Sheffield entrepreneur makes a difference with ethical business
Sheffield Unchained contributor Jill Theobald meets with the creative director of The Level Collective to find out how the independent clothing label remains both ethical and desirable.
Many people could be said to wear their heart on their sleeve. Sheffield entrepreneur Mark Musgrave, however, has taken a vision of ethical business that ‘captured his heart’ and is wearing it on his T-shirt … and hat.
The 25-year-old is the creative director of The Level Collective (TLC), an independent and ethical clothing label he set up in Sheffield following work experience stints with major national retail chains, a business degree at the University of Sheffield, winning an enterprise competition and, perhaps most importantly, visiting Romania.
Between 2009 and 2010 Mark worked for Romanian social-micro-enterprise Dece and saw firsthand the difference the organisation was making. Dece helps men and women out of poverty through employment and teaching them the skills they need to become financially independent.
Whilst in Romania, Mark got involved practically, helping with tasks such as building walls in a temporary school designed to get children from poor communities back into the state system.
“What Dece was doing in Romania was actually making a difference, it really captured my heart and fired me up.”
Mark decided to turn that passion into a business with an ethical difference.
“You can still produce quality clothing if you accept a bit of a loss in profit. I don’t want to cut corners, you can ensure the people who are hand-making your products get a fair wage while creating a product that’s desirable and doesn’t cost the earth.”
Bringing positive change
TLC’s beanie hats are handmade in Romania and the workers are paid above minimum wage.
“Dece personally knows the families in the communities they serve and so they seek to recruit people who they know are in particularly difficult circumstances. At the start, some may not even have the ability to count, but they are trained to crochet to an excellent standard.
“Having spent time in the houses of some of the workers, it was inspiring to see how their hard work was helping them and their families out of poverty and giving them independence and dignity.”
The label’s T-shirts are ethically made in India and TLC’s supplier is approved by the Fair Wear foundation, an independent organisation that audits working conditions and pay and has achieved the Global Organic Textile Standard.
“The standard ensures the entire supply chain – from harvesting the raw materials to production, packaging and distribution – is done in a socially and environmentally ethical way. The cotton itself is ethically produced with farmers and agricultural workers who are protected by stringent labour standards.”
In terms of the look of TLC’s products, Mark’s vision is just as strong.
“I wanted products that are distinctive, so we went for a really chunky bobble on the beanie hat, plus a very thick knit to give it personality.”
Meanwhile, the T-shirt designs are by creatives based all over the UK, including two in Sheffield.
“TLC is a great opportunity for designers to do something expressive – and earn money as a by-product. I don’t do this for the bottom line, I just want to get the products out there, make people aware and grow the business.”
The business’ bottom line is indeed not the bottom line for Mark.
“We’re not a charity, but this is a business with a social purpose and we’re about bringing positive change.”
Scunthorpe-born Mark believes Sheffield is a great place to start a business.
“You go to some other cities and they may perhaps feel a bit more impressive. But they lack the warmth and the same vibe as Sheffield.”
A graphic designer by day, Mark hopes to eventually run TLC full-time and has identified a mood change in the market.
“Young people are increasingly becoming more interested in where their clothing is from. The recession, too, has made customers generally more aware of what they are spending and where, and many want to buy products that have the appeal of a community aspect.”