How did Know The Origin come about? How did you apply your knowledge of fashion into something physical?
I started Know the Origin after studying buying and merchandising at the London College of Fashion. While I was at uni the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Bangladesh, which made clothes for Mango, Gap, Primark – loads of different High Street retailers. The factory collapse lead to over 1,100 people dying and over 2,000 people were injured or trapped in the rubble.
Even though I was studying a degree that looks at the processes behind how you make clothes, we’ve never actually been taught to think about or connect it to the people behind the products. For me, seeing that factory collapse meant I could no longer ignore that side of the industry.
I started doing a lot more research into what was happening in fashion. Lots of Google searches, lots of books that covered some of the extent of stuff that was happening. There’s just all this horrible stuff that goes on in fashion and it left me taken aback. I thought “oh, no I’ve paid loads for this degree, in an industry that I might not really want to be a part of.”
I went out to Bangladesh and India and spent a lot of time researching. I visited over 150 different producers; factories, farmers, jenny spinners, just really learning about the processes of how our clothes are made. I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly in terms of what people are doing, but also the incredible impact that you can have from producing clothes well.
It’s trying to find what the best practice is and create a product that has maximum social impact and minimum impact on the environment. Once I saw all of those practices in the flesh, I thought I couldn’t really get a job doing anything else and decided to raise some investment and get to work straight out of university.
How do you remain focused, having such a strong brand mission and identity? Do you have any rituals to get you into that headspace where you’re just flowing and working like there’s no tomorrow?
There’s so much going on all the time that we always have to be in that state [laughs]. As a small business you can think you’re really busy and drift on with stuff, but I think a really important thing to keeping focus is saying “by this time next month, I will get this done…” I have a document that has the vision of the company and really clear measurable goals for each month – things that you can actually look at and see what you’re achieving and not just drift.
Celebrate things that you’ve actually achieved because often – especially in a small business context – it’s like being on a conveyor belt. You’re just churning things out really fast, you almost forget the good things that you’ve done.
It’s also about brutal prioritising – I think that’s the hardest thing about starting a business, as you have a hundred things to do and you can only realistically do maybe one or two things a day. So I think it’s just having that goal on the wall, you’re like “what’s going to get us there?” and it leads to constant prioritising.
Do you find yourself saying ‘no’ a lot – whether it’s to yourself or to outside people who want to collaborate?
Not as much as I should! I used to have a fear of missing out, but actually there are very few opportunities in the world that are only available once. I think it’s just really thinking “if it doesn’t grow sales then we don’t do it.”
Emails in particular are a way that people almost put their work on to you and just expect a lot from you. So I think that’s why I have – and this sounds a bit crazy – but I have this document full of automated responses to things. So I just copy those in. If I need to say no to events etc, it’s a way of standardising things as much as possible to savetime.
What are the things that you’re focused on and do they change?
Ultimately, the whole point behind the business is to see change in the fashion industry. This works itself in different ways depending on what we’re doing, but ultimately that focus is still the same, whether we’re creating products, or creating a marketing campaign.We always focus on that.
Being a small business, my workload does massively change from month to month in terms of product development one month, then one month where I’ll go hardcore in making 500 Instagram assets, and the next I’ll be focused on hiring someone – all tasks dependent on what’s going on.
Is changing the fashion industry always the main goal or do your goals change on a month-by-month basis?
I think that’s always the main goal. That’s what we have written in the office, that’s why we do what we do. We never run sales, for example, instead we’ll do campaigns and advertising on why people should buy stuff that lasts longer and won’t go to landfill.
It’s very easy in such a fast-moving business to drift and end up miles off the path that you were planning on going down, but if your main goal isn’t always your main goal then why are you doing it? I have a lot of ideas and get excited by a lot of things, but if it isn’t underpinned by that main social action or social justice aspect of KTO then I don’t think an idea ever becomes rooted or lasts, I just become quite unmotivated by it. Just have clear boundaries and make sure that you’re focused.
What are the things that you find distracting and does anything easily take you off course?
I’m a classic Millennial – social media [laughs]. I’d say social media, emails and comparison, which I think all tie-in together. I’ve started limiting my time on social media – it’s one of those things that’s like a bottomless pit. You can end up finding loads of things you’re interested in and then after an hour being like “I don’t know how I just spent an hour on Instagram”.
I also get distracted by tasks I don’t enjoy. I have to make sure I go somewhere else to do those because I find them really quite distracting. I could sit there for hours and procrastinate on something if I don’t make sure I’m doing it somewhere different.
Are there any parts of your work when you’re flowing and you feel extra productive and time just seems to disappear?
I think definitely when I’m thinking about the future or the vision or direction I want to take the company, but I quickly put goals around things because otherwise it can get a bit overwhelming. I’m definitely flowing when I’m in that tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’. Thinking about what needs to be done now to get us to where we want to be in five years – I love that. I love being in environments where you’re talking and meeting people that are also really passionate about what you’re doing.
Everything else I do I also kind of love, but it’s as a result of remembering why we’re doing it rather than actually loving the task at hand. I hate like 80% of the jobs I’m doing at the moment, but that’s why you grow a team.
How important do you think rest and breaks are to maintain your focus and not burn out?
I think they’re so so vital. I’m a high-functioning person and I really enjoy being busy, but I think I could continue working at quite a high pace – like 16 hour days – for quite a long time. But I can tell when burnout is coming because I’m not excited about what I’m doing. I also do that classic thing of stopping cooking proper meals so I can save time and do something else, and I know that when these two things are happening then I definitely need to rest more.
I now make sure that I book all my holidays at the beginning of the year that, because things get really busy. We’d find that we can do a pop-up here, or we could do this and that, and holidays were always the thing that got pushed back. When you’re rested your brain just works better. Doing less makes you do more and it’s quite a hard concept to get your head around. For example, one of my friends works in Sweden and she works something like three and a half days a week and I wouldn’t say she’s any less productive than I am. It’s interesting isn’t it? We churn out this culture of the more you do, the busier you are, the more successful you are – but it’s not how a human being functions and we do need rest.
Do you have any productivity hacks that you use?
I don’t have my phone in my bedroom any more. It actually makes you so much more rested, not having stuff pinging through all the time. I only usually check my emails between 8am and 10am, and then again between 4pm and 5pm just because emails are often the biggest distraction.
I make sure that when I’m prioritising stuff in the morning I’ll write on my list ‘get a coffee’ or ‘get some cake’ in between stuff.
How do you regain focus if you ever lose it?
I always lose it! I don’t think anyone can say they’re 100% focused all of the time. The biggest thing for me is remembering the ‘why’ of what we’re doing. We have the vision statement written out on the wall, and pictures of what we’re doing. We have a timeline of the impact that we’ve created, and that for me is… when I’m doing a really crappy boring email… I just look at that to remember “okay, this is what we’re trying to achieve.”
If I’m massively unfocused, I often just put the whole thing down and rest because I think often we try and churn through stuff – and if we’re not well rested then it can be a disaster. You could do something in an hour that when you’re tired will take you four hours. Just put it down and don’t get too stressed. The things which we often get stressed by are things that we often won’t remember after a year. I always try and have that perspective.
Jack Atkins spoke to Charlotte Instone, founder of Know The Origin, a sustainable fashion and homewares brand based in London.