Globalisation has given rise to large and often faceless factories in low-income countries such as India and Bangladesh, which generally produce in bulk for export to higher-income economies. In recent years, and particularly after revelations of poor working conditions have come to light, this model of production is being put to scrutiny.
‘Factory-first’ brands have emerged as a result. With a higher awareness of working conditions, environmental sustainability and the carbon cost of international shipping, these brands put factories and manufacturing at the centre of what they do, in order to give consumers an appreciation for the production process and slowly shift away from the negative narrative surrounding factories.
It’s more than a marketing or branding exercise: for factory-first brands like flip-flop manufacturer TIDAL New York, this approach is embedded into their operations, stock and inventory management and the employee experience. Co-founders Tim and Tommy Gibb first saw the issues with global supply chains when working for a major footwear brand. ‘People were working overtime just to get big orders out the door,’ Tim explains. ‘And when we audited these overseas factories, they were reluctant to open their financial books and talk about their labour practices.’
That set Tim and Tommy on the path to redesigning the supply chain for flip-flops to empower those making them, but also bring awareness of how many hands have to touch a product for it to reach a finished state. ‘We started by thinking about how we could redefine factory operations, and that’s what led us to flip-flops, rather than the other way round. Our factory is a bright place with tall ceilings, skylights and polished flooring. It wasn’t a big expenditure to build it, but it was still the antithesis of what we were seeing overseas.’
The TIDAL New York factory has always had an open-door policy and passers-by can pop their heads in to have a look at what’s going on. ‘Factories used to be seen as transactional places, because we’ve trained consumers on the other end to have discounted prices all the time,’ Tim says. ‘We’ve disconnected ourselves from human inputs to production.’
However, with conscious consumerism showing no signs of slowing, Tim is optimistic about the future of factories and consumers who will demand increased transparency from brands. ‘The jig is up on greenwashing,’ he says.
More importantly, he believes that a brand with a clear production process and facility allows it to be more in control of its own supply chain. Reshoring and localised production is a model that various new businesses are looking to emulate, and while Tim has always been happy to share his business plans with other aspiring factory owners, he knows that there is something that can’t be copied: the company culture inside a factory.
‘We’re very protective of our workers and their stories. It’s in our company charter not to be exploitative or treat them as marketing ploys,’ Tim explains. Instead, TIDAL New York employees tell authentic stories of pride in being part of a production line that makes something high-quality and tangible at the end of it. ‘We don’t want a founder-centric story, because everyone on the production team has had as much, if not bigger, impact as I have.’