Technology Supports Me to We Style's Environmental Agenda

Me to We Style, a Toronto, Canada-based company known for graphically innovative basic apparel, is more than just a good corporate citizen. The company was founded specifically to create a revenue stream for the charity Free The Children, which supports education and development in impoverished areas of Asia and Africa.

Me to We is a social enterprise -- a concept that is legally undefined in North America, but that nevertheless has a profound impact on its goals and operations. A social enterprise isn't a not-for-profit; it's a not-only-for-profit. In addition to committing half of its profits to Free The Children (the other half are reinvested back into the business), Me to We strives to operate responsibly in terms of its dealings with suppliers, the working conditions in the factories that make its goods, and its sustainability practices. In fact, the company was created in response to queries from Free The Children supporters about finding products that met their social and environmental standards.

According to CEO Oliver Madison, Me to We is the only apparel company to have been audited successfully by TransFair, an independent fair trade practices organization. To meet its sustainability goals, it uses eco-fabrics -- bamboo, organic cotton, recycled polyester -- and non-toxic dyes.

While the company purchases yarn from overseas and has its dyeing, knitting, sewing, screening and embroidery done in factories throughout the United States and Canada, it oversees its entire supply chain, beginning with the planting of the cotton seeds, to make sure safe and sustainable practices are followed. Now Me to We is finding that technology also has a role to play in reducing the environmental impact of its operations.

A long wish list

When Me to We started up operations three years ago, it relied on homegrown Excel spreadsheets to track its activities. "That got to be completely unwieldy as our growth accelerated and we added new products," Madison says. So he started looking for scalable and sophisticated software to facilitate the company's rapid growth.

To continue expanding, Madison knew he needed faster product development, more clarity in the supply chain, a better real-time overview of the inventory, timelier communications between sales and marketing, and an easier order process for customers.

He also needed to fix the custom-order process, which was presenting a headache for the company. Custom orders represent a large part of the business; corporations, schools and other organizations order branded clothing for trade shows, recruiting fairs, concerts and other events with fixed deadlines. Madison needed to reduce the lead time for these orders and to aggregate similar orders to take advantage of volume pricing.

Most important, he wanted to reduce the volume of inventory. "We recognized there was dead cash sitting around in the inventory that was overlooked because we couldn't query the Excel-based system," he says. "We could find it, but only with unlimited time. Often in a crunch, things would be overlooked."

After examining a number of software packages and interviewing several vendors, Me to We selected the VerTex product lifecycle management software from Business Management Systems (BMS), a decision Madison says the company is "extremely happy about."

Measuring the results
After a two-month implementation period that Madison describes as "fairly intense," Me to We went live with VerTex in the summer of 2008. The software had an immediate and dramatic effect on all areas of the company's operations. Madison says product development is 40 percent to 50 percent faster, with a cost savings equivalent to the time savings.

BMS developed a web-based front end that high-volume customers can use to place orders. Now, the sales team doesn't have to re-enter the information they've gotten from the customer. Madison explains: "The customer does that -- it reduces the number of errors." Because of customer data entry and because processes are more standardized overall, product accuracy has increased greatly, with the volume of seconds dropping by about 15 percent to 20 percent.

Supply chain transparency makes for far fewer bottlenecks, and for streamlined processes. Sales managers no longer have to call Operations to find out where their orders are. Information such as the amount of fabric on hand or the ratio of trim to fabric is readily available; no one has to add up numbers from different spreadsheets to answer everyday questions.
Better logistics and control have reduced the finished-goods inventory by about 20 percent, which in turn reduces the
requirement for working capital. The raw-materials inventory also has been reduced without impacting customer service or turnaround time. "It's like getting a cash infusion," Madison says.

The power of aggregation
The lead time for custom orders has fallen by 40 percent to 50 percent, and the company has been able to aggregate custom orders for those that use the same pattern (these aggregated orders are cut and sewn as a batch and separated when they are ready for printing). Not only has customer service improved as a result, but Me to We can now produce the items more cost effectively.

Aggregating small orders also has allowed the company to greatly reduce the number of shipments required as goods move from one factory to another during the production process. The orders can travel as a batch, instead of in separate shipments. This reduces Me to We's carbon footprint, a matter of some importance to this environmentally conscious company.

Me to We is still using only a few of VerTex's many modules, but Madison anticipates implementing others in the future. "If we do make a quantum jump, BMS will be able to help us," Madison says. "It's got all of the things we would love to have, plus the ones we don't even know we need yet. I think we'll see even more operating leverage in the future. I believe we haven't even begun to experience the benefits of this software."

Masha Zager is an Apparel contributing writer who specializes in business and technology.

In 1995, a 12-year-old Canadian schoolboy read a newspaper article about a Pakistani child of his own age who had escaped from a carpet factory. Shocked by the story, Craig Kielburger organized a group of his school friends to fight against child slavery. When he traveled to south Asia the following year, he helped draw media attention to the issue of child labor.

His campaign led to Free the Children, a foundation that recruits and trains Western youth to improve the lives of children in poorer parts of the world. Over one million young people have volunteered their time and efforts in fundraising, consciousness raising and direct action to help children in 45 countries. The 500 schools they have built in Asia, Africa and Latin America are educating more than 50,000 children. They have built wells, helped bring health care to remote villages, and funded thousands of development projects that allow families to achieve sustainable incomes without child labor.

The organization has received the World's Children's Prize for the Rights of the Child (also known as the Children's Nobel Prize) and the Human Rights Award from the World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations. It has formed partnerships with school boards. A recent partnership with Oprah's Angel Network has launched the "O Ambassadors," a joint project that inspires young people to become active, compassionate and knowledgeable global citizens.

Kielburger, who founded Free the Children, is now its board chair, and his brother Mark is the CEO. A book written by the two of them: "Me to We: Finding Meaning in a Material World," inspired the creation of Me to We Styles and also a group of related social enterprises that have taken the Kielburgers' philosophy and given it a commercial application.

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