Hassan Ahmad didn’t know much about fashion. In 2013 he was busy studying medicine. His friends Prashant Mehta and Adam Long worked in finance and marketing, respectively. The trio were all in their early twenties.
“We’d been thinking of ways we could contribute in a substantial and sustainable manner,” Ahmad says. “One night Prashant said he had a dream about these socks that support different causes. The next day, he pitched it to me and I was really taken with the idea.”
The friends used Kickstarter to launch their idea under the name Conscious Step. Their aim was to use fashion – specifically, men’s socks – as a tool to support disadvantaged communities. “For us Conscious Step is about giving people a way to help solve the problems they care about,” Ahmad says. “I think deep down everyone wants to do good. The challenge is to make it really easy for them.”
The initial hurdle for the founders was entering an industry they didn’t know much about. “Our first ideas for sock designs came from walking around to a bunch of stores and looking at what we thought was working,” says Ahmad. “It is really important to create designs that are eye-catching.”
And to make them a talking point. Each colourful Conscious Step sock comes with an embroidered symbol on it representing the particular cause it supports: a book for education, a ribbon for HIV, a dish for food and so on.
“The idea of having emblems was there from the start,” says Ahmad. “We were very into the idea of having a visual reminder. Any prompt is helpful.”
Rather than implementing a one-for-one method, such as TOMS and Warby Parker do, Conscious Step lets consumers choose which cause their purchase supports. “I think businesses before us have paved the way for consumers to be familiar with this concept,” says Ahmad. “For us it’s about asking customers what they’re passionate about and letting them decide where their money goes.”
Conscious Step turned to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as a benchmark for selecting its initial round of causes. Just one pair of socks purchased could mean 20 trees planted in Kenya through Trees for the Future; 18 months of access to clean water through water.org; seven days of HIV therapy for an expectant mother through UNAIDS; or two schoolbooks for kids in their native languages in Asia via Room to Read.
Ahmed says each element of the brand’s production supply chain has been carefully considered. The cotton it uses is from the Chetan Organic farmers cooperative in India – a not-for-profit, farmer-owned social enterprise that improves the lives of more than 15,000 farmers through reinvestment into sustainable practices and building local schools. The spinning mill and sock manufacturer the team works with are also fair trade certified, ensuring ethical working conditions from seed through to final product.
This dedication to making sure all aspects of the supply chain are ethical is partly what led Conscious Step to partnering with Good Spender, a retail platform launched by Social Traders and Australia Post that helps consumers buy directly from social enterprises.
“They support brands doing good things together,” says Ahmed of their partnership with Good Spender. “When you go there, you know these are brands run by companies with integrity. And if people are there buying your socks, they’re probably also buying fair-trade scarves and other things –- you have this community.”
Future growth plans for the Conscious Step include adding a women’s range and collaborating with new designers on patterns. But most importantly, as the start-up grows it will be able to better measure the impact of each pair of socks it sells, and share the stories of the people who wove those threads in the first place.
“We’re all human and we need to connect to other humans and their stories,” says Ahmed. “The more detail we can use to illustrate those stories, the more people will connect with them.”
This article is presented in partnership with Social Traders and Australia Post.