“I naively assumed that to make a product you had to go back to where the very first step happens,” explains Rami Helali, co-founder of Kotn, a sustainable clothing and homeware brand that started in 2015 by producing a simple cotton T-shirt. “I later learned that’s not what anyone does.”
Helali believed that if he and his co-founders were to find an answer to their question regarding how to make a better T-shirt than what they were seeing on retail shelves, they would have to go to the source of the raw material: Egyptian cotton. “I had no experience in agriculture, production or fashion,” says Helali, a Canadian raised by Egyptian parents. But, determined to create a top-quality item that was manufactured ethically and sustainably, the former private-equity manager spent six months in Egypt, four of them living on a cotton farm in the Nile Delta, coming to grips with how smallholder farmers operate in the region, the unique struggles they face and the roles played in the entire fashion supply chain – from harvesting cotton, to turning it into yarn and then fabric, before it is cut and sewn into an item of clothing.
Kotn has grown beyond T-shirts to include a range of classic wardrobe and home items. The company currently works directly with over 2,000 small Egyptian farms to source its high-grade raw material at prices that are agreed upon at the start of every season. “Our business is about transparency in every process. We only work with enterprises that treat their people with respect and pay them fairly, and who don’t damage the environment.” Kotn supports farmers through subsidies and by providing fertilizers and agricultural consultancy to improve their yields so that their revenues are increased.
It is also impacting the wider community by building and equipping schools in the vicinity, and already has seven schools in operation, with three more currently under construction. “We purchase the land, build the schools and buy things like uniforms and computers,” Helali explains, “and have almost 400 kids in our schools today, including the first 36 people to ever read and write in one of these communities.” The aim is to increase the literacy rate in rural Egypt, especially among girls, in order to alleviate poverty and support gender equality in the long term.
Although Kotn also has a production facility in Portugal, using organic cotton from Turkey, its Egyptian operation is a unique one in which every step of the process, from growing the cotton to stitching the clothing, happens in no greater than a 150km radius, lessening the carbon footprint of a notoriously indulgent industry.
“It’s hard for consumers to make day-to-day purchasing decisions, so it’s up to us to design better, so that items last longer, and they buy better, but less, from companies that are thoughtfully making things.” Helali credits the Kotn teams in its Toronto and Cairo offices for a commitment to this way of thinking. “These are people who believe in what the world should and can look like and have joined us to build it, as we try to change supply chains and lifestyles in fashion.”