Since 2012, Google searches for “ethical fashion” have increased by 25%, and for “sustainable fashion” by 46%. Today, more people than ever care about where their clothes come from, and how they’re produced.
Seeing the opportunity, young entrepreneur Jonathan Mitchell started Brothers We Stand, a menswear collection curated with strong ethical credentials. “We give people an opportunity to buy clothes that have meaning,” Jonathan explains. “Knowing provenance means we can know that we’ve helped someone work in a place where they are safe, for example, or provided a good income that allows someone to send their child to school. For our customers, these stories are embedded in the clothes.”
With larger retailers becoming more aware about materials, production methods and the need for transparency, we talked to Jonathan about why his brand is different, how he’s winning followers, and the importance of staying relevant in a market that’s changing fast.
Sparks: How did you get interested in “ethical clothing” – and what exactly is it?
Jonathan Mitchell: At university I studied international development, did my dissertation on Nike’s supply chain in Pakistan, and read Development as Freedom by the Indian economist Amartya Sen. He argues that instead of increasing GDP, we need to increase opportunities for people to do the things they value. On a simple level, when we make anything, the processes we use can have positive or negative impacts on the world. I noticed some menswear designers were seeking to produce clothes in a way that made positive impacts. I thought it would be good to bring them together in one place so it was easier for others to find them.
Practically, how did you start a business?
I had a bit of entrepreneurial experience: I’d sold fizzy drinks and sweets from my locker at school, and after university, I worked for a social enterprise making chutney from surplus fruit and veg. Through writing a blog, I got in touch with some brands. I did an internship with a fashion company that did e–commerce, and learned about holding stock. I wrote a business plan and applied for a £3,100 loan from The Prince’s Trust in 2012. That was the start.
What was your vision – and where did the name come from?
‘Brothers We Stand’ uses the idea that the men and women who make our clothes are our brothers and sisters in humanity. I wanted to create a brand that fulfills a purpose and is enjoyable for people to interact with.From an early stage of planning, I identified three criteria that I wanted items in my collection to have: design, provenance and quality. Reading market research reports, I saw that, increasingly, people are attracted to the idea of buying a smaller number of better quality items. This dovetailed with reducing consumption, environmentally.
When you began, how did you perceive the market opportunity?
Among consumers, particularly millennials, interest in sustainability was on the rise, but the ethical fashion movement was at an early stage. Pioneers such as People Tree had introduced the concept a couple of decades before, but most consumers weren’t aware of the issues, or didn’t believe ethical alternatives were available. Then there was an upsurge in interest, with organisations such as the Ethical Fashion Forum nurturing small ethical and sustainable labels. At the same time, larger companies such as Patagonia and Nudie Jeans were showing it was possible to create great products and do it in a sustainable and ethical manner. But the number of clothing brands that were producing collections with a strong design aesthetic, alongside an ethical and sustainable USP, was very small.
How did you invite Sparks on board?
I’ve known Gary and Michael for years, and chatted with them about my idea. Gary sent me an idea for a logo, and this became really effective for us, practically. To make my values more accessible, Sparks came up with “Designed to please” (design), “Ethical production” (provenance) and “Created to last” (quality). I’ve worked with Sparks closely over the last five years, and it’s helped Brothers We Stand to develop a very clear, standout identity. That’s enabled us to grow.
As well as your own brand, you’ve curated a collection of 14 other ethical brands. For them, what’s the advantage of joining Brothers We Stand?
We bring them additional sales at no extra effort. We mirror their pricing on our platform, and offer independent validation of their ethical stance. Also, we tell their stories for them.
What difference does ethical clothing make – why does it matter?
“Ethical” and “sustainable” are umbrella terms, and can be a bit vague. Our take is that Brothers We Stand gives people an opportunity to buy clothes that have meaning. We want Brothers We Stand to be the place where people can find the leading options. Knowing the provenance of our clothes means we know that they helped someone work in a place where they are safe, for example, or provided a good income allowing someone to send their child to school. It’s connected to quality of life. For our customers, these stories are embedded in the clothes. The first step toward change is transparency. Each of our brands has areas for development. We share these areas in our product footprints with the brands themselves and also our customers. We say “Here’s the information”, and that means change can happen.
Is ethical clothing accessible for everyone, or still too pricey? Is there much quality and choice?
People email us saying “We are so glad to have discovered you.” A lot of people want to shop more ethically. We don’t want to make things that are exclusive – but we also have to be pragmatic, look at the business opportunity, and work out where we sit. Patagonia is a good model. Their stuff is well made and lasts a long time. In the long term, someone who saves up to buy an item from Patagonia will save money. We need to frame our ethical initiative in a way that gives our customers value.I believe in ethical products, but also in beauty, and things that are useful, and products that do what they are meant to do. There’s always the opportunity for brands to improve quality. One good thing about the brands we work with is that they are committed to doing things well, and pushing things forward.
What difference is Sparks making to your business?
The brand Sparks has created for us has been fundamental to our success. Sparks created a standout visual identity that appeals to our customers and business partners, and provides a foundation to realise our vision. Working with Sparks helps us retain a stable identity while remaining open to refining and developing our brand offering. Identity is so important – if you think about what you wear, you want to make the right impression. Thanks to Sparks, we have branding which helps us get other brands on board, and build customers’ trust. It’s also helping us communicate that we are a brand that makes a difference and improves quality of life. In addition, Sparks provides strategic guidance, helping us translate ideas into more developed concepts. It’s guided us to retain distinctiveness and challenged ideas that may not have been effective solutions.
What’s the next step for Brothers We Stand?
Sales in December 2018 doubled year–on–year, and I think we are on the edge of growth. By keeping the business small initially, I’ve done a lot of learning without wasting any money. Now I’m talking to an accelerator about finding an investor that can add value. Finding our place in the world is an evolving process. Sparks has been part of that from the start, and I’m excited to continue with its support and expertise.
Take a look at the work we did for Brothers We Stand here.
We talked to Jonathan about why his ethical menswear brand is different, how he’s winning followers, and the importance of telling stories to stay relevant in a fast–changing market.