May 20, 2008 — Tuesday morning, at the 25th Conference for Catalog and Multichannel Merchants (ACCM) in Orlando, Bill Bass, CEO of Fair Indigo and former senior vice president of Lands’ End, shared with attendees lessons learned through the evolution of his 18-month-old fair trade company. Co-produced by the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) and Multichannel Merchant, ACCM is being held at the Gaylord Palms Resort and runs through May 22.
In introducing Bass, DMA President & CEO John A. Greco, Jr. told ACCM delegates, “Fair Indigo is a very successful new brand with a unique value proposition and a business model based on direct merchandising. They sell moderately priced, natural fiber men’s and women’s clothing, all produced under fair trade practices. In short, Fair Indigo embodies the spirit of doing well by doing good.”
Bass began with an overview of fair trade, and the evolution of socially conscious products from the fringe to the mainstream. Organic foods, for example, once only available in farmers markets, have since migrated to large companies such as Wholefoods, and even to giants such as Wal-Mart, Bass explained.
Observing this marketplace evolution, Bass said he set out to take socially responsible clothing into the mainstream. “We saw a big gap, and thought, ‘why not us?’” Today, Fair Indigo is a fair trade multichannel retailer of its own apparel and accessories brand, targeted to socially conscious women and men, ages 35 to 55.
The company’s core philosophy of fairness to workers is reflected in the company’s catalog, Bass explained. “We take actual photos of people working in the factories. We tell their stories in the catalog,” he said. “We want to connect the clothes with the people behind the clothes, and talk about what they do with the money they make, to help lift them out of the cycle of poverty that people can get trapped in.”
Bass stressed that taking environmental responsibility is vital for the catalog industry, especially in the face of possible Do Not Mail legislation. “Do Not Mail is a real threat and will have significant emotional impact on our industry,” Bass told ACCM delegates. “To stop this from happening, we need to be more conscious about the environment.”
One of the steps Bass has taken is to print facts about the company’s environmental efforts — including the percentage of post-consumer waste on which the catalog is printed and the natural resources saved by doing so — on the back of each catalog.
“It doesn’t take up a lot of room on the back of the catalog, but people notice this and get the message that catalogs are not evil,” Bass said. “As an industry we need to change our brand, and take credit for what we are doing.”
Advantages of Catalog, Web, and Retail Channels
Although Bass conceded that catalogs are likely to undergo significant change, he said that many of the traditional rules still apply, and are likely to for the next several years. “A lot of people use the catalog and go online, but they still expect a catalog to look like a catalog.”
One of the advantages of catalogs, Bass said, is that the resolution in print is much better than online. “I’ve never seen a pear on a website that made you want to eat it,” he said.
On the other hand, Bass pointed out that the Internet offers tremendous opportunities for interaction and dialogue, with such tools as video and user reviews.
“There’s an emotional connection you can make with video that you can’t make as well in print,” he pointed out. “User reviews are really important,” he continued. “They are remarkably helpful. Customers trust other customers more than they trust us.”
Bass explained that the third channel, the physical retail store, is particularly important for apparel companies because customers need to be able to see, touch, and feel these kinds of products. At the same time, he pointed out that there are many ways of integrating stores with the rest of the channels to optimize all three.
Expansion of Free Trade Companies
When asked how much more people are willing to pay for free trade merchandise, Bass estimated that people expect to pay about 10 percent over the non-fair trade price, adding “I now believe people expect to pay more, and if they don’t pay more, they don’t feel as good about themselves.”
As for the future, Bass is working to spread the word on free trade. “We are working on coming up with a fair trade calculator that we will try to get adopted as the standard, that will say in these countries, 'here is what the living wage is.'”
“The more companies adopt fair trade, the better off everyone in the world is,” Bass continued. “I firmly believe that. We don’t want to be the only [fair trade] company in the world. We want other companies to do so too.”
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