Flora Davidson is the co-founder and head of product at SupplyCompass, an online platform that helps fashion brands and manufacturers work better together to sustainably source, design and deliver clothing collections.
In the future, Flora would like for people to not have to mention the word sustainable ever again because it has become the norm in the fashion industry. To help make this world a reality, SupplyCompass is using technology to streamline old ways of working and reduce unnecessary waste in areas like clothing samples. Its platform also helps brands consider their impact on people and the planet through the sourcing, supply chains, and production of clothing.
The goal is to create a new way of working throughout the entire supply chain in fashion, with sustainability at the heart of it all.
In this episode, you’ll learn what it’s like to found a start-up on the ground in Mumbai, India, the digitization journey many fashion brands have been on to design out waste and the new materials and innovations that have Flora excited about the future of this industry.
Elly: Today on the Conscious Commerce podcast, I'm joined by SupplyCompass co-founder, Flora Davidson. Hey, Flora, how are you going today?
Flora: I'm good, I'm good. Thanks. How are you?
Elly: Pretty good, pretty good – and interesting combination seeing you in the morning and me at night but I'm sure we can get on the same level as each other. To start the podcast off, and we like to get to know you a little bit better as a person. So what's the fun fact about you that not many people know or what's your go to party trick?
Flora: Oh, that's a tough one, I suppose a fun fact that people don't know about me is I used to do some voiceover work and when I was living in Paris working for an ad agency, they needed a British accent to do voiceover work. And I was probably a cheaper way for them to do it. So I am actually the voiceover for certain pharmaceutical products for gut health. For certain adverts that came out in Hungary and Italy. So you may have heard my voice ah talking about gut health, if you live in one of those countries.
Elly: The last podcast interview I did with Kate from Sonder & Tell – I don't know if you know her – she was doing something in the voice space as well. She said I can do a really good South American accent, like from the southern states, Southern lass, And then she proceeded to do it on the podcast so I'm loving the theme that's carrying through.
Flora: Love it, yeah, what they did is they made me speak at a certain pace and then they sped it up. I never understood how they could get, you know, when they talk about the ingredients of a product in an advert. They'd be like, yeah, this thing contains didida. And they would speed it up two times.
Elly: Also, we like to get a sense of where people are from in the world. So where are you right now? And what's special about that place?
Flora: So I'm from London, where I'm from the east part of the UK. I'm currently on lockdown in Cape Town, which is a fantastic city so I've been working here for a few months. And so yeah, what's special about home? Or I can say lots of things that are special about Cape Town. It's an amazing city.
Elly: I think maybe go for Cape Town as the more exciting option.
Flora: London is great, but it's not as exciting as Cape Town. So what's really special about Cape Town is that we're living in like a suburb, and within 15 minutes of each other, you can be in a vineyard, you can be on the beach surfing, where you can be hiking a serious mountain, like Table Mountain, all within 15 minutes drive of each other. You can even see the beach from the mountains and the vineyard.
Elly: That's quite different to London.
Flora: You have to drive or fly somewhere to do any of those things.
Elly: Is a safari close by? Because I feel like that would complete the experience.
Flora: A safari is about three hours away, so that's pretty much close by.
Elly: If you weren't running Supply Compass, what industry or job do you think you'd end up working in?
Flora: I was just thinking about this, I always thought that I would end up as a documentary filmmaker, I don't think I would have been very good at it. But that's what I always thought I would do. But I think now having worked in supply chain and fashion supply chains for the last five years, it would undoubtedly continue to be in supply chain tech. I think it could be other industries, I just think supply chains themselves are fascinating and require so much innovation to make it work for so many different types of people.
Elly: Yeah, because what has your career journey been like to get to this point and did you picture yourself being an entrepreneur founding a company?
Flora: No, I did not picture that. And to be honest, I still struggle to see myself as that now, I think I had never had a picture of a very corporate career path in my mind, not because they don't think that that's a great career path, but I don't think it's suited my skill set or how I approach things. I like things to almost not be fully mapped out and to shape things from nothing and create. I've always been into creating something, I started a few small businesses before doing this – not commercially successful. When I was 13 I started a card company and sold about 200 birthday cards to my poor neighbors.
Elly: Oh, like greeting cards?
Flora: Greeting cards. That's it. Yeah. So I’d do illustrations for those and and sell them overpriced to neighbors who are very happy to pay just for supporting the 13-year-old dreams. Before this, I was working as a market researcher, so consulting big retailers like Adidas, and L'Oreal, on understanding their customers in different parts of the globe. So I think my interests have always laid with understanding people and why people do the things that they do and what makes people tick, and then making sure that we build products or solutions around human behaviors that exist. So I think whatever allows me to continue understanding people and building and innovating for humans. I think that is this the path I'll carry on going down, and that has happened to take me down this more entrepreneurial career path, I suppose.
Elly: Did you realize through that journey that the supply chains weren't really built as well as they could be for the people within them? Is that what led you on the path towards SupplyCompass?
Flora: Exactly. Moving to India, was really quite a transformational experience for me in terms of, you know, being on the ground, and speaking to so many different factory owners and suppliers, and people further up the value chain visiting costume farms is that it's a very human, tactile industry. And that, you know, the software that had been created either doesn't work around human behaviors well enough, it kind of is hard to learn or not intuitive, or doesn't actually take into consideration the end user. But really, I think what I felt in my two years living in India was that there is so much that needs to happen that works for it needs to work for all parties. And I think so much focus and emphasis has been placed on the retail and the brand side of things in terms of innovation. And actually there needs to be innovation that sits across the entire infrastructure of supply chains.
Elly: So you and your co founder Gus, you moved to Mumbai, India to learn about supply chains from the source. Was the idea for SupplyCompass already in the works there, or was that something you did pre-even having an idea for business?
Flora: When we were first in India, I actually had a job to go and work at a design agency. But before I started at that design agency, I decided to do a textiles course at one of the fashion schools in Mumbai, just for a two month course. I knew I was going to get more interested and get into the supply chain side of things, but I didn't know that it would take this direction. There was this turning point, I had been in India for a month and as part of the fashion school, it was loads of 18 year old Mumbai girls, a me as this random 20, I think I was 27 at the time. They couldn't really work out why I was there but everyone was very lovely to me. And we went on this trip to a factory as part of the course. And it was a printing factory four hours north of Mumbai and we got there and I couldn't breathe, because the smell of chemicals was so overpowering and this was just a local printing factory that was not for export. And I thought, hold on a second. Like, I've seen good factories, but there must be so many more factories like this. And the way to drive into this factory, we passed a million other factories that look the same from the outside. I remember phoning my mom and I was like, I know what I'm gonna do. It was the first time in my career where I felt really, really passionate about something. I was like, Okay, I'm gonna have this experience in India over the next few years that I need to galvanize and get people to feel what I'm feeling. It's not bad factories, it's actually that I think it's so easy to feel disconnected from where your goods are made, from that process. And I thought something's got to change, people have to wake up to the reason why this factory is the way it is, isn't the factory’s fault, necessarily. The whole system has allowed this to become like this.
Elly: Yeah, if there's no motivation to change, right, there's no inspiration or influence coming from other parts of the supply chain. So why bother?
Flora: Exactly. There was more and more noise and opinions coming through press around what needs to happen. But you know, for fashion businesses, supply chain businesses, how do they actually make that change? There needs to be systems, there needs to be organizations that help them make that change easily and cost effectively, otherwise, it won't happen. We knew from the start that we needed to be an enabler of change and actually doing something about it, rather than talking about it.
Elly: Did it make it all the more evident being on the ground there the disconnect with fashion companies back home or back in other countries, they just didn't really get it or didn't get a sense of what it was like there?
Flora: What I felt there is that there is a disconnect. It's become quite transactional, I think, you know, in the ‘70s, ‘80s, people used to spend months on end, visiting their factories, and building really, really strong long-term relationships, but there's a much higher turnover of businesses now, there's less of that massive business coming in and existing for 50 years. People ask for certs – the first thing a brand asks a factory is, ‘Show me your certifications, prove you are who you say you are.’ Imagine if you were a factory, like any relationship, imagine even if you were on Tinder and someone said so first thing, prove you are who you say you are. It's this really odd, distrustful base that exists. What we saw is that it had become transactional, it had become disconnected and people were moving around a lot. And so we thought, right, how do we help businesses, build better longer-term partnerships and set them up for success with each other? We're not a Tinder, but we're looking to set people up long term and do that through improving processes.
Elly: That's a great tagline.
Flora: We're not looking for one nightstand, though.
Elly: No, we're looking for the long-term. So what were your next moves after being in Mumbai? How long did you stay there? When did you go back to the UK?
Flora: So we stayed there for about two years. And what we would do is two weeks of each month, we would be on the road visiting factories all around the country. And then we would spend two weeks in a kind of co-working space that was in the top of a club. So it was pretty noisy. But you know, you do what you need to do at the beginning of the business. And then we started to have some traction and thought, right, let's raise some investments. So we came back to the UK to raise that investment and grow the team. So at this stage, we have an office in Hyderabad, the middle Southern Telangana region of India, and we have an office in London – we're all remote at the moment. Our platform is global, so we work with fashion brands and manufacturers around the world.
Elly: People will come to no issue for their sustainable packaging, but packaging is often one of the later decisions in a business journey, so we try to encourage people to be thinking about it much earlier in the process. So from your experience, at what point in a company or product’s lifecycle, do you think these discussions around sustainability or ethics should start happening?
Flora: They need to start happening at the start of the business. And then they need to happen every single time a decision is made, it needs to be there at the forefront. I could not agree more with this, the afterthought: Oh, we should probably do that. Okay, well, actually, in making that decision late, it's not actually going to be as sustainable as you would like. So I think something that we always say to businesses is, you know, the impact of a product is really designed right at the start of its journey. I think they say that 80% of a product's impact is decided in that first phase of product development. What we say is think of all these things at the start. In our platform, for example, we encourage people to build their packaging choices in when they're selecting materials when they're outlining what they actually want to make so the factory can also cost up everything and understand the whole product requirements in one go. It should be in every single team member’s minds at every point, but not so it's overwhelming and debilitating, but it just needs to be front of mind.
Elly: Yeah, it's kind of like the lens you view every process with right? It's got to overlay the whole thing.
Elly: So when it comes to a fashion brand’s environmental footprint, why is sourcing sustainable fabrics so important? Because I know you guys do some amazing guides on different sustainable fabrics they can use, so why is that such a big part?
Flora: So when we talk about sustainability in the context of our platform, we look at it in three areas: we look at design, we look at process, and we look at relationships. And obviously we've talked about strategic partnerships and the relationships and supply chain already. When it comes to process that's around efficiency and ordering the right amount and sticking to what you've to what you've promised with that factory and not going back on your word. But this is the design element. So although it's not the only thing to consider, it is obviously a significant part. You've got to consider so many things for material: if it's a natural material, the raw material extraction process. You've got to think of where it comes from, you've got to think location, you've got to think of the amount of water, you've got to think of the chemicals. And then there’s the impact of it throughout that journey, but then there's also the end of life. So, it's getting businesses to consider the right materials for each product, it's not blanket, which is why a guide is just a guide, because ultimately, it's really specific to a certain product category, to the market that you create that product in, Is organic cotton, if you're sourcing it from other side of the world, is that actually the best decision? Should you be using materials that naturally exists closer to the source or that that country is a specialist in? And so it is really important to consider your raw materials. However, it is only one part of the puzzle.
Elly: What would you say to people that say sustainable alternatives put a limit on what's possible with design or creativity?
Flora: I know putting confines around things – it can seem restrictive, particularly for creative teams. But I personally see limitations as almost like a springboard for more innovation. At the moment, designers are free to design anything they want, which is great and really exciting. But actually say you can only design around these core materials in these locations and this is your limitation, you need to be doing it in certain shapes, so that you minimize the waste on the cutting floor, etcetera – I think that's really exciting. Because ultimately, we're going to need to design around constraints more, like that is almost like the core of what sustainability is, is working with what you have or what's available. What we feel is that the businesses that are really pushing the boundaries are those who are really experimental. They're not just doing one sustainable capsule collection, they're rethinking how they design, how they source. Being flexible to work with what's there is really ultimately the mindset that you need to have.
Elly: There's been a lot of exciting developments announced in the fashion industry recently, like one example is Allbirds are making t-shirts out of crab shells and creating plant-based leather. So is there a development happening in the fashion industry that's got you really excited about the future?
Flora: I'm quite sad, I get really excited about things like that. I just love innovations in material – there's some really exciting things. I went to a talk a few years ago from a company, I think they’re called Colorifix. They use enzymes to dye clothing and the water that comes out the back, it cleans itself. So you can dye something and then it's just like drinkable water just because it's biology. And that's so cool.
Elly: How is that not mainstream yet? That’s amazing.
Flora: I think because the problem is, is that innovations – when they happen, for them to actually be spread far and wide, you've got different machines, it's not as simple as being like, ‘Right, all of these ways of working, these need to stop overnight.’ because then there's loads of people's jobs that are tied into that. Do we want to remove all of the demand from the cotton fields, like these cotton farmers? They need employment, they're living often below the bread line. It's also complicated to suddenly jump on something new. You don't want to leave what you've been doing behind because that has implications.
Elly: Yeah, you can't just all jump on this shiny new innovation and ditch the people behind you.
Flora: Something that we really think is so key is for businesses, they have a responsibility to bring their manufacturers and suppliers on that journey with them. Say to your material supplier, ‘We've come across this awesome new dye technique – is this something that you have explored? Would you be interested to explore this with us?’ Rather than like, ‘We're going to change suppliers.’ Go on that journey. Some of the best factories in the world are the best factories in the world becausesome of the big retailers have really heavily invested in taking them on that journey with them. I know it's harder for smaller, medium sized businesses to do that. But ultimately, so many manufacturers and suppliers are so receptive to change, but they need businesses to help them on that journey and talk to them about why they should change and what that means for them and the commercial advantages for those manufacturers and suppliers as well.
Elly: What has the relationship been like between tech and supply chain management in the past? And how has SupplyCompass been transforming this?
Flora: There's just been a massive kind of absence of tech that really works for all parties. At the start, our biggest pushback is that teams just loved using Excel. And Excel is a fantastic tool. We love Excel. However, it is not built for sharing complex, ever-evolving information across organizations, across markets, across different organizations all over the world. Again, and again, season after season. I would get messages back from teams being like, ‘No, we're okay, thanks. We're okay on email and Excel.’ However, if we look at this future where we need to start measuring where things come from, we need to be traceable, transparent, we need to understand our impact. We've got to go on that journey of digitalization and moving away from tools that we've used for the last 40 years because they are not built for the future. And the same thing for factories. Factory after factory we visited, like when we unpicked, we'd ask them what their biggest challenges were. And they said, “Look, ultimately, we spend more time at our computer trying to make sense of designs and changes and on email to our customers, rather than on the factory floor and actually making products we are here to produce and the design team’s there to create and everyone's stuck in managing production and chasing up on emails and making changes to documents, sharing things through WeTransfer. So we want to free these teams up to actually do what they want to do more of, which is create and produce, not spend time in Excel.
Elly: Yeah, cause I'm thinking of some of the workflow applications we use like Asana, Guru, Slack for a global business. But, that won't be the same for the fashion industry or working with a global factory. Like they won't have any of those tools at their fingertips, so it must be hard.
Flora: They don't and this is what is kind of crazy. I'm almost amazed that businesses all over the world managed to continually design and produce collection after collection with the tools that they're using. But you're so right, some people even try and use Asana for managing production, but it's not built for that because production is so unique. The fashion industry is so enormous with so many individuals, and they've got email and excel. And so basically we're building the Slack Asana equivalent so that there's a common language, a common process that works for all.
Elly: That's amazing. And can you share an example of a company or companies you've worked with who are doing really impressive work with their supply chains or use of materials?
Flora: Yeah, so we work. So we work with about 40 different fashion businesses today. We've been working with a Canadian-based brand called Adesso Man, and they have been using deadstock leftover leather from one of our leather partners in eastern South East India, in Chennai. And so it was rejected leather from orders that were canceled during COVID. And he's designed a whole or some collection around that deadstock leather. So yeah, there's lots of great examples.
Elly: That's really exciting. And how have you seen the fashion industry change since you set out on this journey with the SupplyCompass? Do you think there's a lot more buy-in from brands to make different areas of their business sustainable in 2021?
Flora: There's undoubtedly been enormous change since we set out on our journey. Sustainability, now, everyone knows they've got to build it into their business in numerous ways. But there's still so much work to be done and the pace of change needs to be faster, I'm not going to lie. Ultimately, there needs to be a really a rewiring of how people work. And so I think the businesses that will succeed in the next five years are those who adopt new technologies, are those who work with their factories to drive change together, are those who experiment and try out new things. And I think those who just keep working in the way that they've always worked, even if you're starting to work with more sustainable materials, it's not enough. The businesses who are bold and game changing, like you mentioned, Allbirds, companies like Pangaia, there's lots of people like Tommy Hilfiger, who way back, way before COVID, they went on their 3D transformation journey, and they only do digital samples now or they're on that journey to doing that. Getting people more comfortable with more of that process being digital, because it saves a lot of confusion.
Elly: For people not in the fashion industry, like how much waste is created during that process of getting samples and reviewing?
Flora: Well, I wish I had a stat on my fingertips, but put it this way,millions of samples are made, which is samples that then aren't gone and put into production and this is just to see if you want to do it. Like that can be digital, you can just test a digital version of your product on your customers. So I think often, the efficiency and process side of the fashion industry is left out of the conversation of sustainability. The good, solid, efficient process is the foundation to a sustainable business. If you don't have the process, right, then all the things we're going to do on top will be sitting on almost like a slightly broken core.
Elly: Yeah, do you think that's the part of the industry most underserved by innovation at this point in time?
Flora: That is what we believe at SupplyCompass, that everyone gets that step one right. We can't calculate impact yet because what we need first is that people use a digital system like us, they have that data there and then they can go and make sense of it. But until that data is created in a system,then it's really challenging. Things like LCA, life-cycle analysis on product, they're very costly and time consuming because of the fact that a lot of that information needs to be analyzed by people from Excel spreadsheets.
Elly: Is that not really common practice across the board: lifecycle, product cycle analysis?
Flora: It's expensive and it's slow, you know, it can take months and months and so think of how many products lots of businesses make every collection. A lot of SMEs understandably don't have the time or budget to analyze every single new product that they drop. So really, I think what we see is there's a data issue from the start, like when the product is first created. So the context of SupplyCompass, what we're saying is build your product from the starting point in a system like ours, your libraries that has all the information of your material with all your certifications, and all of the fiber, every relevant information, so that every time you build your product, you've got these cards that build up and that then you can see what your materials have been used across what sells, you can then use that material again on multiple other projects. Like we spoke at the beginning, so much of our product’s impact is created and is decided in those early phases. So that's the part it needs to start in the cloud.
Elly: It all comes back to the cloud. And so sustainability’s meaning sometimes does get confusing, so here at noissue, one of the ways we like to define it is future-proofing your business for the long term by making more conscious choices. So what advice would you give to establish fashion brands to future proof their business?
Flora: I mean, with the fear of repeating myself, again, it would be move into, like start adopting digital tools across your entire business. Because if you want to do all these exciting things with blockchain and all of these, if you want to map your supply chain back to the source, it will be so much harder to do this if you don't take go on that journey of digitalization. So that's just obviously my opinion of what needs to happen. And there's like we spoke, we're getting used to being objects or that's what we've identified as one of the greatest challenges for fashion brands and their supply chains is how they're working together.
Elly: And on that note for fashion brands that are just starting out to develop their products, or they just have an idea, what would you say, Where should they begin or what should they be thinking about first?
Flora: That's a good question. At the start of SupplyCompass, we worked a lot more with start-ups in their first phase and I think what we've learned is really, don't try and be everything, you're not going to be the perfect, most sustainable business that offers all the right products immediately. Focus on one or two products, get them really right, except be transparent with your customers that maybe you won't be able to have that perfect supply chain that ticks all the boxes immediately. Because ultimately, as a starting out business, you can't necessarily get into the factories that are able to give you what you need to do those things. But also it's about communicating that with your customers and saying, ‘This is the thing I really care about, I really care about using waste for my brand, it's a non-negotiable. And then you can work on improving all the other parts, but like, focus on one or two non-negotiables from a sustainability standpoint, and stick to your guns on that and then communicate to your customers why you haven't been able to do other things yet, because you're starting out on your journey. And you wouldn't actually be able to make any money selling that product if you did all the other things, which is often their reality.
Elly: And what's the change you want to see in the world long term of SupplyCompass?
Flora: The change that I want to see is that people don't have to ever mention the word sustainable ever again and it just becomes the way that people work. So really, the change I want to see is that the way supply chains, the way production and designing collections is set up is that it works for brands, it works for people, planet and profit for brands, it works for factories, and those further up the supply chain. And that ultimately, it's just easier and more accessible, and more cost effective for people to do things right than it is for them to do them in the old way. So I think that's what I'd like our change to be, is that we bring about a new way of working, that actually makes more sense and is also good for all individuals involved.
Elly: I love that you said we don't have to maintain the word sustainability anymore, because I feel like it does get thrown around and overused so much, it would be nice for it to just be accepted as the status quo.
Flora: We really struggled using the term actually, and we didn't put it anywhere on our website or in our comms for ages and then we realized that actually people need a word to attach to, you just have to define what it means to you as a business. And to be honest, we don't use it that much. We know that it's like in our DNA as a business. So yeah, it's a hard word that’s lost meaning for loads of people but until there is another new word, it is the word that we need to use.
Elly: Is there language you use as an alternative for that? Do you say impact driven, purpose driven – anything like that?
Flora: We use responsible quite a lot. It's making responsible decisions, it's considering everything: what is the right decision to make in this situation? Even though it's kind of a weird word to use, we use the word better a lot, so we will be like design products better, build a better process. Better doesn't really mean anything unless it's better than something but ultimately, it's this idea of it's a journey and it's just gonna take time to get there. Incremental improvements is better than no improvements at all.
Elly: Yeah, I like the use of the word better because it shows that you're not sacrificing something to go for the greener option like it actually is the best option.
Flora: Yeah, exactly, better for all, considering all things this is better.
Elly: How do you define success for SupplyCompass and also for yourself personally?
Flora: For me personally, I think it's really like success is building software, I sit in the product side of things so that means I design the technology that we build, is building technology that people actually love using. There's nothing that would disappoint you more if I got feedback from a customer being like, ‘I don't really like this. It's not very user friendly and I don't think it brings me any value.’ I'd be like what is the point in us existing? If we can just build technology that is easy to learn, easy to use, and looks appealing and you know, why can't supply chain software be sexy and enjoyable to you? It doesn't need to be boring data fields.
Elly: Why can it spark joy?
Elly: Thank you so much Flora for your time today. It's been so amazing chatting to you.
Flora: Lovely chatting to you, too. Thanks for having me.