Wellington’s Little Yellow Bird is providing businesses with ethical, sustainable uniforms

- August 30, 2016 4 MIN READ

Most of us living in Australia or New Zealand have likely spent our lives in one kind of uniform or another, from school through to the first part time job at Coles or Woollies, on to the unofficial but still mandatory uniform of the corporate world, and now for many the branded tee and colourful socks of the startup coworking space.

It’s probably fair to say that as we move through these uniform changes, not many of us give much thought to where the clothing is actually being produced. Given that in some jobs requiring an actual uniform employees must hand over their own cash for a company shirt, the most thought given probably focuses on size and cost.

However, the uniform market is big business, and just like consumers are starting to raise concerns about the ethics behind the manufacturing of clothing from brands like H & M and Zara, New Zealand startup Little Yellow Bird believes that we should be giving the same thought to where our uniforms are coming from.

Going beyond just raising awareness of the issue, Little Yellow Bird is working with manufacturers to create quality ethical corporate workwear and provide new opportunities to those producing the clothes. It was recently certified as a B Corporation, perhaps best described as a Fairtrade certification for companies that are looking to create a positive impact.

The startup was founded by Samantha Jones, a former logistics supply chain manager in the New Zealand Air Force, and Hannah Duder, formerly of PwC, after they met at university. The idea in fact came from Jones’s time in the Air Force; coming out and having to buy more of her own everyday clothing than she ever had before, she realised that she had spent much of her life in uniforms that she had been provided, never actually having any choice in her workwear.

“When you’re not buying it, you’re really disconnected from the process, so when all of a sudden I was having to buy a lot more clothing, I really started thinking about it more and learning about it more. I saw there were a lot of streetwear brands that had started to do organic and fair trade, but not in the corporate market,” Jones said.

Jones and Duder began working on the idea thanks to a small amount of funding received through a couple of competitions. The funding allowed Jones to go to India to explore the startup’s supply chain, actually going to the cotton farms and factories to ensure that every step of the process is ethical, with the cotton organic and rain-fed so as to be environmentally conscious, and the factories Fairtrade-certified.

While the uniform market is huge, the startup is focusing on the business space rather than the likes of schools and sporting teams because businesses tend to have a good budget for uniform. Heading up sales, Duder said she essentially approaches companies with the thought, why not?

“We’ve got this great story and a great ethical supply chain, and we’re helping to enhance corporate social responsibility for big corporates and empower their employees through the uniforms,” she said.

On top of that, Duder said the prices vary only slightly, with Little Yellow Bird either a couple of dollars more expensive or cheaper than a company’s existing suppliers. A first production run may take a little longer, ranging from 60 to 90 days, but this is because the startup’s partner factories cap their workers’ weeks at 45 hours.

The biggest business to jump on board so far is the Wellington Zoo, which signed a contract to have Little Yellow Bird not only manufacture, but also design, its new uniforms, giving the startup the opportunity to have an even greater impact – beyond just the supply chain, design can also play a huge part in the sustainability of clothing. The designer the startup brought on for the project had studied sustainable fashion and therefore designed the uniforms accordingly.

Obviously, this kind of focus is shared by the Zoo, making the contract a good fit. Daniel Warsaw, general manager of business and partnerships at Wellington Zoo, said, “At Wellington Zoo, we want to secure safe habitats for animals worldwide, and we know that our purchasing choices can help make this a reality – creating jobs that provide alternative livelihoods, reducing environmental impacts, and investing in community development.”

As well as providing ethical employment, part of Little Yellow Bird’s goal is also to work with communities and reinvest in them through microloans and educational scholarships. It has so far helped a few workers in its partner factories upskill or finish their schooling, and provided microloans to buy a number of women foot pedal sewing machines.

“We want to break that cycle of poverty that exists in those communities, so one step is by providing jobs but the second step is, for example, our cotton farmers, their wives have the sewing machines now and getting that second income in those communities is really important and usually that’s what makes the difference between their children going to school and not going to school, or staying in school longer,” Jones said.

“To us it’s really important that to kind of solve these really complicated issues you’ve got to come at it from multiple different angles. We didn’t want to just be supporting them with employment but trying to do more and more.”

Little Yellow Bird took part in the first Lightning Lab XX accelerator program for female-led startups at Wellington’s CreativeHQ earlier this year. The startup went in having done NZ$10,000 in revenue and came out with around $140,000.

They are now focused on boosting sales and getting their next Zoo-sized contract to ensure maximum impact: getting a cafe or supermarket chain on board means tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of uniforms. The scope in uniforms is huge, with the likes of restaurants, hospitals, and airlines (and startups needed basic printed tees, of course) in Little Yellow Bird’s sights. The startup will also be looking to expand into Australia within the next 12 months or so.

Duder said, “Our targets are crazy but we’re confident that we just need to hang in there. We’re getting lots of little ones and they’re keeping us going.”

Image: Samantha Jones and Hannah Duder. Source: Little Yellow Bird.