When we think fair trade, sustainable fashion, perhaps the first thing to come to mind are colourful satchels and beanies found in Oxfam stores. Cute, and buying one makes you feel good that you’re helping someone, but they’re not exactly fashionable. Australian ecommerce startup ThreadHarvest, launched in 2014, is bringing real fashion elements into the ethical clothing mix.
Cofounder Jai Sharma describes the platform as a social enterprise at its heart: the team are, of course, pursuing business goals, but they have core social and environmental goals for ThreadHarvest too. Every product stocked on the platform satisfies at least two or more of the following conditions: employing the marginalised, eco-friendly, cause supporting, empowering women, upcycled, organic, and fair trade conditions.
Sharma said, “What we’re really about is giving a people a choice in terms of their fashion, and allowing them to still stick with the style and the aesthetics that they enjoy shopping with from other labels, while allowing them to have the added dimension of knowing that the products that they’re buying are creating social and environmental good as well.”
For Sharma, who was an impact investment analyst with a superannuation fund before launching the store, going from one to the other seemed almost like a logical jump. At the super fund he looked at investment generating a good financial return along with social and environmental impact, a job which let him see funds and businesses that were “walking that really interesting line between impact and profitability.”
“I think, ultimately, I kind of reached a point where I guess I got itchy fingers a bit. It was a real eye opener and a real joy being able to invest in those funds and businesses, but I really wanted to be more on the front line and have a go myself and see what I had learned from the investment side,” Sharma said.
Launching an ecommerce store, though, was new.
Sharma, his cofounder Brian Lee, and creative director Eve Wong, bring their varied expertise across fashion, social impact, and even auditing to the board to understand and pick the labels stocked on ThreadHarvest. Sharma said labels are ranked along a “quadrant of style”, with one of the most important criteria being that each piece is something that someone would want to wear without the social impact tag; in turn, ThreadHarvest has picked labels that have been featured in magazines like Vogue and Elle. Quality is another important criteria, as is cost. Then there’s the social impact criteria.
“We look all the way down the supply chain to what materials are used and who is making the products. We look very closely, firstly at making sure there is no negative impacts from the products that we sell, but also, we are really looking for positive champions of social change. We look for labels that are generating really exciting stories of lives changed, of the re-imagination of ways to do fashion,” Sharma explained.
One of the many interesting labels stocked on the platform is jewelry designer Article 22, whose first collection PEACEBOMB was made by Laotian artisans from Vietnam War-era bombs, with each item sold helping to de-mine an area of bomb-littered land.
Sharma and Lee have self-funded the development of the business thus far, with growth over the last two years coming predominantly through social media; like many other businesses, ThreadHarvest has found that content is king. Platforms such as Instagram allow for storytelling about products and creators that customers find engaging – and ThreadHarvest has some great stories to tell – while Sharma said influencer marketing has also produced good results.
The startup’s customers are predominantly Australian, with a scattering from the US. With ThreadHarvest first needing to import products into Australia and then ship them out to customers, shipping costs too expensive for overseas shoppers.
While they will be looking to scale their online operation, Sharma said that the team will be focusing on opening a bricks and mortar store in the year ahead, looking to create an omni channel system.
“We actually think, particularly with fashion and items that people aren’t naturally already searching for online, there is real value in having some order spaces where customers can go and try things on and really explore products a bit more tangibly than they can online,” he said.
Sharma added that the team isn’t too concerned about competition in the space; rather, he said, he has seen that the spirit of competition is “heavily diminished” in the social enterprise sector, while the spirit of collaboration is strong.
“When I meet with other ethical fashion retailers, there is this overwhelming feeling that the market is young and has so much potential that actually we’re better off working together to grow the pie than we are to really heavily guard and compete for a slice. Even when we were starting out we met with other ethical fashion retailers that were really generous and forthcoming with advice,” he said.
The startup is currently in the process of kicking off its first capital raise to help fund the year ahead.
Image: Eve Wong, Jai Sharma, Brian Lee.