How Know the Origin Built an Ethical Brand from the Ground Up

For years now I've been fantasizing about starting my own line of ethical clothing, and I'm always inspired by those who have actually taken the plunge! Charlotte Instone and Laura Lodge did just that when they founded Know the Origin, a line of beautiful basics that follows ethical processes from seed to garment. I spoke with Instone about the company's roots and startup process, as well as her team's recent trip to India. Whether you're a budding ethical entrepreneur or a pipe-dreamer like me, I think you'll enjoy their story. 

What inspired you to start Know the Origin? Were you always interested in ethical fashion, or was it something you discovered later? 

I started studying Fashion Buying and Merchandising at the London College of Fashion simply with the desire to do what I love - create awesome clothing. I was learning how to produce clothing and the process at every stage, but had never stopped to ask who was actually making these garments. But when Rana Plaza, a factory in Bangladesh, collapsed in 2013 it opened my eyes to how the fashion industry holds profit above all else, at a huge environmental and social cost. I knew I didn’t want to be a part of this system. This inspired me to start Know The Origin, so I could follow my passion and work with incredible producers that wanted to create positive change in the fashion industry.

Who is your target audience? Can you describe the typical KTO customer? 

The KTO customers are people who are uncompromising - in style and in values. People who love classic, simple pieces and share our values of joy and respect for people and the environment.

Your branding is spot on. Did you work with an agency, or did you do everything in-house? 

Thank you! All the Know The Origin branding has been done in-house. It’s been a huge process, with lots of incredible people supporting us and adapting it, but it’s definitely one of the things I think matters most.

What do you think is one of the biggest challenges in marketing ethical products? 

One of the biggest challenges has definitely been the existing prejudice against ethical clothing. As soon as we describe KTO as “ethical clothing” people often ask if it is expensive (or, you can practically see images of ugly, overly-hippy outfits dancing around in their heads!). We've tried to shatter this stereotype with our branding and products. Our Foundation Set is entirely fair trade and organic whilst also being stylish and affordable.

How hard was it for you to find suppliers and and factories that met your standards and upheld your company's ideals? 

I don’t want to say “oh, it was so difficult,” because I know this is often used as an excuse for brands to not try to find suppliers with uncompromising ethical standards. There is an incredible network of amazing suppliers and factories out there! But the real test is finding ones that have full transparency and can trace where their thread, dyes, fabrics and cotton comes from. This is where research and energy is required. However, it’s been utterly and completely worth it.

As ethical fashion becomes more and more mainstream, greenwashing (or “goodwashing”) is a real problem. How do you ensure that KTO walks the walk? Can you share some of the direct positive benefits to people and communities that your brand has achieved so far? 

This is where transparency is key (and just to avoid buzzword confusion - I don’t mean we are selling entirely see-through garments!).Transparency is all about giving consumers all the information about exactly where each part of the garment is made. It creates brand-customer accountability so there is nowhere for any dark, not-so-green secrets to hide. I don’t want to take credit for the incredible benefits our suppliers and factories have in their communities - it’s just so cool that we get to be a part of their journey!

We work with a factory called Freeset in Kolkata where all the pieces are made by women who have chosen to leave Kolkata’s sex trade and are being supported in their next stage of life both with a sustainable income but also with mental health support. Then in Telangana we work with Chetna, a 100% farmer owned cotton co-operative. It is entirely organic so farmers aren’t trapped in a cycle of debt and bad health that is associated with chemically treated cotton. Additionally, they provide food security training so food crops can be planted alongside the cotton. As KTO grows we are excited to support more incredible producers, whilst also using our profits to support these communities. 

Tell us a little bit about your recent trip to India. Any travel tips?

I think traveling is just about going with the flow! You can’t really predict what will happen, and we have had some pretty hilarious and incredible experiences in India so far! Our recent trip was awesome. It’s amazing that on our “business trips” we get to meet so many wonderful people. We were able to hang out with the people that work in our supply chain and chat with our producers who are incredibly passionate about supporting their community. I wish I could sum the entire experience up but I can’t! I'm just excited to go back. Favorite areas are Jaipur and Dharamsala are by far some of the most beautiful parts of India!

What (or who) is your style spirit animal?

Haha, this is the first time we have been asked this, so points for originality! I have to say Emma Watson. I am loving her ethical hype at the minute - and she does it so stylishly! Beautiful, minimal, ethical style. And I totally love the transition from frizzy haired Hermione to immaculate UN ambassador - gives me hope! 

Check out KTO's website to learn more about their supply chain or shop the foundation set.