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The New Rules of Sustainable Product-Sourcing

Looking for inexpensive labor? Cheap materials? They can be beyond unreliable. Instead, try these tips for sourcing products a healthier, and more sustainable, way.
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When sourcing products overseas, you are given a choice. You can participate in the race to the bottom, exploiting cheap labor and unsustainable materials. Or, you can or invest in workers and build a culture that supports the communities your company relies on.  

We interviewed Amanda Judge, founder of the Andean Collection. Judge has built the world's largest fair trade fashion accessories line, all while supporting the women and communities that she works with. She shared with us four lessons that will help you source your products overseas the right way.  

1. Know that "on time" is culturally relative.

"I have come to learn that tomorrow means next month. You just have to adjust," says Judge.

The concept of time can differ, depending on where you are. On a recent trip that included back-to-back meetings with potential collectives, material manufacturers, and production facilities, multiple people showed up two hours late. Instead of trying to struggle against it, Judge found that one has to build cultural concepts of time into your expectations. Plan to be fluid. You can't expect other people to change--but you can change your own expectations. 

2. Set clear guidelines.

When you're sourcing an initial sample of 25 necklaces, it might be OK to have looser guidelines, but as Judge scaled to more than 10,000 pieces produced in Ecuador, she began to struggle with inconsistency in production. 

"I had to create guides with pictures and clear step-by-step instructions for each step of the production for the artisans," she says.

The lesson: It's up to you to do the work to understand each step of the creation process, so that you can communicate it clearly to the production team. This will enable you to clear up inconsistencies through a process where everyone learns.

3. Overcome your own conceptions of "the future."

When you're working with a supply chain of artisans who are used to being focused on providing the next meal for their families, long-term thinking seems an unfamiliar privilege. The importance of investing in relationships with a longer-term payoff is foreign to many of the local artisans that Judge works with.

Even after her fifth trip to Ecuador, she remembers they were still surprised that she kept coming back and was still invested in the relationship. In order to work around these differing conceptions of what "the future" means, Judge explains that you needed to treat your artisans as partners. Find a common understanding of how you can grow together, instead of just ignoring your different realities. 

4. Understand that expectations need to meet abilities.

It's easy to project your expectations of a North American trained workforce onto the community producing your goods overseas. These expectations are not always reasonable and often lead to a choice--train people or find new employees.

Though the average artisan in Ecuador has a low level of grade-school education, Judge realized that the answer wasn't to fire people, but rather to educate them. She founded a non-profit that provides training and education, helping artisans create a consistent product, while also providing them with more long-term pathways out of poverty.

IMAGE: Pedro Szekely via Flickr
Last updated: Apr 9, 2013

DEV AUJLA | Founder, DreamNow

Dev Aujla runs Catalog, an agency which provides strategic advisory and recruiting services to companies that make money and do good. He is also the founder of DreamNow, a charitable organization which has helped over 50 thousand young people organize and start community projects.




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