Live From ACCM: Trading With a Conscience

Orlando, FL – When Fair Indigo launched 18 months ago, it incorporated all three channels – catalog, Website, and retail – into the business model, according to CEO/cofounder Bill Bass.

Why dive into all three channels at once? “If you don’t start with a store, and add them later, they end up being the orphan child,” he said “We wanted to start with all three channels as part of our DNA.”

In his Tuesday keynote session, “Style with a Conscience: The Making of a Multichannel Company,” at the ACCM, Bass noted that Fair Indigo currently has only has one store, but it plans to open more.

“People want to see, touch, and feel clothes,” he said. “It’s very important for an apparel business to have a store.”

In addition to clothing, Fair Indigo sells coffee, tea, and gifts, all made by “fair trade” companies — those that pay workers more than the minimal wages of sweatshops.

Before he started Fair Indigo, Bass worked at Lands’ End and Sears. So, why Fair Indigo? He said one of the reasons for starting the company was because more products viewed as “alternative” are moving to the mainstream.

“Fair Trade Coffee has moved to the mainstream as have organic foods,” he said. “You see organic foods in Wal-Mart, and hybrid cars are more popular now. There are a bunch of alternative things now moving into the mainstream.”

Socially responsible clothing is what Fair Indigo is all about. “We said, ‘let’s start a company and take fair trade clothing into the mainstream,’’’ Bass explained. “We have our own apparel brand, and we target socially conscious men and women aged 35-55. Our clothes aren’t that differentiated. I go to the factories and take the photos because we want to connect the clothes to the people behind the clothes.”

Workers who are paid a living wage – what Bass estimated to be about twice the minimum wage – “can lift them out of a cycle of poverty.” Bass told attendees that about 70% of the business is generated by online sales, 25% through the catalog, and 5% from the store.

Under the heading “Lessons Learned,” Bass said Fair Indigo’s initial catalog was filled with too many big pictures and not enough product. Regarding environmental issues, he cited a recent study that found two-thirds of the population is concerned about the environment and global warming. But, “we don’t show enough concern for the environment as an industry. We print with 30% post-consumer waste and we quantify what we save,” as far as number of trees, water, energy, solid waste, and carbon dioxide.

Given spiraling costs for paper and postage, Bass said he changed his mind and now advocates sending PDF versions of catalogs. “When they get the real catalog two weeks later, you’ve hit them twice,” he said.

Will print catalogs ever go away for good? “I don’t think they’ll disappear,” Bass said. “The resolution in print is much better than the resolution online.” He also spoke about his company’s use of video on its Website, referencing a tear-jerking story about a co-op of disabled workers in Peru. “You get that emotional connection,” he said.

Fair Indigo has its own apparel brand, call center, and fulfillment center, Bass said. He estimated it cost approximately $15 million to start the company. “People who are socially conscious will continue to be socially conscious,” he said. The term “carbon footprint” was unknown a couple of years ago, he added.

Bass said he founded Fair Indigo to give customers the option to have their clothes made sweatshop-free, without forcing the customer to accept higher prices or lower quality or style. And that message, he said, has resonated with the growing numbers of socially conscious consumers.

Is Bass afraid of more fair trade companies entering the marketplace? “The more companies adopting fair trade products, the better it is for everyone,” he said. “I just hope they don’t dilute the meaning.”

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