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Leading the way to a more sustainable fashion business

Tom Bottomley
29 November 2018

The Industry’s inaugural Fashion Futures Forum, in partnership with Avery Dennison, at White City House this week, revealed some of the most defining initiatives being undertaken to nurture a more sustainable fashion business. Brands, suppliers and retailers such as Oliver Spencer, Wrangler, Ninety Percent and Brothers We Stand, as well as the likes of the Ethical Fashion Forum, gathered to discuss how they are trying to make a difference.

The shift to sustainable materials and production across the business, reducing waste and improving fashion’s environmental credentials, is the hot topic right now. So much so that Parliament has set up a dedicated Environmental Audit Committee – headed up by Mary Creagh MP - to look in to how brands are operating and what they are doing to reduce the damaging effects of their production.

Customers are also being more educated on the matter and increasingly demanding to know more about how their potential garment purchases are made. Jonathan Mitchell, founder of multi-brand online retailer Brothers We Stand, which The Guardian recently called "the home of ecommerce with a heart", set up his business with the whole purpose of selling ethical men’s fashion from brands and start-up labels he began to source. “Every item we sell has a footprint, and you can click on it and see where the item is made,” said Mitchell. It’s that kind of information that is hoped becomes the norm, as opposed to the exception.

Brothers We Stand

Jonathan Mitchell, Brothers We Stand

“I read an article recently that said we’ve reached 'peak stuff', meaning we have everything we need, and now we want something a bit more,” commented Mitchell. “So, in that sense, I think brands are just responding to that. We’re noticing an increase in our sales, and the way the market is going I do see things being ethically produced becoming more mainstream and, in time, just becoming the status quo whereby anybody who is not producing in an ethical way being perceived as a very backwards company that people don’t want anything to do with.”

Shafiq Hassan, co-founder of women’s premium ethical fashion brand Ninety Percent, has played a significant role in empowering female garment workers in his role as managing director of award-winning garment supplier, Echotex, in Bangladesh, and Echo Sourcing in the UK. He’s clearly a busy and committed man who has invested heavily in research and innovation in sustainably sourced materials for his own brand.

"If you look back at the big businesses and giant corporations, it’s always been about taking, bottom-lines and exploitation, and never giving back to communities."

Shafiq Hassan, Ninety Percent

Hassan said: “We only launched Ninety Percent in February this year, so it’s a fledgling brand that hasn’t learnt to crawl yet. But we actually decided about 10 years ago to launch something whereby 90% of the profits are going to be actually distributed to causes and the people who make the clothes.” It’s taken that long to come to fruition, but Hassan has high hopes it works out and gets the right support.

Shafiq Hassan

Shafiq Hassan, Ninety Percent

“If you look back at the big businesses and giant corporations, it’s always been about taking, bottom-lines and exploitation, and never giving back to communities. But there’s also a disconnection between customers and those big businesses. This can’t carry on and there has to be another way. We’re turning the traditional business model upside down with our philosophy," Hassan says.

Selfridges bought Ninety Percent’s first collection, and Net-a-Porter bought its first three collections, as well as ordering repeats on certain styles. That said, it’s far from an easy task Hassan and his team has undertaken. Though Ninety Percent is an amazing concept, which he says was an idea he got from how certain hedge funds work in the City, it’s very much still finding its feet.

Another pioneer of ethical fashion is Tamsin Lejeune, founder & CEO of Ethical Fashion Forum. Lejeune actually founded the forum back in 2006 and, where once it was hard to be heard and given a voice, she now often gets approached to give her standpoint on the most ethical routes the fashion business should be embracing.

“When we started up there was very little out there for designers and businesses looking to source sustainable fabrics and garments,” said Lejeune. “We’ve recently just closed the second round of fund-raising to launch and build a new platform called Common Objective, with the goal being to scale up what we’ve been doing and turn it from being a niche issue to simply being the way fashion is done.

“We want to become a fundamental tool for anyone operating in fashion. You can join free of charge, and enter what you are interested in. The site then matches you with the most relevant individuals, businesses, suppliers and intelligence.” What’s also interesting is, the more sustainable your business is, the higher your ranking on searches becomes, thereby turning sustainability from a challenge into an opportunity.


Roian Atwood, Wrangler

Heritage American denim brand Wrangler, part of the VF Corporation, is leading the way in sustainable denim, with a new foam-dying process that eliminates 99% of the water typically used in indigo-dying. The result is what it calls "Dry Indigo" denim, and it has been developed by Tejidos Royo, a Spanish fabric mill with a reputation for prioritising environmental performance.

It’s the first to integrate a foam-dye process, a new revolution in denim manufacturing which will set the marker for other denim brands to follow suit. Roian Atwood, director of sustainability at Wrangler and Lee, fresh from a flight from Wrangler’s base in Greensboro, North Carolina, said: “Denim has been dyed pretty much the same way for many years, with indigo-dye suspended in large vats of water and caustic chemicals. Over the past three years, we’ve been diligently working with technology partners, including Texas Tech University, to rethink how we apply indigo-dye to the warp yarn on denim to get that same consistent blue.

“It’s been a real challenge, but exciting, and we now working with another partner, Tejidos Royo in Spain, which is looking to commercialise the first foam-dye indigo denim. It’s vastly different from how things have done in the past.” Ground-breaking indeed.

Whilst Wrangler has been able to reduce 3 billion litres of water in product finishing during the past 10 years, more needed to be done across the entire supply chain. Foam technology reduces water consumption and pollution further upstream, helping fabric suppliers to dramatically minimise the impacts of making denim fabric blue.

Wrangler will launch its first foam-dyed denim in 2019. Denim is at least a hard-wearing durable fabric that looks better with age, and that in itself is worth a consideration in terms of sustainability. “People appreciate how denim wears over time and how it creates that character,” said Atwood.

"We’ve been sharing some of those deep supply chain stories with our consumers, particularly with regard to cotton growers and farmers."

Roian Atwood, Wrangler

Being clear about the supply chain is also top of Atwood’s list. “When it comes to the consumer, I do think they buy in to the story of what’s behind the products, how they are made and where the materials come from. So, we’ve been sharing some of those deep supply chain stories with our consumers, particularly with regard to cotton growers and farmers, and they have really been responding to that in a positive way.”

Contemporary menswear designer Oliver Spencer is also taking a stance on his supply chain and how he can make things better and less damaging to the environment, bringing in his own head of sustainability, Bleue Wickham-Burnham. “I like to know where my cloth comes from, and even where the sheep are if possible,” said Spencer. “It’s possible to do that working with a supplier in Lancashire, where there are plenty of sheep, as we do.”

Oliver Spencer

Oliver Spencer and Bleue Wickham-Burnham

Spencer also creates clothing built to last, and says they even look better when wearing them a year down the line. He wanted to follow the sustainable path as much as possible, hence he got Wickham-Burnham involved. He saw it as important about where his brand was heading in the future.

“I have an academic background in sustainability within the fashion industry,” said Wickham-Burnham. “When I came in to Oliver Spencer, the brand was already looking in the right direction and thinking in the right way, it just needed a clear focus. That’s when we came up with a plan.”

One of the major issues they have been addressing is excess packaging. “That was one of the first thing we looked at,” said Spencer. “To strip the insides of the packaging out from a shirt was a very simple thing to do.” It was a good starting point.

"Just under 35,000 kilograms of carbon were saved a year, with the removal of all that card and paper. And that was just with the shirts."

Bleue Wickham-Burnham, Oliver Spencer

“It also meant just under 35,000 kilograms of carbon saved a year, with the removal of all that card and paper. And that was just with the shirts,” said Wickham-Burnham, who also talks of recycling packaging. “There’s a big issue with plastic at the moment, predominantly through ocean pollution, as we all know. But one of the alternatives to plastic at the moment, with regard to garment packaging, is paper – or Kraft paper which is a bit more resilient, but that has quite a significant carbon footprint.

“There’s also corn-based plastics, which are taking away a food source and use a lot of energy to process, and there’s biodegradable plastics which can’t be recycled. So, it’s a tricky one, but we are going to partner with a company called RePack, which has created a really good solution. They give you reusable dispatch packaging.”

If the customer receives the order, tries it on, likes it and wants to keep it, they can then fold the package down in a simple way, revealing a free returns label. The package can then go straight in to the post box and back to the brand to be used again. Another small step in the grand scheme of things, but educating consumers, suppliers, brands and retailers alike to make such initiatives just a part of everyday life can only be a step in the right direction. Harming the environment has never been more of an issue, and it’s time we all did our bit.

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