OAKLAND, CA — When companies and designers want to make fashion that is more sustainable, one issue is figuring out what materials are better choices, but an even bigger issue is actually finding those materials.
Source4Style hopes to change that by providing an online marketplace specifically for more sustainable materials.
"We can talk about sustainable design as much as we want," said model, advisor and Source4Style co-founder Summer Rayne Oakes, "But if there is no infrastructure for people to search and buy sustainable materials, that won't be a reality, or it will be a slower reality."
Acting like an online trade show, Source4Style allows designers to search for fabrics, look up a product's material and sustainability specifications, and buy directly from suppliers.
"There are so many designers out there who want to be given the materials to design more sustainable, more ethical, more fair trade lines," said Benita Singh, Source4Style's co-founder and chief operating officer, who has worked on fair trade issues and connecting artisans with markets for their work. "A lot of the current tools available to them just weren't filling their needs."
Oakes said some designers spend up to 80 percent of their time sourcing, sometimes looking for fabrics with search sites like Google or with sourcing sites that don't provide enough information related to production or scalability. Sourcing agents will sometimes only source from factories they own or have a stake in, Oakes said, and trade shows can be hit and miss depending on what companies can afford to display at them.
To get a fabric onto Source4Style, a supplier has to answer an extensive questionnaire, and then a panel reviews the answers to decide if the site will feature the fabric.
Oakes said the questionnaire is mainly based on the Eco Index, a tool that was created by the outdoor industry for measuring the impacts of clothing and gear, but is applicable to practically any product. Topics in the questionnaire include recycled content, organic content, what certifications the fabric holds, farming processes, fair trade practices and more.
"We wanted to include information and questions in there that really reflected the current environmental questions the industry would be asked anyway if this was more widely adopted," Oakes said. "A lot of people are actually happy to supply it because it's the first time they've been asked to articulate their story."
For the first month Source4Style is live, anyone will be able to access all of the information about fabrics on it. After that, different levels of access go into place. Non-registered users will just be able to search and see limited product information. Registered users will be able to make purchases and see individual product pages. The nitty gritty material and sustainability specifications will be available to people who pay for a premium level membership, which will be available as a monthly or annual fee.
"That type of information is what takes a lot of time," Oakes said. Through constant back-and-forth discussions with suppliers and the Source4Style questionnaire, the site gathers about 245 data points on materials.
Suppliers, on the other hand, will pay a monthly fee to list their products and also pay a commission to Source4Style based on sales. "Because we're not technically the middleman, the prices are more affordable than if we were inventorying the material," Oakes said. The only things that Source4Style inventories are fabric swatches.
Looking ahead, Oakes is aware that there is potential for faults. "It's not a bulletproof system," she said, explaining how, for example, someone could order 1,000 yards of organic cotton and the supplier only has 900 yards. The supplier could bring in 100 yards of cotton that's not certified organic and ship it out without telling the buyer it's different.
But for now, the launch of Source4Style is hoping to combat a long-standing problem in the fashion world, which Oakes has seen affect both smaller, independent designers and larger brands she's worked with like Payless ShoeSource.
"It's clear that sourcing is and always has been one of the major issues," Oakes said. "And has been one of the prohibitive challenges to making sustainable design more possible."
Fabric - CC license by Flickr user Allen's VISION