Solving The Fashion Industry’s ‘Dirty Cotton’ Problem

Alex Franklin in AM Custom Clothing’s studioAM Custom Clothing

When Alex Franklin and Michael Williams met at university in 2012, they couldn’t have predicted they’d own a X-$ business X years later. The pair, who are both passionate about producing ethical products, found their calling in tackling the “dirty cotton” industry, by making fairtrade garments.

The fashion industry is the world’s second biggest pollutant after oil, and responsible for using more water than any other industry bar agriculture.

The university friends decided to tackle the problem, not by looking abroad to cheap sweat shops, but instead by starting at home – with suppliers.

I spoke with Alex about the effect AM Custom Clothing has had so far – and his hopes for the future.

LS: What was behind launching your business in 2012?

AF: For me starting a business was a result of a very cliché moment; having suffered a life threatening illness. This changed my outlook, and goals, leading to my ambitious attitude, with a desire to make an impact.

Having just graduated from university, where I wrote a dissertation on how being green was good for both the planet and profits, I set up an eco fashion brand. It was there that I became acutely aware of the huge impact the textiles industry was having on people and the planet – and I discovered that cotton is one of the dirtiest crops in the world.

The employment practices of manufacturers in less developed nations often come under scrutiny in the press, but this often focuses on retailers and fashion brands. However, no one seemed interested in the millions of units produced every year for merchandise, workwear, uniforms, promotional wear.

With this in mind I felt I could likely have a bigger impact if I shifted gears, into the far less glamorous world of custom printed and embroidered clothing. Supplying brands, bands, universities, charities, agencies and of course retailers. This would allow us to have a far greater impact across the entire textiles industry (fashion included).

With a supply chain for environmentally and ethically-sound production in place from my work in fashion, and a co-founder with experience in business management, it was a relatively easy shift to make.

LS: It sounds like it was pretty plain sailing… but I assume you met some hurdles along the way?

AF: Having gone straight from university to running businesses, the first barrier was experience, I had no idea how the textiles industry worked or what I was doing. Thankfully we managed to make this work to our advantage. We developed ideas, strategies and processes based on how we thought they should be done, not based on what the rest of the industry was doing or on previous industry experience.

As we became more established in our industry, rapid growth grew to become increasingly challenging. We found at times we’d have far greater demand than we’d anticipated, which would put pressure on a limited supply chain, and resources. This was extraordinarily hard to manage as clients would who had previously been purchasing non-ethical goods, wouldn’t be accustomed to the slower restock times on ethical ranges (due to the prevention of overtime etc in the factories). Since then we’ve adapted our business model to be highly scalable, something that has been achieved through a great deal of automation across the business. Furthermore, our dynamic supply chain now enables us to have access to around 12m items of stock – enabling us to cope well with larger order sizes whilst still having delivery times as quick (sometimes quicker) than the industry average.

AM Custom Clothing printingAM Custom Clothing

LS: What’s at the heart of your business that sets it apart from others?

AF: We have three key pillars that really set us apart from others in our industry.

The first is our standpoint on ethics and sustainability. The world we live in is changing fast, as are the expectations of those within it. A.M. Custom Clothing was founded with the mission to make a difference to the lives of those who make the clothing products that are worn every day – for workwear, uniform, events, promotions and retail.

The second element that differs to many within our industry is the market beating service we offer our customers. With retail level service and revolutionary technology we’re redefining the standards expected within our industry.

While the first two pillars are important, for the customer, pricing is generally the deal breaker. Which is why we deliver great value at all points of our business, and strive to provide our clients with the best products, at the best prices. This is something we’re able to achieve through market leading technology alongside a highly scalable and dynamic supply chain.

We have low minimum order quantities and unrivaled capacity, with the ability to print and embroider tens of thousands of products a week. Ensuring we’re able to cater for those small businesses requiring uniforms for staff, right through to supplying global brands.

LS: Can you talk me through your supply chain?

AF: When sourcing, we look for suppliers that are externally certified by reputable organizations like the Fairtrade Foundation & the Fair Wear Foundation, this provides assurances that everything is made to the standards we expect. We take an approach of trying to get things right from the start, helping to ensure we’re not having to patch up problems later down the line. This has resulted in many long standing relationships with our core suppliers, who we know and trust.

All products are quality checked before they leave our UK facilities, using a highly stringent quality management system, ensuring everything meets the requirements of clients.

LS: Who do you supply now? Who are some of your biggest clients?

AF: Last year we supplied several hundred clients with over 50,000+ garments. These clients included global brands like YOOX, Net-A-Porter, up and coming restaurant chains like Ekachai, alongside fast growing challenger brands like Starling Bank, Castore and more. We’re aiming to turnover £1 million this year, and have invested tens of thousands into our product ranges and the technology used to power our systems – something that we can see is becoming increasingly prevalent in the rise of manufacturing platforms.