Founder’s Letter

Founder’s Letter: Travel Light / Live Light

September, 2023

It’s a fairly universal opinion that travel is more enjoyable if you aren’t lugging around a giant suitcase. In this month’s founder’s letter, Andrew Olah shares a story about an interesting new test project run by Japan Airlines and how it connects to the overconsumption in the apparel industry.

Two months ago, I saw a story in the New York Post (a paper I find the most irresistible read in America). I knew one day I’d write about or at least share it. It’s about Japan Airlines, which is testing the idea of renting travel clothes to passengers when they arrive for their trip. The project is called Any Wear, Anywhere. I love this idea. How cool would it be to arrive in Tokyo and have your airline greet you with a small package of clothes for you to wear during your stay. How crazy good would it be to hand it back to them on departure and fly home without luggage or laundry?

To me, it’s a great idea because the reality is you don’t really “need” much when you travel — and that thought transports me to a wide and varied range of considerations.

The first being that no one really needs many clothes at all. We already have lots and there are so many more available that are not being used. There are clothes hanging at Goodwill, clothes at vintage stores, clothes our friends and family no longer wear. We don’t NEED clothes. We need food and water. We need medicine. We need a place to sleep and most of us need humor, warmth or love. But clothes? Not really. We like them and want them and buy them. But the concept in many parts of our industry is to buy well beyond what we need. Stores want you to buy as much as possible regardless of what you need.

For a trip to Japan without luggage, we’d need (at least me) a pair of jeans, a chino, a T-shirt, a woven shirt and a jacket. Under stuff, of course, could easily fit in a carry-on bag.

The whole love affair people have with shopping is, for the most part, both a waste of time and unnecessary. In the end, shopping is a luxury that encourages people to buy more than they need. Perhaps it’s actually a sign of weakness that a wider wardrobe is the way you have to roll. Honestly, how can a new pair of anything possibly make you feel better?

Many consumers are trapped in this cycle of perpetual consumption. I have discussed before the harmful nature of an endless wave of new products put out season after season. At Kingpins, we look for ways to reduce or reuse materials and we encourage our exhibitors and attendees to do the same in their own businesses.

Years ago (maybe 2004), Christine Rucci, who calls herself the Godmother of Denim, created a men’s collection called 5EP that I still think is GENIUS. The brand name stands for FIVE EASY PIECES (which was for Jack Nicolson, a 1970 career-changing movie produced by the same guy that did “Easy Rider,” one of the most important films in American history and a seminal film for jean lovers. But I digress).

Christine’s point was that no man needs more than five pieces of clothes and I think Japan Airlines needs to meet her ASAP. She believed those five pieces should be made of high-quality, Japanese selvage denim and two-ply cotton twills, so they would not only last but also be best-in-class garments. I doubt JAL will go that route. They probably will rent items of about the same quality as Uniqlo or Muji — not great and not bad. It’s cheaper to constantly replace products than buy the best first time out.

As governments and intellectuals gather in unknown places whispering to each other about new legislation for our industry, I think that one of the best ideas for them to embrace is to simply raise taxes on clothes, just like cigarettes, and make people buy less forcing them to buy better like Christine Rucci thought years ago. And before anyone starts arguing about the impact of inflation, bear in mind that, in general, the cost of clothing has not increased in line with other “necessities” such as housing and transportation. Even as the price of a house or a new car typically and steadily rises over time, retail prices for clothing have largely remained flat — or worse, have decreased.

In the end, the fashion industry needs to think less about fashion (and I’m not even sure what that is anymore) and more about the 5EP every consumer — women, men or kids — need and how to offer a set of new 5EP every season.

The Heat is On, Anyone care?

This year, I have been to many denim mills, garment factories, laundries and spinning factories in Turkey, Vietnam, China, Egypt, etc. None of these facilities have air conditioning and the workers in the factories are “sizzling” like cheese on a croque monsieur. (Or, if they do have A/C, it’s reserved for offices and not for the factory floor.)

When we all talk about how the weather is getting hotter and hotter, our general concern is about how hot it is inside our home or how hot we are walking to work or how hot it is for our granny when she goes shopping or the temperature inside our car.

I don’t have a car, but I’ve been in cars this summer where the thermometer read 115 degrees fahrenheit (46 celsius) and that freaks me out.

And then there are the zillions of humans who work in factories, like the ones I have seen, who also don’t have cars but commute to work each day by bus (no A/C) or motorcycle or by foot only to work in agonizing conditions to make clothes none of us need.

Just think for a second how hot it has been this summer for a human being working in the dye factory of your denim mill in India, Bangladesh, China or Pakistan. Think about how wrong it is that they not only earn so much less than you or your friends, but they do it in a condition that is unfathomable to you.

I wasn’t sure if social compliance covers the temperature in factories, so I reached out to Avedis Seferian, president and CEO of WRAP. He said some places around the world do have laws that prohibit working when temperatures exceed a certain number (typically 104 Fahrenheit / 40 Celsius), but the laws are specific to the whole town, not necessarily a single location. So temperatures would have to be high across the entire town or city.

But even if there’s no law regarding working in extreme heat, Seferian said WRAP auditors will alert management if they find excessively hot workplaces and generally companies will be responsive to the situation and try to come up with a solution to the problem, like better ventilation.

The Washington Post just ran a story about garment workers in Thailand enduring extreme temperatures on the job. If that doesn’t inspire your sympathy, consider the impact on the bottom line. The New York Times recently looked at the impact of sweltering temperatures on worker productivity. And it’s not good.

Our industry needs to alert legislators. Ask them to come stand beside a dye range in Chittagong, spending an eight-hour-day working next to that machine as it makes fabrics we don’t need.

Surely our industry could all agree that people who work on our products should not work under these conditions. There is an answer for this growing problem if we all want one.

-Andrew Olah

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