Ethical fashion: it all starts with the fabric
I first started Offset Warehouse to prove that it’s perfectly possible to be ethical without compromising the quality, appearance and price of fashion and soft furnishing products. Making beautiful things shouldn’t harm the environment or the people who make them. I source from all over the world to bring together a range of eco fabrics and haberdashery, ideal for all textile projects, and at affordable prices. –Charlie Ross
During my fashion design degree, I watched the film China Blue, and my whole outlook on the industry changed. The film depicted a young factory worker in China who moves to the city to provide for her family in the country. She quickly finds herself caught up in a life of slave labour – forcing her eyes to stay open with clothes pegs as they all work through the night for no extra pay.
Until that moment, it had never crossed my mind that the big brands we all shop from in the West would be actively exploiting workers in order to squeeze the lowest prices out of their suppliers.
Alongside the devastating social impacts, I also soon discovered all the environmental damage that the fashion industry has caused. Dumping chemical waste into streams, destroying huge areas of land – the list is endless. So much social and environmental damage is done just to bring lower retail prices and bigger profit margins to Western companies.
As a designer, the products you create should be beautiful and cherished, and I couldn’t bear the thought of my designs actively harming the person who made them or destroying the environment. That’s when I decided I would only use ethically-produced fabrics in my designs.
How hard did you find shopping for eco-fabrics before you started the company?
It was dreadful! There were no fashion-forward fabrics and the ones I could find were either really expensive or had huge minimum order quantities. It was this challenge that inspired me to set up Offset Warehouse. I wanted to bring together a collection of on-trend fabrics, at affordable prices, that were environmentally and socially beneficial.
What was the biggest roadblock to building Offset Warehouse?
Time – and money! I’ve built Offset Warehouse very slowly over the last four years, from virtually no capital. For the first few years, it was only me behind the scenes working part time on the business. But things have really taken off recently. So much so, that I can now afford to work full time and also have two amazing part timers to help me.
I’ve also been lucky with all the support I’ve had from my customers and suppliers. Our customers are very open and keen to see us succeed – they tell me what they like, what they don’t like and how they think we can improve. That’s something I never thought I’d be lucky enough to say. The suppliers I work with have also been incredible from the get go. I still work with the same people I started out with. They’ve been hugely patient while we worked out our business model and tested products. Weave really grown together – and I think that is so important in business.
Did you experience any resentment or hard feelings from previous colleagues when you turned your back on some of the conventional industry ideals?
There used to be a stigma associated with “eco” that was hard to overcome for some of my fashion friends. I think they thought the shop would be filled with scratchy, itchy, hippy things. But right from the beginning, I only had to show them a couple of swatches and they were hooked! They all want to work towards a more sustainable, healthier industry too, so the fact that I’m doing something about it – even if it’s only on a small scale – makes them really proud.
How have you managed to offer the selection of fabrics and other products at such affordable prices?
Price is a really important thing for me. As a fashion designer, and someone who wants to be able to buy ethical fashion affordably, I’ve always wanted to prove that eco textiles needn’t cost the earth! To be honest, the fabrics that we sell with organic and Fairtrade certifications (which is where the additional cost comes into play for manufacturers), don’t actually cost much more than conventional fabrics. In fact, to produce a T-shirt organically only adds £1 to the final product. Just £1 to know that you haven’t damaged a worker’s health or the environment – it’s not a big price to pay, is it?
What would you say is trending right now, and what are your clients asking for?
Everyone is obsessed with our banana fibre fabrics – I can’t get enough in! The fabrics are completely gorgeous, and incredible to look at and touch. I love fabrics which are made of unusual fibres. Often they are made by hand using generations-old processes. And I’m so pleased to be a part of keeping these skills alive. They are a true testament to how we can adapt from the conventional, very damaging, fibres we’re used to, such as mass-produced cotton, to more sustainable options.
What is your favorite fabric to wear?
I love to wear organic cotton jerseys (organic cotton and bamboo interlock jersey, to be precise!). Because I work long hours, usually at a computer or lifting heavy fabric rolls, jersey really is such a comfortable option. And the interlock is a perfect weight to wear for trouser-leggings – even better!
I also love clashing prints and bright colours. I’m obsessed with the hand-block prints we sell in the shop – I love that each pattern is slightly different, depending on how much ink was on that particular block, or how hard the artist pressed onto the fabric. You can see how much time and love has gone into each piece, and that’s what makes them so individual and beautiful.
Do you have a favorite “mainstream” designer?
I really love the design aesthetic of Stella McCartney – but my budget doesn’t quite stretch to actually buying her clothes, unfortunately! I absolutely hate wearing anything that someone else might be wearing too, so I prefer shopping in vintage or charity shops and making my own things. I also feel that there are so many clothes in the world already, I’d rather save something amazing from a vintage shop and not let any good clothes go to waste or landfill. Then as well as looking good, you can feel you’ve done some good too.
What is the next chapter for Offset Warehouse?
Good question! Long term, my focus is on continuing to spread the word about using socially and environmentally beneficial textiles. We do a lot of talks and lectures for university students – the next generation of fabric users – and craft groups. The more I can make others aware of what’s going on out there and can be done to change things, the bigger the difference we can all make. In terms of what’s coming up in the next few months, we’re bringing in some very exciting new lines. They’re top secret at the moment, but you can sign up to the mailing list if you’d like to know the moment they arrive. As far as any more details are concerned, though, I’m afraid my lips are sealed!
Where in the world?
We sincerely thank Charlie for her time and desire to collaborate with Fashionhedge. There is no doubt she is an example for entrepreneurs in the fashion industry and for anyone trying to change the world doing business in more ethical ways. This is definitely a company built with heart and we are excited to see it grow.