Talk the Walk: Andrew Olah, On Denim, Kingpins & Popping the Sustainability Bubble

By Super Stories.

‘Greenwashing is a disease. Transparency is the cure”

Andrew Olah is the founder of the Kingpins Show – the first tradeshow dedicated to the full denim and jeans supply chain – with editions in New York, Hongkong, Amsterdam and a China tour. His company Olah Inc’ is one of Super Stories’ clients. Over the last years, Super Stories developed amongst others the Transformers website as well as concept, design and development of the new Kingpins website to be launched early 2020.
With 40-plus years in the textile business, Olah knows the landscape. He’s acted as a consultant to the biggest, brightest and best in denim. “Jeans make up over 35% of the cotton in the world, before Kingpins there was no specific show for the whole jeans supply chain,” explains Andrew. “This was incomprehensible to me.”
In 2014, the Kingpins Show came to Amsterdam. In the space of a year, the Amsterdam edition became the indigo jewel in the crown of Kingpins and helped cement Amsterdam’s status as a global ‘denim hub’. Today the Westergasfabriek’s Gashouder is lit blue for the 11th time. In our first of a series of short conversations with trailblazing clients as well as other changemakers, we talk the walk with Andrew Olah about what the future holds when it comes to the most urgent topic right now in apparel: sustainability and transparency.

Interview by Peter van Rhoon

First up, Andrew: why Amsterdam – and not, say, Berlin or Copenhagen?

When we were first exploring Europe for a show, we knew it had to be in a city where the users of denim lived – like LA or New York, where there are many brands. Amsterdam fit that niche because the city also houses so many brands. Plus, there was all these other amazing jean-related activities, like the House of Denim and the Jean School. All this makes Amsterdam a denim lover’s dream city.
And as it turned out, working in Holland is an entirely different experience to working in New York. The audience is a completely different audience. By that I mean, their relationship to the jeans industry is different than the relationship to the jeans industry that Americans have. I think the genuine love of denim is different.  Jeans are not part of the culture in New York as much as it is in Amsterdam. How is that possible when New York City is 6 times, even 10 times bigger?

You’ve been exhibiting in Amsterdam for five years now. The honeymoon is over. How do you look at the relationship now? What would you like to improve and what makes you happy the day you land?

The first thing I do when I land in Amsterdam is sit on the steel benches outside the Schipol Airport and drink a cappuccino. I stare at the Tesla taxis. I love Amsterdam’s devotion to clean and green, to bikes, to buildings which in many countries would have been demolished for being too old.

Kingpins Transformers – View Project

As far as Kingpins go, I am eternally grateful to Amsterdam’s late mayor Eberhard van der Laan who so graciously welcomed us to the city. It was also my good fortune to meet Mariette Hoitink and James Veenhoff – the founders of House of Denim – who inspired me, and many others, to be here and make Amsterdam known as a denim center.

Recently, you decided Kingpins’ Amsterdam edition would only be open for exhibitors who are “certified.” Can you tell us how you arrived at that decision?

Our decision to place basic criteria on our exhibitors having CSR and chemical standards came from going to too many conferences where zero action was being inspired by the event. We were exhausted from talking, yet never accomplishing anything. So, we took a stand and most mills did as we asked. We’re proud of this. It’s a tiny start but now we’re studying what else we can do to create real change.

How did exhibitors who were not certified respond?

At this point almost everyone has agreed to comply with our requests. Eighty percent are either certified or on their way, since it takes time. The ones that are not amount to twenty percent of our exhibitors. We will talk to them in person at Kingpins Amsterdam and are quite sure they will all comply. It’s not our intention to have exhibitors leave our show, it is to have a dialogue with them and create change.

Do you agree that greenwashing is endemic in the apparel industry? And is transparency throughout the supply chain a way out of all this bullshit?

Yes. Yes. Greenwashing is a disease, spreading malignantly through our industry. And I think transparency is the major antidote to rid us of fake environmental marketing. But I also think it’s time for the industry to police itself. The truth is that the manufacturers of garments, textiles, chemicals and all the rest are the ones that recognizes greenwashing. They are the ones that need to have the loudest voice on what makes the best practices.

Which developments do you see happening in this field which really excite you?

I am obsessed with Fibertrace which allows a scanner to instantly tell you if something is, or is not, what the brand or retailer promises it to be. I love this technology more than anything. But in the name of full transparency, I am biased. I have a small share in the company. [Laughter]

A range of new technologies and startups will be presented during the upcoming edition of Kingpins Transformers. If you were a VC, which ones would you invest in?

I put my energy in stuff I believe in, like Fibertrace. What is important and what everyone should pay attention to is how we can apply someone else’s garbage. Many companies are using waste to create new products. This is inspiring to me. Also, and one doesn’t need to be a genius to realize this, we need to replace all plastics and synthetics with biotechnology.

It’s often said now that consumers are starting to buy differently – purchasing less, at a higher quality…

I think consumers do not want to buy from tricksters – companies that do nothing but pretend they are exceptionally environmental or social angels. Companies, if they care about their valuation and common decency, need to understand that if they are not doing anything to reduce their environmental impact, they will be discovered, and their business will be hurt.

Everlane is only a tiny example of environmental success compared to the global industry. So much needs to be done and the industry can’t rely on consumers begging for it. We have to give it to them. Just as we’d give them clean water if they asked for a drink. There should only be clean and green production – nothing else.
That’s why we are happily engaged in helping brands and retailers create the changes that are needed by having our Transformer events, by having people from the UN at our events along with Ellen MacArthur and ZDHC.We all need to bond together, and then act – with statistically-backed impact in mind.

And what, for you professionally, has been the best thing that’s happened in the last 12 months, Andrew?

My wife joined our company as CFO. This is amazing news for us because she has so much experience. Additionally, we have been working diligently on our online presence — building a new website and event platform — which will debut early January and change Kingpins forever.  We are very excited about all the features the site will offer the denim community.

See what Super Stories did for Olah Inc. & Transformers.

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