Looking good, doing better: men’s fashion with ethics, style & sustainability
Recently I chatted with Kevin Harper, founder and manager of clothing label We Are Harper, about what he’s trying to do with his urban brand of menswear. Though I’ve known Kevin for around fifteen years, his new venture covers a number of social, economic and environmental objectives we’re seeing become more prominent in the media. As the Harper website says, “each time you spend money, you cast a vote for the type of society you want to live in. What you buy, and from whom, is a marker of the value you place on equality and self-determination.”
Kevin grew up around Sydney’s Northern Beaches and, whilst he’s always been passionate about fitness, swimming and the outdoors, he initially took the traditional path of university, degree and a position within risk management and the business sector. Working in a highly corporate environment brought home to him that the purpose of most businesses was simply to make money. It wasn’t until he was made redundant that he realised that what would make him happiest would be doing his own thing; starting a business in line with his own values.
As I mentioned in my ‘Purpose 2015’ review, many decades ago the American industrialist Henry Ford noted that a business should be “an instrument of service rather than a machine for making money”, and yet businesses with real purpose seem to be few and far between. We Are Harper seems to be one of those rarities; an organisation with great style, true purpose, and a determination to tread lightly, live consciously and spread the word.
The range of men’s clothing from We Are Harper includes soft, bamboo-cotton T-shirts in a range of colours, stylish black and white tank tops or racer-back tops, and baseball caps; all are beautifully made and available online. I say this not to advertise particular products, but because it’s great to see a slowly-growing range of high-quality products that someone has sourced ethically, thinking about every step in the supply chain from raw materials to production to transport and, in fact, right through to end-of-life when clothing might be recycled or simply composted.
All of the Harper range feature the small red heart logo, since to Kevin “wearing your heart on your sleeve signifies that you value quality, comfortable products that respect the communities we operate in and the planet we all share.”
Kevin is a passionate advocate for conscious living or, in other words, not just accepting what’s in front of us but being aware of the impacts and consequences of the choices we make, whether it’s the coffee we buy, our preferred method of transport, or the clothes we wear. “Good value doesn’t necessarily equate with cheap”, he explains. “Good value is well-made and should last. Cheap clothing may mean you end up buying the same thing several times over because the original fails, and often things are ‘cheap’ because someone, somewhere is working obscene hours in terrible conditions,” Kevin concludes.
The Harper shirts are certified by the Fair Wear Foundation (FWF), an independent, non-profit organisation that works with companies and factories to improve labour conditions for garment workers. To be affiliated with the FWF manufacturers must comply with the eight labour standards that form the core of the Code of Labour Practices, including no child labour, living wages and freedom of association. Although Kevin looked at having shirts made in Australia, he says pragmatically that “high labour charges mean they wouldn’t be affordable for most people, so for now it's best to use certified quality manufacturers overseas to give us a level of certainty about the impacts and conditions throughout production.”
Kevin loves the feel of the shirts, saying that they are “way softer than regular cotton, and the anti-bacterial nature of the material helps reduce odour”. The first range of T-shirts is 70% bamboo and 30% organic cotton. Kevin explains that bamboo “is technically a grass and the fastest growing plant in the world, takes up less space than other crops, doesn’t require fertilisers, absorbs more carbon dioxide and uses way less water and much less land to produce.”
What does the future hold? Well, next steps include combining the existing range of new clothing with some recycled, vintage styles. Positioning ‘pre-loved’ alongside new clothing will encourage the conversation about not having to buy new all the time – if it looks good and feels great then it shouldn’t matter whether the product is ten years old or ten weeks old. Beyond that, Kevin want to explore themes of life and leisure, perhaps with homewares and furnishings that have responsible, ethical supply chains.
So, what are you waiting for, guys (and gals)? Have a look at the We Are Harper site, examine their ethical, social and environmental objectives, decide to make more conscious decisions about the products you purchase, and look good wearing your (very stylish) heart on your sleeve!
Robin Mellon is one of Australia’s experts on sustainability in the built environment and is determined to leave the planet in a better shape than it was when he found it. Robin believes in a Better Sydney – better buildings, better communities and a better quality of life.