The True Value of Ethical Fashion
Can fashion be ethical AND reasonably priced? For Mackenzie Yeates and the co-founders of KOTN, the answer is yes. Here’s how they did it.
When the founders of KOTN came together to start a new kind of clothing company, their concept was simple: make a good-quality T-shirt that was ethically produced and didn’t cost $100.
It wasn’t going to be easy. The fashion business generated $2.5 trillion in global annual revenues prior to the pandemic, profits that are sustained by the exploitation of garment workers and disregard for the environment. The industry frequently overworks and underpays its employees, while its factories and farms are rife with human rights abuses.
These urgent problems are further entrenched by insatiable consumer appetite for cheap, fast fashion, which can only be produced under unethical conditions.
There have been efforts to fix these long-standing issues. A 2016 “Transparency Pledge”—now signed by thousands of fashion companies—promised to create accountability by publishing the names, addresses, and other details of the factories they use. Still, abuses within the supply chain persist, especially in places like Bangladesh and China, where manufacturers for some of the world’s biggest clothing companies are located.
This is the system that Mackenzie Yeates and her co-founders, Benjamin Sehl and Rami Helali, confronted when they created KOTN.
They set out to achieve the near impossible: create a supply chain that would be completely traceable, from the first seed to the final stitch.
Prior to the company’s 2015 launch, the trio spent months personally building out a network of cotton farmers, distributors, and manufacturers on the ground in Egypt. Since then, that network has expanded to include thousands of workers who spin, dye, cut, and sew the material for KOTN across Egypt, Portugal, and Ireland.
Swimming against the tide of an exploitative status quo, KOTN—now a certified B Corp—has made a name for itself as a champion of ethical fashion, a legacy they hope will have ripple effects throughout the industry.
Two Egyptian cotton farmers from the Nile Delta.
We toss the word “sustainability” around quite a bit. But what were the specific issues within the fashion industry that you wanted KOTN to address?
That’s the trickiest part about the word sustainability: it doesn’t really mean anything anymore. Everybody uses it. But for us, we really focus on building sustainable communities, and the people that we work with are the main focus. We want to make sure that the environments that they live in are impacted as minimally as possible.
We also build schools in the farming regions in Egypt where we work. That to us was the way that we could build the most sustainable community: actually giving people the tools to continue their own industries and advance their own communities themselves instead of giving them a handout.
Can you break down how exactly that traceable supply chain works?
It was a lot easier in the early days because we were just making T-shirts. So we literally went to farming villages, met farmers, got to know them, and then built relationships with people that distributed the cotton, so we knew exactly which farms the cotton was coming from.
We follow the raw material through every stage of the process: the yarn spinning, the fabric weaving, the dyeing, and the cut-and-sew. For a lot of brands that talk about transparency, it’s just the cut-and-sew factories, which isn’t anything revolutionary. – Mackenzie Yeates
There are a lot of unethical or unsustainable things that happen prior to that, especially with farming and dyeing. So to us, just knowing who we’re working with is the first step, [while] making sure that they’re doing things in the way that is up to our standard.
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How were you able to make those initial connections with your producers in Egypt?
I could never have done it on my own, but my business partner Rami is Egyptian. He was born in Cairo and speaks Arabic, and just by speaking to relatives and people that he knows in Egypt, he was connected to the farming villages. His maternal grandfather was from one of these villages, so we literally just went there and started talking to people.
It was really just getting people’s phone numbers, calling them on WhatsApp, and starting to build relationships in the old-fashioned way.
In some cases, these relationships can still be exploitative. How do you make sure that doesn’t happen at KOTN?
I don’t know if it’s possible to say that would never happen, because we are growing and there are a lot of areas where we don’t have visibility. But we do really believe—especially in Egypt—in having boots on the ground, our own team that is based there.
So we have an office in Cairo, and we have a team that goes to these factories, goes to the farms, [maintains] relationships, checks certifications. That’s one way, as a small business, that we can help control things.
How much more would you say it’s costing KOTN to operate sustainably?
I don’t know if I can give an exact figure, but a T-shirt shouldn’t cost the price of a sandwich.
A lot of times you can get a T-shirt for a lot less than a sandwich these days, and that’s pretty scary when you consider all the different people that need to touch it and the places that it travels from around the world. – Mackenzie Yeates
So I think our prices reflect what we think is the best possible value that we can give our customers while still maintaining a certain standard.
How does the fashion industry account for the fact that for a lot of people, it is simply too expensive to shop sustainably?
I think it’s really hard because it’s like a two-way street. I think there’s a responsibility that companies have, but there’s also a responsibility that customers have. And I think even if you buy something from H&M or Shein, there are more responsible ways to buy from those companies.
If you buy something that you’re going to wear a lot over a long period of time and not immediately throw out, then it’s a much more sustainable way of shopping overall. I do think there are other ways of shopping sustainably, and obviously, thrifting and vintage shopping have become a lot more socially acceptable in the past 30 years.
We just need to retrain ourselves as consumers that we should have only a few things in our wardrobe that are better quality and more expensive.
Can you talk about the impact that KOTN is having beyond the supply chain?
We started by offering subsidies in the form of fertilizer and [resources] like that. When the farmers would come and collect it, they had to show their ID and sign for it. And half the signatures on the page were just thumbprints. So that was this very visual, obvious way that we learned that literacy was a major problem in this community and all through these farming communities in Egypt.
And then the more time we spent there, we also saw a lot of kids running around during the day, on the farms or just around the villages. So we partnered with an NGO based in Egypt, and we started raising money to build our first community school. We basically took a portion of every sale for an entire year to build one school.
And now we’ve built a foundation, which is called the ABCs Project.
Every Black Friday, we don’t go on sale; instead, we donate 100 per cent of all the proceeds that we make toward building schools. – Mackenzie Yeates
Now we’ve funded 18 schools, and each one has a mandate that at least 50 per cent of the students have to be girls. So I think for us, helping give people education is a way that they can create their own poverty alleviation.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tayo Bero is an award-winning culture critic, writer, and radio producer. Her work appears regularly in publications like the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, Refinery29, and on CBC Radio.