'A Lot to Learn' Podcast : Ben Sehl
With the recent release of our first shoe made from recycled materials, we wanted to chat with someone who’s making waves in the realm of sustainable manufacturing and social responsibility. On this episode of ‘A Lot to Learn’, our hosts Braden and Mike talk to Ben Sehl, the co-founder and Chief Digital Officer of Kotn. Founded by Ben, Mackenzie Yeates, and Rami Helali, Kotn is a Toronto-based apparel company that produces high-quality essentials with a mission to create a lasting impact on the supply chain and its surrounding communities.
The fashion industry has a long and complex supply chain that many consumers don’t think about. This includes agriculture, fibre production, manufacturing, logistics, and retail. Each stage has an environmental impact as it involves water, chemicals, energy use, and of course, human labour. While it’s typical for brands to talk about sustainable materials, there is so much behind-the-scenes that often goes unacknowledged, and so many people and communities whose work isn’t fairly compensated for. Ben explains, “the final value that you pay, let’s say $100 for sweatshirt; it’s not an even distribution down to the people who are farming that, down to the people who are really responsible for those raw materials.” Ben explains that Kotn was conceived from the desire to make high-quality essentials more affordable, but as their team started exploring manufacturing, they felt an inescapable need to do better. He says, “we didn't know about how bad the clothing industry was, how bad traceability standards were, how dire the situation was until we learned it. And then once we learned it, we couldn't unlearn it or unsee it.”
The term “greenwashing” is used to describe companies who mislead consumers into believing that their products are environmentally-friendly for the purpose of marketing and sales. The unfortunate truth is that this is common in the fashion industry, but it’s incredibly clear that Ben and his team are truly dedicated to their cause. Kotn uses a direct-trade approach, meaning they source their raw materials directly from farmers in order to cut out the middlemen. They also reinvest in their farms, employees, and the surrounding communities because they believe that in bettering the source, they can create a lasting and more sustainable supply chain; not just for Kotn but for other brands and suppliers. Not only do they ensure fair pay and quality of life for farm and factory workers, but to date, they’ve built 7 schools, funded 690 farms, and impacted over 30,000 lives in rural Egypt.
There’s endless data that says consumers are increasingly more expectant of brands to act responsibly. According to an Edelman survey, “Nearly two-thirds of consumers around the world will buy or boycott a brand solely because of its position on a social or political issue.” This comes as no surprise, as the spread of information via news outlets and social media has made it that much easier for consumers to ask questions and make informed buying decisions. But at the end of the day, people are always going to care about the tangible product they’re buying. And Kotn is excelling in that area too, using only the finest natural fibers and processes that ensure long-lasting products. At a time when the apparel industry is oversaturated and there are endless options, consumers can choose which companies and their stories are worth supporting and which aren’t. To that effect, Ben notes; “people can vote with their dollar, and that’s incredible.”
Find Ben & Kotn online:
0:35 - Intros. Kotn is a purpose-driven apparel company that looks at the apparel industry from a holistic lens.
1:45 - Mike shares a fun fact he found: that Ben created a Chrome extension to help him focus and get more done.
4:10 - Ben touches on his background as a kid. He was diagnosed with ADHD, but with medication and counselor help he began to excel in math for the first time. His love for math grew into computer science, and he also explored and enjoyed design and coding.
5:50 - Ben talks about how KOTN started. At the time, he had 2 kinds of white t-shirts. The cheap $5 ones and the premium $100 ones, and the quality was drastic but he couldn’t afford to only have the expensive options.
10:49 - Ben shares his experience with learning about the manufacturing industry.
11:19 - He explains: in traceability, there’s sort of 5 tiers starting from raw materials and ending up at the finished product. The first step in social responsibility involved seeing that need for change and feeling that call to action.
13:30 - Words like sustainability get thrown around a lot. The Kotn founders have been trying to make sure their vision is clear; redististrube the value chain into the people who are making this stuff, and invest from the ground up. Entrepreneurship involves Naivety and belief that you can do things better than before.Overall mission to create things that last - not just products but communities.
16:33 - Braden says this is the truest definition of sustainability - a people-led lasting impact and a mental shift.
21:19 - Ben shares that they look at UN sustainability goals and figure out how to map out the business based on what makes sense to them.
24:20 - Ben talks about how they didn’t explode over night, that it was a grind for a long time. 26:55 - Mike brings up “greenwashing” and asks how Kotn is different. Ben starts by saying they want people to buy their product because it’s the best, not because it’s marketed as sustainable. Additionally, they hold themselves accountable. When it came to B Corp Certification, they didn’t want to just pass but to be the best.
30:37 - The crew touches on the importance of relationships in the industry.
36:00 - Ben talks about how they didn’t want to be part of Black Friday, and instead they decided to put 100% of their sales from that one day towards building a school, which resulted in more sales than they’d experienced in months.
46:10 - Ben touches on how to handle feedback, including a note on body diversity with models.
49:30 - Braden asks Ben to share one piece of advice in the realm of sustainability. Ben talks about gaining awareness.
55:04 - Our hosts ask Ben what’s upcoming for Kotn.
58:00 - Ben talks about Kotn Supply and working micro-brands for creators.
1:12 - Mike and Braden end off by chatting about future innovations related to sustainability like lab-grown leather.