purchase, use code WHOLEHEARTEDWARDROBE.

Love what Maven Women is doing? Hop on over to my Instagram for a special giveaway of a Maven Women Amira dress and to let us know what you thought of this Q&A. I’ll also be speaking this evening on the Maven Women panel, “Leading Thoughtfully” at The Better Shop (155 Grand Street, Brooklyn, NY  11249). Hope to see you there.




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