Asket: menswear aiming for 100% traceability
Swedish label Asket is a menswear brand that, in its core, aims to challenge the very nature of fast fashion. "Garments, products of delicate labour and precious resources, have lost their value. We buy more and use them less than ever - packing our wardrobes, filling landfills and fueling incinerators. ASKET exists to end this,” says the brand’s website. Co-founded by August Bard Bringeus and Jakob Dworksky, who met while studying at the Stockholm School of Economics, Asket (translation from Swedish: ascetic - a person who does without extravagance and abundance) offers a permanent collection of zero-compromise pieces. Natural materials are responsibly sourced; standard sizing is replaced by an extended size system; all the factories and mills that create the collection are known - and knows well. Recently, the brand launched its first ever Traceability Report, sharing its progress in going for 100% traceability across the whole collection. BEL JACOBS talks to Bard Bringeus about the aims and challenges of the brand.
Describe the learning curve over the past three years.
[The brand launched when] my co-founder Jakob and I grew frustrated with how hard is was to find good quality wardrobe essentials like classic T-shirtS or the ideal Oxford shirt. Instead, we found unnecessary details, useless pockets and colours that were out-of-date the second they hit shop shelves. There was always some sort of compromise - be it fit, overpaying for “quality” or paying too little for garments of dubious origin. So, we set out on a mission to free wardrobe essentials from the constant churn of fashion fads.
The response was overwhelming when we launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to start producing our first T-shirt. We asked for €10,000 euros and got almost five times that. Buoyed by our cash injection and more importantly the validation that people liked our idea, we set off to create our first garment. Neither of us had worked in fashion before, so we absorbed ourselves in every part of the process; design, material selection, picking suppliers, visiting facilities. While we were excited to bring a fresh perspective to the table, at the same time, the industry opened our eyes.
A garment as simple as a white T-shirt demands acres of land, drinks 2700L of water, emits 2kg of CO2 and requires over an hour of craftmanship. Despite all this, people don’t seem to think twice about paying €5 for it. This simply didn’t add up. We realized that, in a bid to make more money, the industry had fallen into a negative spiral of selling more stuff, to more people, at lower prices. And all at the expense of planet and people. In that moment, we decided we didn’t want to add to the fashion industry, we wanted to change it.
What took you by surprise when trying to track the supply chain?
While we certainly didn’t think clothes grew on trees, we were overcome by the shear complexity of the garment supply chain, even for a small collection like ours. Raw materials from multiple locations, intermediaries, specialised manufacturing in different locations and countless hands involved throughout. By its very nature, the supply chain can be incredibly hard to untangle. With 22 garments [in the collection], we have over 400 processes and locations to get to grips with.
What surprised us most, though, was that the knowledge level of suppliers, across all tiers, varies wildly and there is total lack of readily available, standardised information. We realised that the established ‘made-in’ label, had set up an opaque system that demands zero accountability.
When we set out to make a garment, traceability is automatically part of the criterion. It does mean that we face a more limited range of suppliers who can comply with our demands. And, in partnering with us, our suppliers know they need to start investigating.
The beauty in having a single permanent collection is that it gives us time and the resources to dig into our supply chain and build strong partnerships across the whole value chain.
You're very open when you don't reach full transparency on an item. What are the intentions behind this openness - and what are the factors that still prevent a garment from being 100 per cent traceable?
Our goal is to show people exactly what goes into making their clothes. Because when you better understand the material, the complexity and the craftmanship involved, you’ll understand the value in it and respect it more. Not only that: by tracing the journey of our clothes, we hope to uncover some truths, better understand the process, recognise the impact it has on people, planet as well as animal welfare - and ultimately become accountable for it. And not only at ASKET. We hope to set a precedent for the entire industry.
Since launching our Traceability Standard a year ago, we’ve managed to reach 74% traceability across our entire collection; come September, we’ll be at over 80%. It’s good progress but, faced with reluctant suppliers and industry nuances, we underestimated how tough it would be to dig deeper and fully unravel the complexity of the supply chain. Challenges include tracing raw materials which are purchased in bulk at auction, hence erasing the material trial. Suppliers rely on third parties to source trims and smaller components; it’s a system built on the legacy of a fragmented network. And, above all, many suppliers simply just don’t know because they haven’t been asked before.
While reaching 100% traceability is going to be tough, we’re confident it is possible. In opening up about both our progress and challenges, we not only hope to raise awareness of the complexities and idiosyncrasies in the supply chain, we hope to spark a sense of a collective mission – where everyone has a part to play in demanding more transparency. Once we see this, change will start to happen much quicker.
Describe the conflict between of organic fibres and synthetic alternatives in your collection.
We are steadfast in the belief that curbing fast-consumption habits is by far the most effective way to reduce fashion’s impact on the planet. Fabric selection plays an important part in this. Our priority is longevity and durability – of course with a focus on natural materials that are biodegradable. To date, our collection is made up of 85% natural materials (only the underwear and chinos have a main fabric that is a blend of synthetic and natural materials).
For us, the challenge in choosing to commit to either organic fibres or plastic alternatives is that, in terms of durability, organic fibres to fall short. The quality and length of these fibres doesn’t match that of conventional fibres and, as consequence, isn’t as long lasting. What’s more, a recent report from Mistra Future Fashion found data to be inconclusive when comparing the environmental impact between different fibre categories. Instead, the report highlighted that processing as well as lifetime usage of a garment have a far greater part to play on the environmental impact.
There’s no easy answer here. We’re more assured than ever that creating garments that last year after year is a positive step but that doesn’t mean we’ll rinse our hands of responsibility. We’ll continue to carefully select our fabric. We are introducing our first 100% organic cotton item, with the addition of The Shorts to our permanent collection.
This year, we’ll also investigate the full biodegradability of all our garments, including labels, sewing threads and all the trims. And of course, the material impact doesn’t just come from our garments, we have plans to overhaul our packaging too.
You have a section called Garment Care. Why was this important to you?
Fashion has become disposable. Compared to only fifteen years ago, we buy twice as many garments but keep them only half as long. We’ve become used to replacing instead of repairing. Many people, and until recently myself included, don’t even know how to sew a button. Yet, as a consumer, the single best thing you can do reduce your impact is keep your garments for longer. It decreases the need to buy more and, in the long run, reduces an individual’s demand on the planet’s resources as well as reducing their waste output.
We go to great lengths to make garments that last, both in terms of style but and longevity. But there is much more that can be done to prolong a garment’s lifetime. In launching our garment care portal, we hope to educate people in how to take care of, clean and repair their garments – it’s integral to our mission of slowing down consumption.
We also offer lifetime repairs on all our garments; our customers can send their garments to our design studio in Stockholm where we’ll fix them up at no extra charge. And we’re looking to introduce Garment Care Workshops this year too. Big plans for our small but growing team.
The directory of factories is very moving. How did you find the factories you wanted to work with?
We’re so happy to hear you’re a fan of the Factory Directory. Every piece in our collection is a labor of love - and we hope that the directory goes some way in showing this. We started out as two guys with no contacts, googling factories, and gradually built-up a network as well as our understanding. We took the time to find and invest in extremely skilled and seasoned consultants, even for a single specific product, so that they could help us find quality suppliers.
Now, our dedicated product team plays an integral part in visiting all our first and second tier suppliers. It means we’ve been able to build a network of trusted partners. We find that the best supplier can often recommend the best mills and factories, so we’ve seen a positive chain reaction. On top of that, we’ve been proactive in finding manufacturing facilities that are predominately based in Europe. There are stronger labor laws and more stringent laws regarding energy use and waste managements. The proximity of the factories helps in the way of collaboration too. We’re often on the floor looking to improve together.
With the introduction of our Traceability Standard, we’re taking a different approach to sourcing our factories. While industry convention adopts a top down approach, we’ll start by seeing which materials are available to us and work our way up, seeking progressive partners who pioneer better milling and manufacturing practices. This approach will go some way in unravelling the complexity of the supply chain.
There’s certainly a much greater supply of womenswear brands that offer conscious wardrobe options. You need only take a look at some of the sustainable fashion directories online to get a sense. But that’s not necessarily an indication that men are slower to take-up sustainability. Despite the fear of falling into stereotypes, we’ve noticed a difference in men’s and women’s wardrobes. Typically, guys are more reliant on wardrobe basics, whereas women’s wardrobes are more driven by seasonal trends – so there tends to be a greater variety of styles. Given this, it might be fair to argue that men are inherently more sustainable, owning and buying fewer and more timeless items, having the essential wardrobe as a building block and not being as exposed to the inherently unsustainable cycles of constant renewal. Or maybe we’re less adventurous. In general, though, it’s hard to comment on which gender per se is more keen on sustainability.