Meet the founders: Charlotte Instone

Charlotte Instone, KTO Founder

Charlotte Instone, KTO Founder

Charlotte was studying buying and merchandising at London Collage of Fashion when the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed. Over 1100 factory workers were killed in the disaster who were producing clothes for brands like Mango, Gap and Primark. In her own words, the tragedy was a “wake-up call” that helped her connect the impact of “fast fashion” with the workers making the clothes.

“In our lectures we were taught how to cut cost, how ensure supply chains perform efficiently, but we didn’t think about the people behind it. I’d heard about sweatshops but not really connected it to what I was doing and the impact of that.

“I started feeling like I was studying this degree and working really long hours to ultimately make a product that was going to end up in a landfill in two years. I had a bit of a meltdown.

“After the factory collapse an M&S buyer came to speak to our class and I started asking: 'How do you know if the supply chain or the factory is protecting the workers?’ and the answer that was given was … ‘We don’t really know’.”

Dissatisfied with vague responses from her lecturers, Charlotte began researching supply chains from raw material sourcing to manufacturing. What she found surprised her.

Ninety-three percent[1] of companies do not know where their raw materials come from. Over half of factories do not have unions or collective bargaining agreements and nearly one fourth of companies still do not publish supplier lists. Charlotte also found that there was a higher rate of human trafficking in the textile industry than in the sex industry. And that forced and child labour – especially in the production of raw materials like cotton, etc was extremely prevalent.

KTO pop-up store in Old Street

KTO pop-up store in Old Street

In her final year of university, Charlotte looked for work with an ethical fashion brand but couldn’t find a suitable company. “I couldn’t find a brand that was nice but also affordable and that was really trying to make a difference- most companies wanted to just tick an ethical box.

KTO pop-up store in Old Street

KTO pop-up store in Old Street

Thus, Know the Origin was born. “I wanted to create a company that was fully traceable and worked with people to make a difference. So, I took a year out to visit over 150 producers in India and Bangladesh. I found some amazing factories and brands and those are the ones I work with today.”

The factories Charlotte contracts are often social enterprises themselves, employing disabled workers or women trying to exit the sex industry. All her suppliers comply with her own rigorous transparency standards, which ensure fair working conditions, health and safety law compliance, Fairtrade certification and organic and eco-friendly material production.

In only two years, Know the Origin, has become a real success- recently featured in Forbes 30 Under 30. But determined and passionate, Charlotte has bigger dreams for her business.

“I’m quite a ‘futurist’ person- in my head I’ve already left my pop-up shops and am already thinking about the department store in Oxford street. My dream would be to have a store in every high street but it would be amazing to have a department store where we source everything ethically- like bedding, clothes, food everything has a story and a batch idea of where it comes from.”

Her biggest piece of advice for people wanting to start a business is to be surrounded with wise people.

“I have an amazing board of six advisors. I thought they would never have time to help me for free, but I bring them my three biggest problems every other month and come up with great ideas and solutions.”

[1] The Ethical Fashion Report published annually since the Rana Plaza disaster by the Australian NGO, Baptist World Aid, 2018.

Megan Howe