Netherlands | Social entrepreneurship

Fair clothing starts with New Optimist

5 August 2022 12:00

Fashion label and social enterprise New Optimist cuts a fair and sustainable clothing sector from whole cloth. By making radical choices, the founders aim to fundamentally revolutionize the sector. Those choices affect every level of the business – even how the company is organized.

Cutting injustice out of the chain

New Optimist’s mission is to help as many people as possible wear socially responsible and sustainably produced clothing. According to co-founder Nelleke Wegdam, that makes the Amsterdam fashion label the complete opposite of the traditional garment industry. ‘Unlimited economic growth increasingly results in more pollution, climate change, poverty and exploitation. The fashion industry has been stuck in this outmoded economic concept for decades. New Optimist works on a future for the garment industry within the limits of the ‘donut economy’. Instead of focusing on growth, the goal is to operate on a socially responsible foundation, under an ecological ‘ceiling’ for the planet. We produce our clothing locally and under fair conditions. To do that, we have a large part of the production chain in-house, because that’s the only way to cut injustice out of the chain.’

NO! to the current garment industry

New Optimist’s goal is to eventually bring about a change in the sector. Wegdam: ‘We don’t do that by wagging our fingers at the consumer. Because that’s not how to connect with the people who don’t yet know about the abuses in the industry, or aren’t yet open to hear about them. Instead, we do it by spreading our idea in a positive light. That’s why we chose the name ‘New Optimist’. But keep in mind that our initials are still ‘NO’. Because we’re radically opposed to the way the garment industry is organized today.’

“We even sew the seams with cotton instead of polyester, because it’s easier to recycle”

Giving clothing more value

‘What we do goes much further than simply being transparent’, Wegdam continues. ‘Stitching a factory’s name on a label still doesn’t say anything about the conditions there. It’s more tangible with us, because people can actually visit our workshop. That also makes it more fun for the consumer. when you know how your purchase was made, and by whom, it gives the garment more value. And with that extra level of meaning, it stops being a disposable item. That’s how we aim to use our optimism to show how things could be done differently.’

New Optimist’s products are also designed to be as circular as possible. ‘From the first stitch, our clothing is produced from recycled cotton. We even sew the seams with cotton instead of polyester, because it’s easier to recycle’, says Wegdam. ‘We even produce our labels and tags from production waste. We strive to produce as little waste as possible, if at all. We also have our own repair shop to keep the clothing ‘in circulation’ for as long as possible. In the future, we also want to offer people a discount on new items when they return the old garments to us.’

Available throughout the Netherlands

The company’s aim to extend the life of the clothing starts with the design. ‘We don’t lean too much on trends, so the garments can stay ‘in fashion’ for longer. We make items that people can wear for a long time. We sell our clothing via our own shop and studio and via our webshop. But only using your own channels can be difficult, so we’re also sold in around 15 other shops throughout the Netherlands.’

The idea for doing everything differently came to the two founders when they were both working in the traditional garment industry. Co-founder Xander Slager already had his own jacket brand, so he had a lot of experience, especially in the production side. ‘I worked with my own concept and design bureau for major fashion retailers for 18 years. But I increasingly had the feeling that even the marketing side shared some of the responsibility for the abuses in the clothing industry. Shortly before we discovered our common interest in the issue, we started a pilot project with our own studio. Thanks in part to a crowdfunding campaign, a month later we moved to a new building where we could house the shop and the studio under one roof.’

Social objective is the necessary condition

New Optimist has its own studio, where professionals work side-by-side with people who have trouble finding employment in the Netherlands, such as asylum seekers. Wegdam: ‘With us, they get a place where they can put their talents to use. For example, two of our professional tailors are asylum seekers, and eight people work in our workshop. The next step is to bring all of these activities under one roof, where there’s room for a larger social team of up to 16 people, a silk screen print shop and a pattern plotter. Then we’ll also be able to expand the team of sewers, for example with people re-integrating into the job market.’

‘Rabo Foundation offered us a startup loan and a lot of advice. And they bring us into contact with other social entrepreneurs to help us learn from one another. We also took the ‘Dilemma course’ they offer: a nine-session impact course together with other impact entrepreneurs. That really helped us a lot. Because over the past few years we’ve learned that, as a social enterprise, you’re constantly rowing against the stream. The steps you need to take aren’t as obvious as they are for a standard company. That means you have to work even harder, especially in the beginning.’

Principles of Steward Ownership

The founders refuse to make concessions to their mission. Wegdam: ‘We want to bring about real systemic change. So we also have a different partnership and ownership structure, based on the Steward Ownership concept. A foundation monitors the mission and has the voting rights that come with the shares. In exchange, the investors and founders receive predetermined maximum profit-sharing rights for their shares. That allows us to guarantee that the mission comes before maximizing profits. Eventually, once the investors have been paid back, the foundation will be the only shareholder in the company.’

Rabo Foundation also supports the Steward Ownership movement, which helps entrepreneurs and investors maximize their impact. For more information, check out their website.

Three tips from New Optimist:

  1. Realize that as a social enterprise you’ll often have to row against the stream, and that can sometimes demand a lot of energy. Collaborating and sharing knowledge with other social entrepreneurs can help, for example via the network and knowledge sessions offered by Rabo Foundation.
  2. Choose a good organizational and ownership structure that suits your mission and allows you to make a real impact. We chose for the Steward Ownership concept, for example.
  3. We believe that people who have trouble finding paid employment need to be combined with a professional team, and they need to do work that is relevant. Rather than creating a situation where people ‘have something to do’, it’s far more meaningful to let them make an actual contribution to an important message or a tangible product.

A sustainable and circulair clothing industry. Do you want to contribute to this? Buy at New Optimist, in one of their shops or online.