Alternate title: An epically long and dramatic post in support of Fashion Revolution Week.
Sometimes I feel like I have no business being in this industry. I started Wooly Doodle with no background in fashion or design and didn’t have a clue about the impact the fashion and apparel industry has on this earth. I’m a mom who wanted to make cute kids clothing but it has expanded into so much more than that and the more I learn about this industry, the more I feel responsible to share and advocate for both customers and small business owners.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned is the handmade world is kind of like the Wild West. It’s based largely on trust between buyer and seller and feels completely unregulated most of the time. Unfortunately, there are a lot of businesses taking advantage of this to make a quick profit. Their actions are not only deceiving customer, but are also devaluing the hard work done by actual makers.
There are so many of you who care. You care about where things are made, how things are made, and how your purchases impact the environment. All of this should be good enough, but in a world where handmade products are being knocked-off left, right and centre, we need to look more closely into the products we are purchasing.
Earlier this month, I discovered that one of my Rompers had been knocked off and was being sold on AliExpress for roughly $5 (to give you some perspective, $5 wouldn’t even cover the fabric of my romper, let alone the production costs or any kind of profit). To make things even worse, they were using one of my photos, of my romper (WD tag still visible) and my friend’s child in their product listing. I purchased one of the Rompers and when it arrived, posted a review in my Instagram Stories. Spoiler alert – it was a hot mess.
Unfortunately, there’s another layer of shadiness that I need to address. After posting the Stories of the knock-off Romper, I had an overwhelming number of customers reach out to me to share their experiences buying from stores portraying themselves as small, handmade shops but then sending customers similar AliExpress knock-offs. I’m sorry, WHAT?
Stealing photos is lame.
Stealing designs is also lame.
Lying to customers who are genuinely trying to support local businesses and make ethical buying decisions? LAMEST. EVER.
My hope for this blog post is to take the things I’ve learned over the past year and translate them into tips for both small shops and small shop supporters.
Tips for Consumers
Keep supporting local and buying from small shops and don’t let any of what I’m writing freak you out. But I challenge you to learn more about the shops you’re supporting and keep an eye out for the following red flags.
If you come across ‘handmade’ or ‘organic’ items priced far below other shops, I hate to break it to you - it’s probably too good to be true. Most makers barely even get paid for their time but to give you an idea of my costs – it’s tough to create a kids item for under $20 with materials and production costs built in. So, if you see a similar product advertised for $15, I can almost guarantee you it’s NOT handmade or organic unless that shop is in the business of bleeding money.
This is a tricky one because a lot of small shops don’t tag their items which doesn’t mean they’re not handmade or made out of the materials they say they are – it just makes things a bit trickier to decipher. I’ll offer some tips on this topic to shops in a bit, but as a consumer my advice to you is to look for tags.
This thing called the Textile Labeling Act exists to help ensure consumers know exactly what their products are made of. When you purchase something (or even beforehand), look for material/content tags. If you’re investing in organic baby clothing, make sure that’s exactly what you’re getting. When you receive your items, check the tags as well. If you have questions, reach out to the shops and they’ll likely be keen to answer your questions. If you check your item and find a bunch of tags in a language that’s not English.. well, I don’t think I need to explain that one to you (and yes, I’ve heard of this happening several times).
This is another tricky one because, similar to the tags, a lot of small shops aren’t equipped with either the equipment, funds or skills to take professional looking photos. But you can still take a closer look at the photos shown in listings. Look for differences (for example, in the Ali Express post with my Romper photo in it, you can clearly see the WD cuff tag, but the tag is not visible in any of the other photos). Look for photo credits or tags because if shops are including those, chances are they have the rights to be using those photos. If in doubt – ask, ask, ask!
Tips for Shop owners
1. Transparency and honesty
You get to choose how much you share and when/where you share it but the number one tip I have for shop owners is to be open and honest with your customers – good or bad. Nothing builds a relationship with your customer like honesty (even when you have to own up to mistakes). I am not an expert in any of this. I have made more mistakes than I can count. I’ve pissed people off along the way. Own every decision you make and be truthful to customers when they come to you with questions or concerns.
2. Know the rules
Whether you’re one person sewing in your basement, or a more established shop making it rain sales, make sure you know the rules and regulations you should be following. If you’re making clothing – get to know the Textile Labelling Act and start tagging your products (if you need some contacts for tags, reach out to me) and get yourself setup with a CA Identification Number (otherwise you’re required to put your full address on all your tags). Yes, this is all an extra cost but it will help you build that transparency and honesty with your customers.
If you are a larger company or you’re on a growth trajectory, register your business and get yourself setup to charge and report your taxes (you’re required by law to do this if your business will hit $30,000 in a calendar year).
3. Understand Usage Rights
Know what you have the rights to and what you are stealing from other designers, photographers and makers. When it comes to photography, try as much as possible to take your own photos or engage brand reps or do collaborations with others who take lovely photos. Understand the parameters around sharing other people’s photos (tag, give credit etc..).
One of the biggest misconceptions I’ve come across is that Google Image is fair game. Most of the images you’ll pull up when you do a Google Image search are images you do not have the rights to. Using one here or there may seem harmless but you are using other people’s work without permission and if you continue down this path, you may just find yourself with a cease and desist letter. If you want to learn more about how to find Google Images you CAN use, I suggest watching this 5 minute video.
Taking your own photos doesn’t have to be a cumbersome process. There are so many amazing apps out there now that you can literally turn a mediocre picture into something that looks amazing. You can refer to this tutorial if you want a little help with your production shots.
The above also applies to design work, patterns, anything that has been created by someone else. Know the different between following a trend and copying a design. Draw inspiration from things you like but put your own spin on them.
4. Be informed
If you are making your own clothing, know where your fabric and materials are coming from. If you are having your clothing made for you, know who is making them and the conditions they are working under.
I'm not here to judge anyone’s business model. There are so many types of ways to make and sell product and I have nothing against people having their production done outside of North America or importing goods from overseas. The way you make money is your call and none of my biznass.
What I DO have an issue with is people claiming they’re part of the solution when they’re part of the problem. Understand the ins and outs of your supply chain and own that sh*t.
Lastly, an open letter to the bad apples
I’m talking about the shops that are deceiving customers and taking advantage of the huge movement right now to support handmade and local production. Maybe you know what you’re doing is wrong, maybe you don’t. But it’s wrong in more ways than I can count.
You are taking advantage of people who are trying to make socially conscious buying decisions.
You are supporting production models that this community is so set on fixing.
You are hurting every other shop that is playing by the rules and putting their everything into creating thoughtful, high-quality garments and you are devaluing their products.
You are probably doing a bunch of stuff that is illegal.
I am one person and one shop. I can’t stop you from doing what you’re doing. What I can do is share information, inform customers, and band together with this amazing community of hardworking, small shop owners and makers.
It’s time to smarten up.
Call to action
In honour of Fashion Revolution Week, my ask of you is to talk about this. If you're a small shop, talk about this stuff with your business community and your customers. If you're a small shop support, talk about this with your friends.
Consider sharing this blog post with your network and continuing this conversation. Tag fellow shop owners or shop supporters in the comments on the Instagram post.
Chances are Ali Express isn't going to take down my photo (or even publish the honest review I left lol). But the more we become informed and talk about what's happening in in our industry, the more power we will have to stop it.