The Tuscan Cooperative

We pride ourselves on what we make. But we’re also proud of how we do it. This episode explores the decisions we make on who we work with, and why we sometimes find ourselves choosing a harder path...

 

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What we said...

For those without headphones...

Matt: Welcome to Coming Clean. I’m Matt.

Tony: And I’m Tony. We’re the founders of Thomas Clipper, a British startup bringing exceptional craftsmanship to men’s mornings. This podcast follows the development of our latest product: a fantastic Tuscan leather wash bag.

 

Matt: We’re launching the bag on Kickstarter: if enough people pledge to buy it, we’ll have the minimum orders we need to make something really rather exciting, support British and Italian craftsmanship and grow our tiny business.

 

 

Tony: Or it might be a different story entirely: if we don’t hit our funding goal or one of any number of things mean we can’t launch at all, it could be a cautionary tale about how not to launch a product or run a crowdfunding campaign. We simply don’t know yet.

 

 

Matt: We’re inviting you in on the journey. From before we’ve even seen our first prototype to when the product, hopefully, reaches its goal on Kickstarter and ships out to customers across the world.

 

Each week we’ll release an episode focusing on a particular element of the production of the new Tuscan leather wash bag and running of the campaign.

 

Tony: So last week was our first episode and Matt talked a little about the products we didn’t make this time. Product development always involves some trial and error: if you’d like to hear more about the error side of that process, download the last episode.

 

This week we’re going to be talking about how we run our business and choose our partners. And how that’s a bit different. I’m calling in from Clipper HQ in London.

 

 

Matt: And I’m calling in from I’m calling in from Milan.

 

 

Tony: That’s an awfully long way to go for a cappuccino Matt...

 

 

Matt: Yes, very good. The reason I’m in Italy, as you’ll know if you listened to the last podcast, is to that this week, for the first time, we got our hands on some Tuscan leather samples. Yesterday I was in Florence with Zena our creative director. We took the train down in the morning and spent the whole day talking, touching and getting a proper handle on Italian leather.

 

 

Tony: So: how did it go?

 

 

Matt: To be honest before we arrived I was a bit apprehensive: I think we all were. We’d never spoken to the co-op before in person.

 

 

We’re a company that prides ourself on what we make, but we’re also proud of how we do it. Of course, the quality and design of the product is the most important thing. We’ll talk about the design and quality of the leather in a future episode because to be frank we’ve not decided yet on which option to go for. Suffice it to say, we’re spoiled for choice.

 

 

Tony: But today we wanted to talk a little bit more about the reasons that, regardless of which design and finish we choose, we wanted to do it with a fantastic Tuscan leather cooperative.

 

 

So, it hopefully won’t surprise you, but when Matt and I started Thomas Clipper we wanted to build a company we were proud of.

 

 

Now, that sounds obvious… and maybe a bit too obvious.  But I assure you, in practice, it’s anything but.

 

 

Matt: For example, visiting the tannery is not the obvious choice for most companies. The easy path with leather would have been to go for something ‘off the shelf’. Even really high end luxury brands do this. And to be clear, generic leather can be great, and it’s certainly much easier to source.

 

 

But there were three reasons that we shelved that idea and decided to work with the cooperative.

 

 

Tony: As Matt said, quality is first and foremost, and when we’re slightly further down the line we can’t wait to share the story of our leather. But today let’s talk business: specifically tanning.

 

 

Tanning is the process that takes the hide and turns it into leather. Tanning gives the leather many of its important characteristics: what it looks like, how it feels, even how it smells. And done wrong it has some dramatic quality and environmental impacts.

 

 

So apart from the fact that they make the best leather in Italy (and perhaps the world), there are three main reasons that our cooperative caught our eye and won our business.

 

 

Matt: First off, our they go out of their way to reduce their environmental footprint. The fundamental element in leather tanning is water. So it’s vital that the water that is used is treated properly and reintroduced clean and safe to the river it came from. Some tanneries simply dump their waste. It’s the dirty secret of the leather industry and we want nothing to do with it.

 

 

The partners we’re using to make our wash bag are different. They use traditional vegetable tanning, which makes for better looking leather and almost no horrid chemical waste. On top of that they treat and re-introduce practically all of the water they use. The treatment process uses friendly bacteria to break down the natural oils used in tanning, which means the by-product of the water treatment process is fertiliser which is sold to local farms. So your Tuscan tomatoes next year might have been grown with fertiliser created from the tanning of your washbag. Which we think is brilliant!

 

 

Second, water waste isn’t the only byproduct of leather: the skin also has some excess parts that have to be removed in the tanning process. These are taken by the cooperative and turned into other meat products. Did you ever wonder where stock cubes came from? Now you know… Nothing is wasted.

 

 

And thirdly, the cooperative is run by a team of small businesses. There are 22 that make up the cooperative. No big industrial warehouses and suited middle managers. Just men and women who are making their mark and getting their hands dirty creating something they’re extremely proud of. And rightly so, the result is world famous for a reason.

 

 

 

Tony: That’s right: working with small businesses lets us get our hands on the best quality raw materials and craftsmanship in the world. These people don’t make in quantities or at prices that big industrial companies can work with.  But beyond that, our focus on small business is actually fundamental to what TC does. We’re constantly working hard to create a supply chain that we - and we hope you too - can be proud of.

 

 

 

We have a couple of basic principles ‘by default’ that we apply to our partners.

 

  • We use small businesses

  • We use partners who care about being more sustainable

  • We ensure all our partners work in proper conditions

  • We’re transparent and always looking to improve

 

Small and particularly young companies, drive jobs growth. The best way to stimulate the economy and create employment is to support small businesses like Sara in Wells on Sea or Nigel in Market Harborough or our new tannery partners in Italy.

 

 

On top of that they create competition - sure big companies can get some economies of scale, but the best way to drive down costs and make companies compete for custom is to spread the demand.

 

Finally, we like the personal.  We like shaking hands with the chap who makes our razor handle, or sitting on the tree stump your bowl and brush came from. We know Richard, our wood turner: we were the first people to follow him on Instagram, now he’s got 15 times as many followers as us. And Nigel has been amazing since the first days of Thomas Clipper when Matt ran into his workshop.

 

Matt: That’s right, I literally ran in: I was on a jog in Harborough when I saw the workshop. That’s how the whole business started. It wouldn’t have happened with a large business, we wouldn’t have had that serendipity and flexibility.

 

 

Tony: So, we care about the our partners and being a socially responsible business but that’s not always easy. It means we have to make tough decisions, which, ultimately, changes the nature, and to be frank, cost of our products. We chose the beautiful wood for our shaving brush and bowls because the 300 year old English horse chestnut is gorgeous...but also because it was naturally felled in storms.  If we’d gone for a chopped down tree, well, I suspect it would have been a good deal cheaper for us and possibly you too - but that’s not what we set out to do.  these are trade-offs.  but we’re proud we’re not prepared to compromise on some things.  we believe values and principles matter. The same goes for our partnership with the Tuscan leather cooperative.

 

 

In terms of working conditions, you probably don’t need me to talk about this in detail.  but then again - do you know how your clothes are made?  you’ve probably heard and read about horror stories for working conditions...and here’s the rub.  for every company that is found wanting on working conditions, someone, somewhere in the company will have made a bad supply chain decision - or just closed their eyes to the problem.  I find that troublesome.  So where we can’t actually meet our suppliers, we go above and beyond to ensure they’re doing things better. Our partner GreenFibres make sure the Turkish cotton in our flannels is hand woven in safe and fair working conditions for instance.

 

 

It would have been easier for us to never ask the question, but again, that wouldn’t meet our principles.

 

 

 

Matt: But at the end of the day sometimes people (and it’ll probably happen to us one day) get it wrong.  So the best way to mitigate against that is - we think - to be as transparent as possible. More than a traditional company, we talk about how we make, in detail. You’re listening to it now.

 

 

 

Tony: And we want you to help.  If you think we can do better, we will.  If something looks amiss, we’ll try rectify it. Certification can help and that’s why we choose partners who are certified by the Soil Association… indeed, when we’re large enough we’ll look into this ourselves  But where that’s not possible, the wisdom of crowds (that’s you) harnessed by full disclosure and transparency, is the next best thing.

 

 

So we’re always looking to improve. I’ll shut up now, but just finally repeat the point.  We’re always looking to be better.  That’s part of who we are, and therefore what Thomas Clipper is.

 

 

Matt: So there we are - working with the Tuscan leather cooperative means that we’re satisfying all of our criteria of better business.

 

 

  • They’re all small businesses

  • They’re doing more than almost anyone to mitigate their environmental impact

  • They’re producing in their own tanneries alongside friends and family: it’s dirty unromantic work, but it’s something their rightly proud of because the result is, quite simply, world class.

  • And we’re telling you all about it, not just sticking a ‘real leather’ sticker on at the end and assuming our job is done.

 

 

Now that we’re satisfied we’ve found the right partner, with the right leather, we need to get prototyping and make some really tough design decisions.

 

 

Tony: But that hasn’t happened quite yet! So subscribe for the next installment - next week we’ll be announcing some exciting news and talking about what it means for the direction of the new product.

 

 

Matt: Until then, I’m Matt

 

 

Tony: and I’m Tony.

 

 

Matt: and this has been Coming Clean from Thomas Clipper.


Thanks for listening.