Executives from most apparel sellers try to meet the legal minimums, Bass says. “They tell factories, ‘I need you to take $0.05 off the price or I’m pulling my business.’ And the cost cuts needed only come from labor wage reductions. So when apparel marketers do this,” he points out, “they’re negotiating the workers’ wages down. Their only concern is to avoid what Kathy Lee Gifford faced.” (The former “Live With Regis & Kathy Lee” star caused a major stir nearly a decade ago when it was discovered that some of the clothes sold under her label were made by children in a Honduran sweat shop.)
“We decided that the apparel industry benchmark of paying minimum wage wasn’t good enough,” Behnke says. “So we developed a number of relationships with different suppliers, some rural artisans and some traditional apparel manufacturers in modern factory settings with good benefits for their employees.”
Thereby, Fair Indigo’s unique selling proposition: The company offers moderately priced, tasteful, natural fiber clothing with some unique features, such as its use of alpaca in place of polyester for fleece sweaters. But Bass readily admits that, for the most part, the clothes are modeled after the likes of J. Jill and Coldwater Creek.
The mission’s the thing, and to date, customers have bought into it. Sales from Fair Indigo’s spring catalog beat plan by more than 30 percent, Bass claims.
“They have a targeted audience that, while not a large segment, is a very loyal customer base,” observes William Mann, COO at Datamann, a Wilder, Vt.-based provider of list processing services for Fair Indigo and other catalogers. “This market segment will continue to grow as people become more aware of what is going on in this country and around the world.”
Clothing Boutique Concept
The company’s first catalog mailed in fall 2006 and its first store opened last November in Madison, Wis. — although the company actually formed in 2005. Behnke came up with an initial concept of opening a small clothing boutique in Madison that only sold fair trade-sourced products. Behnke approached former Lands’ End colleagues Bass and Don Hughes (former Lands’ End CFO) to bankroll the project. Both had investment capital available following Lands’ End’s sale to Sears, and Sears’ subsequent merger with Kmart.