You’ve landed on part 2 of Factoring In Our Factories. While Part 1 focused on how we make our frames, this story covers where we make them and what operational challenges we face. We’ll share what it takes to select factories overseas and what matters most in keeping such a bond going. Having started my career in the supply chain team, I’ll start by making ‘factory’ a tad more specific. I’m Marlot by the way, currently Sustainability Manager at Ace & Tate.
There are many types of factories out there. Making eyewear is complex — often one frame takes over one hundred steps to make, as you might’ve read in our previous post, which calls for at least two different sets of expertise. We work closely with our manufacturers to oversee production and the assembly of frames and lenses, and we count on our suppliers to source and deliver raw material, components and lenses. You can imagine how convenient it would be if these parties weren’t oceans apart. Especially if you’ve set the task of expanding your network of partners, without loosening the ties.
In 2017, in order to keep up with the growing number of orders, our Supply Chain team had to expand our network of manufacturers and suppliers. We realised that working solely with our Italian partners was no longer possible due to their limited production capacity. We also wanted to ensure that we weren’t too reliant on one single factory.
By reflecting on the strong relationships we had built in the past, we formulated the following principles to select new partners wisely:
- A high level of experience — proven technical abilities and quality control.
- Transparency — we’ll only work with factories that allow us and our auditors to visit at any time.
- Proof of social and environmental practices such as clear safety rules, use of solar panels and the reuse of water.
Where do you start? Well, by first tackling the elephant in the room: China.
As much as we tried, we found that Italian factories couldn’t provide full production and assembly in-house. And so, our search moved to China — a world-renowned hub of eyewear production.
We talked to partners, customers, brand ambassadors and visited trade shows to better understand the implications and clichés we’ve heard about partnering with facilities in China.
There were a few stigmas that were holding us back: our notion was that most Chinese factories would not be able to deliver the quality and attention in as much detail as our Italian factories, and we were also worried about environmental and working conditions. However, when checking up on these factors, we learnt that China is actually one of the prime luxury eyewear manufacturing hubs in the world, and a lot of eyewear brands that we look up to proudly manufacture their products in China (an example is Garrett Leight). Throughout our research, we also learned that there are a number of Chinese factories that prove to take the environment and the health & safety of their workers very seriously.
Even though China adds another layer of complexity — geographically and culturally speaking — we made the very conscious decision to give it a chance, and after a rigorous search, we created a list of 50 potential partners in China and beyond.
A long list didn’t mean we were quick with making decisions. When sourcing new manufacturers, it only took one round of testing their ability to read our technical drawings that downsized our list from 50 to 12. Looking into lead times, social & quality standards, flexibility and general know-how eventually downsized the list to the final 4 new manufacturers. It’s really all about the nitty-gritty.
Eventually, we found our match in Shenzhen. Globally, Shenzhen is a highly esteemed hub for luxury eyewear production. You might know Shenzhen as the source for smartphones and other advanced communication technology — and those detail-oriented, highly technical skills are exactly what we need when producing eyewear.
In total we partnered with four manufacturers, one in Italy and three in China. It’s important for us to have full control over the entire production process so we can confidently state that our frames are either 100% made in Italy or 100% made in China. Unfortunately, it is common practice to state that a product is “Made in Italy” if a legally sufficient part of production takes place on Italian soil. As transparency is a core value of Ace & Tate, we choose not to do this. We are proud of our production partners, regardless of where in the world they are.
Italy and China are both world-class production hubs and the raw materials suppliers are just around the corner in both regions, which eliminates the need to ship materials around the world. But (in sustainability there’s always a but), we still send frames from Shenzhen to Amsterdam. The current solution is to compensate — what we call ‘offset’ — wherever we can. The Flexport Carbon Offset Program comes in handy here.
In 2018, together with Flexport, we offset 191,68 tonnes of CO2 by contributing to forest conservation, energy efficiency, and landfill gas-to-energy project through the Carbonfund Foundation. This makes up for only a small part of our total emissions. With air and sea shipments covered, we’re still missing logistics by car and truck, as well as staff flights. We’re currently looking for adequate partners that will help us to offset those trips too.
We have strong relationships with our manufacturers, and we visit them between two to four times a year. These trips (the staff flights we mentioned above) are not only meant for us to meet our partners IRL and discuss the Ace & Tate frames they are manufacturing, but also to make sure they walk their talk. Along with our ongoing research into our factories’ practices, we’ve also teamed up with experts that are equipped to help us check in on our partners.
With Intertek, an external auditor, we’re performing three different audits to test our manufacturers, both existing and new. An audit is, essentially, a very long checklist to make sure the facility meets important social, environmental and quality standards. Such a checklist system doesn’t happen overnight, though. It took us 8 months to set up and start executing.
The good news is that all facilities currently meet social (WCA & SA8000) and quality (SQP & ISO9001) standards. Social standards include health and safety, no child labour, no discrimination and honest wages. When it comes to quality, our focus is not only on raw materials, final end product and how they’re handled during the process — but also on working with highly trained staff. Next to these more general audits, we’re setting up a purely environmental audit (ISO14001), which focuses on the lifecycle side of things, and the environmental performance of all facilities.
Audits help us ensure better working conditions, sustainability practices and overall consistency. They don’t just help us, but our manufacturers and suppliers, too. In a nutshell, better quality factories mean better quality products.
When it comes to decreasing our footprint and making a real impact, it’s important to realise that you simply can’t do it alone. Once you’ve found your partners, you’re in it together.
Everyone in our supply chain needs to see the ‘full picture’ — such as a carbon footprint analysis - — to go the extra mile. Currently, we’re working with Sustainalize to provide insight. Sustainalize helps us collect the right data from our manufacturers, suppliers and logistics partners. With this information, and some magic data-crushing from their part, we will be able to publish our first CO2 report and lifecycle assessment (this report shows the environmental impact of our product throughout its life cycle — from raw material to end of use) — watch this space! It may take hundreds of Skype calls, email threads and long visits, but it’s worth it: the data allows us to focus our efforts and motivates us to keep improving.
So far, we’ve been focusing on our planet and sharing mostly facts and numbers (thanks for keeping up). Up next, we’ll be shifting our focus from planet to people: from the factories we work with to the faces within that factory, from a paperwork-heavy audit to a collaborative document built on shared intentions, AKA the Code of Conduct. For that part, I’ll be passing over the mic back to our CEO Mark.
Until next time, I’m happy to receive any suggestions, questions or feedback. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow We’re working on it on Medium to stay updated.
I’ll keep coming back here — sharing small victories and big learnings.
For the new readers, welcome. You’ve landed on We’re working on it, a platform dedicated to openness and self-reflection where we share our journey as we work hard to become a less harmful company.
* Read more about our factories here. You will find five of them on this page, however, be aware that we’ve scaled down and now only work with four of them.
** We’re also working on a section dedicated to sustainability on our website. Stay tuned.