#edGY: Jacob & Esau: New purveyors of ethical fashion

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EVER wondered who makes the clothes that you wear? Or where each component of your outfit comes from? The tiny “Made in China” label does not tell you much.

Malaysian-born Joanne Yu and Esther Chin, who currently reside in Melbourne, Australia, used to wonder about the clothes they bought and wore and decided to go a bit further.

Their mission is to bridge the gap between garment makers and consumers by creating a fair and sustainable work culture through their new ethical clothing line, Jacob & Esau.

Ethical clothing represents an approach to the design, sourcing and manufacturing of clothing which maximises the benefits to people and communities and minimises the impact of production on the environment.

Jacob & Esau is an online clothing store that aims to go back to basics with the idea of “treating others as you would want to be treated”. This means ensuring fair treatment of workers in the supply chain. The fledgling fashion line had successfully crowdfunded some A$15,966 from 119 supporters on the Australian Pozible platform to kick-start their dreams of changing the fashion industry.

The Awakening

Six years ago, Yu and Chin met at a church in Melbourne. Yu was a law graduate while Chin left her degree course in physiotherapy to pursue her passion in fashion design.

The idea of setting up Jacob & Esau struck Yu when she attended a World Vision Conference which focused on the plight of child labourers in India.

“When I grew up in Malaysia, I had no idea about ethical fashion. I just wanted to shop where it’s cheap and find the best bargains. [But the conference] opened my eyes to see that there are these things happening somewhere in the world,” Yu tells #edGY via Skype.

Many might not be aware of the unimaginably harsh working conditions in sweatshops. In 2003, Honduran garment factory workers were paid only US$0.24 for each US$50 Sean John sweatshirt and US$0.05 for each short-sleeved shirt — less than 0.5% of the retail price. In addition to the poor living environment and inadequate health support, garment makers are also often overworked and underfed.

Like Yu, Chin had a similar awakening when she watched a poignant video depicting the dismal conditions of sweatshops in China. In order to pursue her dreams in the industry, Chin was compelled to start with a difference.

The name “Jacob & Esau” refers to two

biblical characters who were brothers. Jacob was known as the “clean cut, quiet child” while Esau was the “outdoor hunter”. The combination translates into how Chin envisions her clothing design to be: simple, clean, basic sort of design, with the occasional “wild” piece of clothing.

“A lot of the ethical clothing items here are either very expensive or they aren’t very trendy. Some apparel can go up to A$150 to A$300,” says Yu. “People always have this misconception that ethical clothes are like … coarse sort of fabric with boring colours, so we want it to be a very normal sort of clothing which people would be proud to wear.”

Yu and Chin then teamed up for Jacob & Esau, with friends occasionally helping to manage their social media accounts and website design.

They are learning to establish a comprehensive and efficient system in delivering and running their business. It has been a steep learning curve.

“Setting up the initial systems for things like shipping, paying our overseas workers, fulfilment of orders — these are very basic things in our business and we’ve got to iron them out now so that it’ll be easier for us later on,” Yu says.

The duo have flown to Bali, Indonesia, twice to meet and coordinate with garment makers, the husband-and-wife team of Kholil and Wiwik, initially footing out some A$4,000 to purchase fabric and pay their workers.

Meet your maker

The first batch of clothing recently arrived from Bali to Melbourne for Jacob & Esau’s early funders and supporters on Pozible.

The garments are sourced from Kholil and Wiwik, who are currently the only garment makers for Jacob & Esau. They produce about 150 garments per month, and are paid an average of A$7 to A$12 on a per-garment basis, depending on the complexity of the design.

At the moment, Yu and Chin’s main focus is to assemble a team of garment makers, starting out in Indonesia. They have appointed a Bali-based project manager to help liaise between Yu, Chin and the garment makers. They plan to expand their team based on the demand from customers.

One key initiative of Jacob & Esau is “Meet your maker”, an online tool that aims to connect garment makers and consumers all over the world, allowing consumers to meet Kholil, Wiwik and every other maker whom Jacob & Esau partners with in the future.

A unique code is attached to each garment, identifying the maker and revealing personal interviews that help customers build relationships with them.

Yu says that they have yet to construct a solid system for the initiative. They have received feedback requesting that consumers be allowed to personally interact with garment makers via online messaging rather than a video interview. She notes that the team is still working on the mechanics and that this feature will constantly evolve to suit the needs of both consumers and garment makers.

Ethical clothing is not a common term for many. However, with the help of social media, Yu can easily get the message across to those who may not be familiar with the idea. For her, Australia is a good starting point, as people are more open to new ideas and ways of running a business.

“It’s easier to go into different communities, like letterbox dropping, or go to different churches to speak, or approach different ethical fashion bloggers to do a cover post. I mean, all the Malaysian supporters are mainly friends and they just want to back this up, which is really good.”

According to Jacob & Esau’s social media statistics, the largest consumer demographic who has responded very well to their content are young working adults, ranging from 25 to 35 years old, 65% of whom are women. However, Yu stresses that their brand will cater to both men and women of all ages and profiles.

Building meaningful relationships through fashion

As a new online business, there are still many components that are not set in stone for Jacob & Esau, but what is pivotal to Yu and Chin is to establish a corporate philosophy before they start with everything else. For them, it is accountability between workers and employers.

“When we visited [the garment makers], we asked them, ‘What is important to you?’ and ‘What do you appreciate the most?’. To them, it’s important to be flexible and to work in the comfort of their homes where they can raise their children.

“We don’t want to overwork them because that is our biggest fear. They have a lot of friends who were garment workers who had fainted while working because they were just too tired. So they told us that that was what they saw and what they do not want,” Yu explains.

Designing and producing beautiful garments are just one part of Jacob & Esau’s grand plan. Ultimately, they aim to manufacture for other brands, making their supply chain more sustainable.

Recognising the importance of having a profitable business model, Yu and Chin strongly believe that it does not have to be at the expense of the environment or their workers.

This article first appeared in #edGY, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 17 - 23, 2014.