We had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie McIntosh, Founder of Fou Furnishings, an organic and Fairtrade textiles company that produce high quality bed, bath and table linens. We discussed the rigorous standards in the organic textiles industry, the challenges she faced while setting up her own business in the field and just how far organic textiles has come.
Here’s 5 minutes with Stephanie…
We’d love to know a bit about your background and how you got into organic textiles?
I worked for a number of mainstream retailers in the UK, particularly in fashion. I was concerned about the sourcing because you don’t always know who’s making it and where it comes from. Things like child labour, transparency, and quality gave me great concern and that’s one of the main things that got me into thinking that the sourcing has to be ethical, making sure I had natural fibres that were also fair trade.
What is the ethos behind Fou Furnishings?
Our ethos is to offer the best quality of natural products available, to ensure they’re fairly priced and backed up with the best personal service. The key is to be ethical and transparent when dealing with both our customers and our suppliers.
Did you face any challenges setting up your business and do you still face any?
Yes! The main challenge is resources in terms of cash and time. I spent a long time setting up the business and a lot of the issues facing organic textiles are finding the right suppliers to work with to give you the quality that you’re looking for. Also the multi-tasking of marketing, as you’re busy running and operating your business, but it’s finding the time to market the profile.
How do you manage to maintain quality control of your products and what checks do you undertake to make sure everything is up to your standards?
Before I started the business, I came from a retail analytics background, which is when I developed a very specific spec with Intertek, one of the world’s major technical textile ‘Total Quality Assurance’ providers, which has all of the textile ISO tests on it. I use an independent test laboratory or very often they will get it tested for me and that is done with every product to make sure we have the right quality. The second is of course the organic textiles certification, which is very rigorous. With fair trade you’re dealing with suppliers who are certified fair trade so you have that assurance of both the ethical and the quality.
How do you make sure your carbon footprint is kept as minimal as possible?
That is more difficult because of where we source, but we try to minimize the miles by shipping directly from the producer to the customer; where it’s a long standing product and long standing customer. In addition, it also saves the customer money because you’re not investing empty money in logistics.
Do you use local suppliers and where do you source your organic cotton?
I would love to source our cotton locally but cotton isn’t grown in the UK, so we use one of the oldest companies in organic production in India. We also use Italy who sells genuine organic Egyptian cotton. 90% of organic Egyptian cotton has never been near Egypt! We also work with Portugal as it’s not traveling great distances. For our wool bedding, we do source in the UK, as there are sources here. We source as locally as we can where the quality is right.
We saw that you provide some of your products to hoteliers. Are these hotels ethically conscious too?
We do source bespoke laundry for the Green House Hotel in Bournemouth, who won an award for ‘the Greenest Hotel in the UK’. We’ve also been contacting a wider amount of luxury self-catering, not just hotels, and a lot are starting to look into green options in terms of linens.
We know that a lot of your products are fair trade. What are your views on Fairtrade? If something is Fairtrade, does that make it organic?
Fair trade is not organic. 18% of Fairtrade cotton is organic so it’s dual sustainability award and it’s the gold standard for sustainable cotton. So the other 82% is just cotton. Within organic, however, it’s important to point out that fair trade, without a capital F, is enshrined with the organic textiles certification, so there is an element of social justice there that companies do have to consider and apply. It’s not that organic isn’t Fairtrade, it’s just separate. Our hotel collection is certified separately as Fairtrade and also has organic certification.
What is the process of organically certifying textiles? Is it as strict as certifying beauty or food products?
There is a global organic standard that’s called GOTS (the Global Organic Textiles Standard), which is the most stringent globally. They’re very, very strict. It starts back to the cottonseed. It then has to be grown in land that has no pesticides in for a three-year period otherwise it’s classed as in transition. Each and every stage of the textile chain is verified and checked. There’s a very thick and weighty set of standards in each stage of the textile processes whether it’s the weaving, the dying, the scouring or the ginning, all of it has to be carried out. It’s a long and costly process, but it gives assurance.
What are the best symbols to look out for when purchasing certified organic textiles?
The GOTS logo is the best rigorous standard to look out for. There isn’t a lot of governing in organic textiles, so if you see this or the UK Soil Association logo that tells you it’s organic and it’s certified.
We understand that you get involved with the Soil Association’s Organic September. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
It’s a really great campaign and a major event as organic covers lots of different categories. The major category is of course, food and that’s growing each year. It’s a great event across the organic world for people to have a taster or have a promotion. It’s a big celebration of all things organic, which has more and more momentum behind it each year.
What is the difference between the Soil Association and GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certifications?
The UK Social Association is the certifying body and GOTS is the standard. So if you see the logo or the mark, they mean the same thing. GOTS is the big long set of standards that keep getting updated. In addition, the Soil Association has one of the biggest influences in developing the GOTS standard, so they have an input and they certify.
For someone who has never thought about purchasing certified organic textiles, what are the benefits?
Organic cotton is consistently better quality than a lot of the conventional cottons because it’s handpicked and grown properly. There are no nasty toxic chemicals like formaldehyde. In terms of organic bed linens and promoting healthy sleep, it’s comfortable, natural, and you have lots of properties like breathability and temperature control. It has durability, so it lasts longer. It’s anti-allergen, so it’s great for people with chemical sensitivity or eczema with the assurance that there are no chemicals. It doesn’t contain any feathers, so it’s ideal for vegans. And finally, organic textiles are sustainable so it’s good for the planet; it protects the environment because one of the major problems with conventional cotton is the amount of chemical spray.
Have you seen growth in the organic textiles industry since you founded your business?
It’s been trickling along but it’s really beginning to grow, as people are becoming a lot more concerned about wellbeing and where things come from. Last year it grew by 30% in the UK. My business has grown every year apart from one, and last year we had Brexit, which was a bit of a blip. So yes, it is growing but organic cotton is still less than 1% of global cotton production, so it is niche.
Do you have any future plans for Fou Furnishings?
We want to grow our business, but as part of that we need to build our profile and the awareness of organic textiles. The one doesn’t come without the other, the whole market and awareness has to grow. We have a loyal customer following but we have to get into new markets and continue product development. Another thing is working collaboratively and across different channels. By working with likeminded retailers and beauty brands, we’re increasingly selling into other retailers, for example we supply Ethical Superstore and we’ve recently been supplying Traidcraft who are a fair trade outfit supplying into other retailers. So it’s across different streams.
Thank you to Stephanie for taking time out to chat with us. To listen to the full interview, click play below!