Charlie Ross – Offset Warehouse
Having first met Charlie Ross at the Textile Forum on what seemed to be a permanently busy stand, it was a pleasure to conduct a more relaxed interview with her in the Wellcome Collection lounge in Euston and find out more about her business, The Offset Warehouse.
Like a number of her contemporaries, the idea for a textile-related business came while studying for an MA in menswear at the Royal College of Art. She adopted a keen interest in sustainable fibres such as hemp and linen and quickly realized these were in short supply, so expanded her research to include recycling and upcycling. In doing so she acknowledged that in order to be satisfied of the ethical provenance of any fabric, the source also had to be trustworthy – a dual pre-requisite facing designers committed to ethical and sustainable.
When you look at her website, aside from appreciating the depth of research and quality of information available, you soon discover where her ethics lie.
“Once I found out about the slave labour and farmer suicides caused by unfair wages and worker rights, I just didn’t want to be part of it,” she says. “The thought of my designs negatively affecting – even killing – workerswas a massive shock andabhorred me.
“Digging deeper, I discovered the environmental disasters associated with fabric production, and that irresponsibility on the part of some manufacturers is destroying entire ecosystems and areas of land. I couldn’t sit back. I had to do something about it.” (www.offsetwarehouse.com)
Charlie decided to put all the MA research onto a website as a fledgling business. That was five years ago, moving from part time to full time in 2013. By dint of her single-minded efforts she has established a more than credible online location for sourcing ethical and sustainable fabric and a superb reference site.
She also just happens to have a blog following of 75,000 – entitled The Swatch Book (twice a week on good days, those unencumbered by trade show attendance that is). If ever there was a validation for blogging on an area with a dearth of information, combined with a confused understanding of what constitutes ethical and sustainable, and fuelled by growing global interest – this is it.
She avowedly states (like Tamsin Lejeune CEO of Ethical Fashion Forum), she never wants to be seen to preach or brow beat on this subject. Distinctions can also often be contradictory and confusing. Arguing a case for organic cotton, weighed up against the excessive water supply required to produce it, or the proliferation and perpetuation of malaria epidemics in certain countries for example. Or arbitrary, according to political or self-serving standpoints. Instead, Charlie proffers a balanced perspective of whether it is organic or Fair trade, socially or environmentally acceptable with the main consideration; “That as long as you are doing something and are aware, which is better than nothing.” The focus ultimately one might argue is on a simple cycle: inform the producer and inform the consumer.
Most of the fabric sales Offset Warehouse (OW) make are from students and start-up designers with committed hobbyists providing a constant source of business. I asked about the work of Ethical Fashion Forum, well known to Charlie, with a lot of inquiries gratefully passed on from them to OW. It remains to be seen how their new Mysource platform is able to improve on the OW network with its own enviable specialist contacts. Regardless, both are helping to consolidate thinking and raise awareness and positioning across the supply chain for this growing industry.
I was curious how you progress to seventy five thousand followers from a standing start. I discovered that the answer might be due in part to the exponential viral impact of publicity they received from a feature in The Guardian (The Guardian Sustainable Business forum is also hugely respected having committed resources for many years with a clear focus) and being nominated for The Observer Ethical Award in 2012. They were also short-listed to the final thirty-seven from 1000 candidate companies for The Unilever Young Sustainable Award of the year 2016, with a whopping £50k first prize. Sadly just narrowly missing out on the next round and an achievement in itself not without merit.
Being “more fashion forward and on-trend” they also received a mention in a WGSN trend report and that never hurts the numbers. Fact is, with social media engines hungry for information on sustainable fashion and textiles, well-connected news agencies are endorsing OW and its by-association default publicist role. In this encouragingly steadily growing part of the industry OW is clearly a key influencer for sustainable fabric adopters.
One of the features that separate what may be their typical customer is less necessarily a ‘type’ from the broad demographics referred to, but more a behaviorism that engenders loyalty. Because they value their own time and effort in tracking down sustainable fabric sources, finding OW and trusting them to ensure that they can provide credible provenance for their fabric purchases is a win-win. And the rewards for keeping everyone’s conscience clear? An extremely high customer loyalty retention benefit. Allied to the adage of it taking six times more marketing effort to attract a new customer than keep them, the latent value in holding onto them while growing the business could mean major investment kudos for Charlie in the future.
We touched on this subject and any business plans that might warrant seeking further investment. Unsurprisingly, she had already put together a crowd fund investment proposal (Crowd Cube) which apparently did not yield the kind of investor interest that she felt was right for them, but it is under consideration for the future. The bandwidth required just to attempt to put investment proposals together can undermine the day-to-day running of the business especially for small start-up companies, the people who usually need help the most. However, as with entering professionally orientated award schemes, you raise your game to participate and qualify and the intensive financial gymnastics has pay-off for future endeavors that may not be envisioned at the time. A stress-tested business plan can be extremely useful, dusted down and tweaked for future use.
Interestingly, the OW business is entirely self-funded, working off sales from the website from the start, and Charlie’s risk-averse and levelheaded nature. She has not borrowed or taken on growth strategies out of sync with the capabilities of the business and what her and her team of four can sustain. That said she could still winsomely imagine the benefits of a more aggressive growth strategy, underpinned by financing. It seems that she is sitting in a pretty good place to make that judgment call as and when, supported by experiential benefits in making the business succeed en route.
How might any future funding be used and to promote what particular strategies I asked? Sensibly, the first focus is on expanding the product range to increase turnover, to include knitwear in response to numerous customer inquiries. Currently the fabrics they stock are predominantly from a mix of Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal, India (hand-woven) with machine-woven fabrics from France, as well as stocking recycled polyester.
The other area that eats up cash and twinned with uncertainty is the much vaunted ‘trade show’ where we first met. The justification for shelling out for a stand and waiting to see what happens can make or break not just the year for a small company, but the company itself. Glad to hear Textile Forum for their first-time engagement in the show was successful for them with some “significant buyers” topping up the orders at the end. Because of the nature of who their buyer is – they will mostly only ever be buying low metre volumes (priced around £15 per metre depending on fabric and quantity) so by definition they need many buyers to cover the exhibition costs alone.
On the consideration wish list is Premier Vision (PV) in Paris. With over 1900 exhibitors and the biggest, single annual textile show held each year, I can understand why. It’s a bit like the international buyers who only ever attend Paris for women’s fashion week, or Florence for men’s. You’ve got to be there to seduce this broader range of buyer (and arguably the more professional international and UK domestic buyer at the same time). But these shows take a big slice out of the budget and introduce more significant risk, playing with the big boys.
The engaging thing about Charlie and OW is the fact that they are actively engaging the market. All their manufacturers are visited to satisfy their quality control criteria and establish the levels of certification that they stand behind. It is after all, all about ethics. “We work directly with the weavers and suppliers and I know who they are personally.” They have built a reputation on an ethical fabric sourcing credibility, and so clearly do not take it lightly. Some buyers may suspect the pricing strategy without perhaps realizing the bulk buying power of OW has in fact enabled a far more attractive price point than they could achieve independently with such low individual buying volumes. Plus the fact that it is an online business model, there’s no bricks and mortar increasing the costs to the customer. OW’s value proposition is to ensure same day delivery of swatches and to keep their prices competitive for their target buyer. Considerations such as low sampling quantities are often the only affordable route for many first time designers.
As a further reminder of the potential to get tied in ethical knots was the example Charlie gave before we parted company of a buyer who asked specifically
“Can you show me all the fabric you have that does not have certification? These are the producers I want to support.” And there you have it, a non-conundrum that still gets the job done. When you consider the prohibitive costs associated with achieving certification with some of the bodies for a small producer, it’s arguably ethical if you have the integrity and knowledge to understand what makes it a sustainable fabric in the first place. And you know where to go to get it from a trustworthy, reliable source (e.g. ethical factory or similar). Offset Warehouse does this job so you don’t have to. And it continues to do it very well by all accounts, bananas included so I’m told.
And two great blogs to follow:
Sew Obsessed is where we offer technical advice and tips on how to sew fabrics, and where we showcase the amazing things you’re making at home. Please do send us in your photos and we’ll feature them.
The Swatch Book is where designers discover must-know trends and amazing manufacturing and design-related articles to help their work and design businesses. Get in touch if you’d like your work to be promoted or with an article you’d like to write and we’ll feature it! (From www.offsetwarehouse.com)
By Paul Markevicius