From Nike to Eileen Fisher, Anthropologie, e-commerce startup Zady.com and retail giants such as Bloomingdales and Saks, companies are shifting their sourcing and retail offerings to ethical products in response to the rise of the purpose-driven consumer. According to a Cone Communications survey, 88 percent of Americans would stop buying a company's products if they learned of the company's irresponsible or deceptive business practices. Millennials are key drivers of the shift in retailers offerings as this generation leads the "seek-out trustworthy do-good brands retail-therapy-as-change-agent" movement.
We often hear of the millennial generation's desire to buy apparel and goods from ethical, storied supply chains, but it's only a recent development that large fashion houses and retailers are realizing that this is more than a trend: it's the new cost of entry for successful business. Nike, for instance, recently hosted an event where a group of entrepreneurs and leaders in sustainable fashion were gathered to workshop Nike's goal to discover new, sustainable materials. An event like this would have never happened 5 years ago. I believe we can either be frustrated at large corporations for not being more sustainable from the start, or we can recognize that, so far, the resources to do so have been unreliable and hard to access. I see this as an exciting opportunity, as an entrepreneur, to disrupt the supply side of manufacturing, and begin to provide a competitive resource for material that is not only sustainable, but also reliably produced and accessible in large quantities.--Shanley Knox
Supply chains are stumbling blocks. Singular supply chains in emerging markets have lead to the inefficient economic growth of artisan products which largely remain the purview of niche marketplaces. Entrepreneurs Olivia Byanyima and Shanley Knox are out to change all this. Seeing the opportunity to be part of the growing movement to fulfill the purchasing desires of a growing ethical consumer basis and to create a company grounded in their global worldview, the duo launched Olivia Knox, a manufacturing collective and model for building industries around local materials for use in larger global markets. And the first material they set their ethical business eyes on was a cow horn, in Olivia Byanyima's home country, Uganda.
Why A Cow Horn?
The majority of Ankole, the "cattle of kings," are in the Western part of the Cattle Corridor in Africa, a Savannah that runs from the Horn of Africa down to Lake Tanganyika in Burundi. Ankole are a sacred breed, and are brought to market only when cattle keepers or ranchers need to manage the number of bulls in a herd. While the ranchers were unaware that the horn of their cattle was a valuable resource, the middlemen in the slaughterhouses in Southern Uganda's bustling town of Kampala did. The raw horns (generated as a by-product of meat markets) until now have been sold by the slaughterhouses in bulk to Chinese buyers who export them back to Asia to mass produce buttons for their textile industry.
Additionally, ranchers have been encouraged by economic development specialists to cross-breed their Ankole herds with jersey cows, in order to increase milk production. This practice, while it may present short-term profits for the rancher, presents a greater challenge for conservationists who are working to protect East Africa's rich biodiversity.
As a member of Bahima tribe (the traditional ranchers of Ankole cattle), Olivia Byanyima become aware of this inefficient economic model, and with that, a new business model focusing on the after-market for the horn beyond mass-produced buttons was born. It is a model focused on generating value-add jobs, opening global markets and increasing wealth. It is also a model that provides an economic incentive for farmers to keep the Ankole breed pure.
According to Shanley Knox, the Ankole horn was the perfect resource to pilot their business theories with. The Ankole horn is durable, making it an ideal material for carving solid designs, cutting eyewear frames, or drilling holes for custom wardrobe accessories. In less than two years since launching and through trial and error, along with support from the Ugandan government and partnerships with leading brands, Olivia Knox has started to shift the perception of the region from unreliable supplier to the premier destination for high quality, ethically sourced materials and artisan products. They created quality standards across four different facilities for 60 horn artisans. In their first year, Olivia Knox generated over $130,000 in sales, including accounts with Anthropologie, Dannijo, Bloomingdale's and TD Tom Davie.
For entrepreneurs looking to building their business based on a sustainable mission, along with a focus on the ethical bottom-line, here are the lessons from Olivia Knox's first 2 years of operations:
Put access well ahead of your ego, says Shanley Knox.
Many entrepreneurs building the artisan industry are driven by a desire to create their own brand. There's nothing wrong with that, but an advisor early on told me that I would have a much bigger market if I set my ego aside, and helped other brands achieve access, instead. This increases business opportunities hugely: many companies targeted by ethical and artisanal brands are regularly in need of production partners, and only source from other brands on occasion.
Apply lean startup principles to your venture: Iterate and practice low-risk prototyping.
As Shanley and Olivia quickly discovered, the first manufacturing route was not the best solution for scaling their business model:
When we first started out, we were lucky enough to be given space to work out of through a partnership with the Ugandan government. We thought that it was the right direction to use it to buy machinery, and start hiring talent. But we failed over and over and over again. So, we gave up our space and started spreading out large orders across multiple existing facilities, which collectively produced much more than we could have on our own. This system allowed us to ideate with different types of machinery, processes and talent, without risk of overhead -- and built relationships for us throughout the industry, which is how our business model was born.
Be the bridge between factions and past differences.
As we started sourcing out of several different facilities, we quickly learned that most horn workers knew each other, and had tried to work together at one point or another, but failed because of misunderstandings, or differences in their working methods. Instead of being angry that we were working with their competitors, they saw us as a common bridge to business growth, education and better systems of working for Uganda as a whole - and this helped them buy into our dream of a thriving industry built around the access we could provide.
Invite ideation and constantly be open to innovation with the material you are sourcing.
Right now we have German company ideating with horn as a construction material - which is something we never would have thought of. The lesson to us has been that when we approach any new material, we should pitch its properties, instead of its past uses. This allows our clients to imagine applications outside of what already exists.
Tell your story and engage clients in your building process.
At first, we were hesitant to pitch to potential clients until we had a finished supply chain. But, we quickly learned that our clients had already tried (and failed) to source from the area of the world we were working in, and were eager to share their past mistakes so we could build-off of them as we put our supply chain together. Our strategy shifted toward being a kind of open collaboration with them, as we were honest about our lack of experience, and looked to them to give us the advice and help necessary to make us their best supplier. Many responses we received became the building blocks of our operations.