The Industry Interview: Shafiq Hassan, co-founder, Ninety Percent

Launched in 2012, Pretty Little Thing is an online fashion retailer aimed at savvy shoppers on a budget and part of the Boohoo group. Founded by Umar and Adam Kamani, sons of Boohoo co-founder Mahmud Kamani, the website drops hundred of new product daily and make runaway styles accessible to everyone. The company also works with high profile influencers who support them in driving the brand and help to create awareness whilst acting as ambassadors. The brand is the fastest growing part of Boohoo, in the final four months of 2019 revenues rose 95% at PrettyLittleThing to £144.2m. Last year it opened an LA HQ and influencer lounge on Melrose Avenue and has just submitted (in March 2019) planning proposal for a new HQ in Manchester.

Shafiq Hassan is co-founder of Ninety Percent, women’s premium label that shares 90% profits with causes and the people who make their clothes. He is also managing director of award winning garment supplier Echotex in Bangladesh and Echo Sourcing in the UK.

Hassan has played a significant role in empowering female garment workers via Echotex and has invested heavily in research and innovation in sustainably sourced materials for his own brand. He tells The Industry all about his new vision for fashion, sustainability and capitalism.

Ninety Percent was born from Echo Sourcing, before we get on to the subject of brand can you please tell us a bit about yourself and the Echotex business?

I am in immigrant to the UK from Bangladesh. I arrived in 1971, and grew up in Exeter.  I took Industrial Chemistry at The City University and Chemical Engineering at Aston University. By sheer chance, I got into the garment business in the late ‘80s, when I met my partner Para Hamilton, working on supplying to the UK high street retail chains with products from Bangladesh.  Para has had phenomenal influence on me, especially to do with caring for the planet, organic produce, looking at disfranchised people, among many other topics.

Para and I formed Echo Sourcing in 1996, and with our partners in Bangladesh we started our textile mill with garmenting facility, Echotex, in 2009. We established Echotex on the principals of Planet, People, Product, and is currently the largest LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) Platinum Certified unit in Bangladesh, employing over 11,000 people.

Ethics and sustainability are at the heart of Echotex, can you tell us a bit about the key initiatives you have when it comes to your staff, your approach to sustainability and animal welfare?

Planet, People and Product are at the heart of our state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Kaliakor, Gazipur, Bangladesh.

Here are some highlights:

Planet – We set up a modern Effluent Treatment Plant (ETP), treating 100% of our wastewater to a standard far above the minimal national requirements.  Within 6 months of its operation, Echotex received Bangladesh government’s highest recognition with the National Environmental Award 2010. Our processing is Oekotex, GOTS certified, that ensures that our dyes and chemicals are GOTS approved. Our best in class machinery with our R&D in dyeing uses far less water than industry average.

We are currently researching a Zero Discharge processing that will not require any salt for dyeing, and reduce water, dyes and chemicals usage by over 50%.

Echotex began harvesting rainwater on the roof of its buildings (approx. 125,000 sq ft) to use directly into wet processing, gardening and toilets. The aim of the rainwater harvesting project was to reduce dependency on ground water reserves. In the wet season of 2016, Echotex rainwater harvesting project saved 35,000 cubic meter of water.

The work that we have done on energy design and efficiency at our plant has enabled us to be the largest facility in Bangladesh to achieve LEED Platinum certification. We also produce cooling from our waste heat recovery from our generators. Through such pioneering practices, Echotex is reducing CO2 green house gas emissions by over 4,000 tonnes per year, or in other words planting 23,000 trees or reduction in the use 1.8m litres of fuel per annum.

We are also considering implementing solar to reduce the dependency on natural gas that would reduce our carbon footprint further.

Work is on going on producing high quality recycled yarn and packaging materials from our waste, in a closed loop system.

People – We have a centralised fire safety and sprinkler system. It takes between 5-7 minutes to evacuate 11,000-plus team members from our premises.

Our unique focus on efficiency, productivity and worker welfare has enabled us to become an industry-leading production partner. Pioneering ethical practices help to safeguard and improve the wellbeing of our growing workforce, while sustainable production processes produce excellent quality products without compromising the environment or our values. All workers are entitled to receive production bonuses.

We provide lunch, that is free of cost, for all 11,000-plus personnel, cooked on our premises. These meals not only improve the health of our workers, they ensure high productivity in return, cost saving for every worker, and avoids the hassle of rushing to home for lunch or to carry food when coming to work.

We were proud to be the first factory in Bangladesh to introduce paternity leave (1 week paid), alongside our on going maternity leave (16 weeks paid) commitment.

Several years ago we involved Phulki a leading NGO to educate all female employees on Reproductive Health. Sanitary napkins are given to all female employees, free of cost.

Echotex currently runs an onsite day care centre for the young children of employees who have no other means of childcare. The facility has been very successful and we are now, with the expertise from BRAC, the world’s largest NGO and rated number 1, looking to establish two further day care facilities and schools for older children within our worker communities.

With BRAC, Echotex is doing a three-year project on female leadership, maternal and neonatal health, nutrition, gender equality and legal aid, to empower our female workers further.

Echotex is the first ever garment manufacturing unit in Bangladesh to introduce comprehensive health insurance for all its workers by partnering with a Dutch SNV, Auchan’s Weave our Future funds, with Gano Shasto Kendra the service provider.

Inside Echotex in Bangladesh
Inside Echotex in Bangladesh

Now, on to Ninety Percent, you said you had the idea for a brand such as this about 10 years ago, what was the vision for it then?

Ninety Percent came about as an idea over ten years ago, when we questioned as to how big businesses are run and how they control our lives, be it banks, utility, or any other service or matter providers and how the system was exploitative, without giving much back.  We felt that there was also a huge sense of disconnect between big businesses and its customers, that the customers could not do much about or have much of a say.  We felt there has to another way of moving away from tradition method of running businesses and the seeds of Ninety Percent were sown, with a vision of 360 deg empowerment.

How did the relationship with Ben Matthews come about and what makes the combination of you and Ben work so well?

About three years ago we approached Catherine Whiley of Live Fashion to be our wholesale distributor, and showed her our range. She loved the concept and ethos but felt that the product needed further tweaking. She suggested that Ben, with his 10 years experience as buying manager at Net-A-Porter, could be very useful. That was a significant guidance and I invited Ben to join us as a Creative Director, which has resulted in Ninety Percent’s products with the look and feel.

When you met Ben, was he on board with the vision to give 90% of the profits away to the people who make the brand and charities? It’s a radically different approach.

I think Ben felt strongly for the ethos from the start in terms of sharing of the profit even though it was not something that he had ever come across earlier. However, the concept was non negotiable.

What about the retailers you are working with, how did you strike up the relationship and how do they feel about the approach?

Ben has been able to curate a range that has something for everyone, with elevated premium jersey basic and true knitwear, and some fun elements that are staples for any wardrobe. Ben’s background and integrity is regarded highly in the industry so he was able to bring in Selfridges and Net-A-Porter simultaneously, to showcase our range.

We were successful with both companies who bought from our first collection, which has been extremely significant to our progress. Further they have also bought from our second and third collections, as well as repeats. We are part of Selfridges Buying Better campaign with our sustainable product bases of GOTS-certified organic cotton and Tencel.

The collection is pared back, luxury basics, which really hold their own in the context of the high end retailers you partner with, how did you land on the aesthetic?

We worked on doing casual luxe product with the fundamentals of sustainability from day one and when Ben came on board he took that vision to deliver the look that we see. This is what Ben thinks:

“We spent a lot of time honing fit and fabric to ensure the collection is modern without being austere, but also feminine without being overly girly. Ninety Percent is a thoroughly modern brand and we want to transform the relationship women have with their clothes.

We aim for many of the designs to carry through from season to season. We have to move away from this idea of inbuilt obsolescence. This is about slowing the system down.”

Can you tell us a bit about the materials used in the collection, what they are made from, where they are sourced etc?

Currently we are focusing mainly on GOTS-certified organic cotton, Tencel, peace silk, viscose, animal cruelty free GOTS certified organic wool. The key raw materials in terms of fabrics and yarns are from India, Italy, New Zealand and Turkey. The trims are mainly from Italy and Japan. We understand that achieving totally sustainable product at every level is a marathon and not a sprint, but we take this responsibility seriously while selecting materials and processing for design, and aim to make things better all of the time.

Ninety Percent
Ninety Percent: Collection Two

The first collection seems to be selling well, are you pleased with the response?

We encouraged by the sales of both Selfridges and Net-A-Porter. Our own sales are picking up too. Things can always be better, and we do need to sell greater volumes for our financial sustainability.

Do you have plans to broaden the collection into other categories, and if so, what can we expect?

For the moment, I would prefer to consolidate on jersey and knitwear for at least another year before adding more categories. One does not want to spread oneself too thinly, but we shall add denim next to our range.

The cost of the fashion industry to the planet is very much in the spotlight at the moment and the problem seems to be so big and so complex, what do you think the industry should be prioritizing at the moment?

The reduction of waste is paramount and we need to start thinking more about a circular economy and it is about changing the culture on waste and over consumption.  Carbon footprint is all about the reduction in all aspects of the processes and waste that we create. The fashion industry and fashion media has a massive role in taking responsibility for what it does to this planet. We only have one planet, and we need to act now.

If you had a message for the consumer about how they should approach their fashion purchases now, what would it be?

Slow down, disengage with throwaway culture, and take responsibility for local actions, know that they will have a global impact. Support organizations that aim to make a positive difference. This is going to be our “cultural revolution”.

Avery Dennison

Shafiq Hassan will be speaking at The Industry’s Fashion Futures Forum in partnership with Avery Dennison on 27 November 2019. Click here for more information.