Life In the Slow Fashion Lane: In Conversation With Charlotte Instone | Know The Origin

We sat down with Charlotte Instone to find out the story behind her ethical fair trade fashion brand, Know The Origin, and to get her expert tips on how we, as consumers, can strive to do better and shop smarter - and slower - than ever before.

Zero waste, transparency, sustainability – we’re all familiar with this terminology but how can we actually learn to adopt a cleaner, greener lifestyle and create positive change in our lives, particularly when it comes to fast fashion?

We sat down with Charlotte Instone to find out the story behind her ethical fair trade fashion brand, Know The Origin, and to get her expert tips on how we, as consumers, can strive to do better and shop smarter – and slower – than ever before.

W​hat’s the story behind Know The Origin and what inspired you to start your own ethical marketplace?

When I was studying Fashion Buying and Merchandising at London College of Fashion I had, like most people, heard of ethical fashion. Whilst in my second year of university, the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed, killing over 1100 people and injuring thousands more. The factory was making clothes for a lot of high street retailers.

Currently, 61% of brands don’t know where their clothes are made and 93% don’t know where fabrics come from. When I graduated, I launched with a small Fairtrade and organic range made by women’s cooperatives and producers in India. We wanted everyone to be able to know and love where their clothes had come from because until you know the origin, you can’t really know if it’s truly ethical or not. I’ve become aware of so many epic ethical brands that people needed to know about. So, last year, 75+ ethical brands joined Know The Origin, to create an online home for sustainable brands.

What are some of your favourite ethical brands stocked at ​Know The Origin​ and how do you go about selecting them?

It’s impossible to choose my favourite brand’ from socks that give a pair to the homeless for every one sold, to candles that proceeds support women affected by domestic violence to reusable wipes that save thousands of pieces of plastic from being used.

We are always on the lookout for new brands, and throughout the year we build up an amazing database of brands that we have slowly been adding to. Our criteria is first and foremost, sustainability, we have a strict guideline to the minimum requirements we have for brands to get on our platform, including things like no synthetic fabrics are used, all brands must be transparent about their supply chain, and all products are plastic-free. In September, we will launch our standard, so you will be able to see from fair and safe working conditions to eco-friendly materials to equality and modern slavery prevention, how different brands equate.

We are passionate as a team to ensure diversity and inclusion is at the core of our mission, so within these new standards, our equality standard will ensure that brands are giving evidence to how they are employing non-discriminatory practices. For our own label, we want to help lead the charge, by continuing to use equally diverse models that represent the human race and we will continue to work with factories and certifications that are pioneering new ways of addressing discrimination.⁠ We will also actively use our panel discussions to bring wider conversations and voices to discuss racism and injustice. ⁠

How can we as consumers do more to ensure our wardrobes are more considered?

I think remembering to pause before buying! The fast fashion world has encouraged us to impulse buy and follow our ‘sales eyes’ and it’s making us mindless consumers. The next time you are shopping, pause to remember that the product you’re holding has been through so many peoples hands, it has a huge environmental impact. Ask yourself if your going to wear this atleast 30 times. Ask the store who made it? Seek brands that show you transparency around certifications such as GOTS organic, Fairtrade etc. Slowing down when shopping is not about feeling guilty, but about remaining aware of the realities and being conscious of how your money can be used positively!

How important is traceability and transparency in what you do at Know The Origin?

Without transparency, there is no accountability or real meaningful change in the fashion industry. In our own label and the brands we work with, it has to be a core part of what we do. On our new site from September, you will be able to see from farm to factory the full story of our supply chain. ​No brand is perfect, and there is always more to be doing, but transparency helps track that.

For anyone overwhelmed with where to start with living a more sustainable lifestyle, what are your top fail-safe tips and practical solutions. Where does one begin?

I would begin at just recognising your everyday shopping habits, how much plastic you are using and checking the labels of your fashion garments. Do you know where that garment was made and the environmental impact of the material? Asking questions is very important and will reveal a lot about how much we do not know about the origins of that garment or product. Also, do some research and use the resources you have access to. For example, question how long it takes for plastic to biodegrade, because it’s easy to think that if plastic is recyclable it is okay, but plastic items can take up to 1000 years to decompose.

Your go-to eco-friendly swaps…

My absolute favourite are the Know The Origin reusable face wipes, which are an easy eco-friendly swap of cotton pads. Cotton is one of the thirstiest fibres, needing 2700 litres of water to produce one t-shirt. So, instead of throwing away your wipes or cotton pads, you can use your make-up remover on these reusable face wipes, pop them in the wash with the rest of your clothes and they come out clean and ready to use again and again.

One thing you’d never be caught buying?

I often get aggravated in a supermarket seeing people put fruit and vegetables in multiple plastic bags.. It can become an easy habit to reuse bags from home or pop them in a produce bag, made out of organic cotton and not plastic. I’m excited for the day when supermarket’s stop giving out plastic bags.

What are the things we need to consider when we’re buying clothes?

There are so many certifications out there so it can sometimes be confusing to what you should be looking for. One must is that you need to avoid buying clothes made out of synthetic fabrics, such as Polyester, Acrylic and Nylon. They have a very high environmental impact, omitting around 3 times the amount of Greenhouse emission as cotton. They also shed microplastics, which end up in our landfills and oceans, damaging our ecosystems and marine life.

What are the easiest ways a consumer can get caught out when trying to shop sustainably?

We are noticing a rise of brands that are strategically and deliberately repeating stories and jargon, as a way to look more transparent or ethical than they really are. Whilst, most brands publish little information about their efforts, if any, to improve pay and achieve living wages in the supply chain. Hardly any brands disclose their approach to achieving the payment of living wages to workers in the supply chain or about their purchasing practices.

I wrote a recent blog on how transparency isn’t the same as being ethical, focusing on the controversy of H&M being ranked first on Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index. H&M or other brands might be transparent but that doesn’t mean their products are at all sustainable, child labour free, human trafficking free or add anything back into the communities they deplete from.

Are there any sustainability books /guides that come recommended by you?

How to give up plastic by Will McCallum is an amazing guide to how we can cut out plastic in our day to day life. Also, Lauren Bravo’s ‘how to break up with fast fashion’ is an honest and relatable depiction of how tough it is to go against the normality of shopping fast fashion, high street brands but loving clothes you already own and changing your shopping habits.

Image Credit : @rebecca_altman via Twitter

Essential viewing… your top fashion documentaries to watch?

Machines by director Rahul Jain creates a dizzying fly-on-the-wall experience of a fabric factory in India. This rare insight into sweatshop conditions is filmed stunningly with sweeping images of factory conditions mixed with powerful commentaries from the men (and boys) who work there. A brutally honest documentary that still gives me chills. Also, The True Cost, is a great documentary that follows the journey of our highstreet clothing, it highlights the people who make our clothes and the impact the fashion industry is having on communities and the environment globally. This film is filled with so many golden moments this is pretty much impossible to choose. The amazing Vandana Shiva bringing home the impact of pesticides on cotton farmers in India is definitely something that sticks with you.

We love Lucy & Yak, you collaborated with them last year – how did that come about and are you hoping to do any more collaborations this year?

It was amazing to collaborate with Lucy & Yak last Christmas, so many of our ethics and values aligned and our collection of ethical products definitely complemented each other. I actually met Lucy and Chris whilst we were in Brighton doing a pop-up shop, and we just thought it would be a great idea to join forces. We have huge plans for this year, watch this space on our gram.

Who inspires you in your line of work?

The countless brands that have gone before, the ones your heard of the ones that didn’t make it. They have all pioneered and paved a way to create a space where people freely talk about sustainable fashion.

What’s the biggest change you’d like to see happen within the fashion industry?

That the fast fashion brands will have to alter their business practices to not produce cheap, throwaway garments, but good quality garments that are made without child labour, modern slavery, environmental damage, to name a few. This will only shift, through people demanding more from brands.

What’s next for Know The Origin?

This year we’ve raised investment to grow. We are currently rebranding and building a new custom website to launch in September. We’re signing up for great certifications like 1% for the planet, B-corp. We are growing our team from three to ten, shifting the brand selection to big sustainable brands offering shoes, denim etc, all the items you will love. We are super excited to help grow and shape the sustainable space, whilst continuing to speak up about the things we care about.