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The Interview: Michael Wessely, Co-founder of Sheep Inc.

Chloe Burney
18 April 2023

With Earth Day approaching, is shedding a light on pioneering brands that champion sustainable fashion and eco-friendly manufacturing, such as Sheep Inc.

Sheep Inc. was founded by Edzard van der Wyck (pictured above left) and Michael Wessely (pictured above right) in 2019. After years of trial and error, they eventually found sustainable alchemy and became the first (independently audited) carbon negative clothing brand.

In 2021, the brand unveiled the industry's first item of clothing (a hoodie) that naturally has no carbon footprint, leaving no trace - only a positive planetary impact. Now, the brand has moved on to create the world's first carbon negative T-shirt. talks to Michael Wessely, Co-founder of Sheep Inc., about the brand's ethos and how to scale the brand's carbon negative manufacturing template to accommodate "fashion industry of tomorrow".

You founded Sheep Inc. in October 2019, with the idea of creating a new model for how a fashion business could behave. What gave you this idea?

My background is actually in the finance and technology sector and in my last venture I was focused on bringing transparency to complex financial markets. My Co-founder Edzard had founded another clothing brand and saw the impact of fashion first-hand and the immense level of intransparency in the fashion sector. So we got together with the idea of creating a new model for how a fashion business could behave. One that would allow you to create beautiful products, whilst still addressing the climate emergency head-on — and help drive awareness around fashion’s impact.

Did you always aim to create the world’s first carbon negative T-shirt, or was this something you discovered along the way?

When we launched Sheep Inc., we built the whole brand around the central question of “how do you set up a fashion brand for the 21st century?” We wanted to fundamentally change how we view and purchase clothing. And wanted to find a way to create knitwear that is beautiful to wear, but also unprecedented in impact.

So yes, from the first moment, our key ambition was to set up a fashion supply chain that was optimised not only for quality and innovation, but also for environmental impact. At that point the industry was still focused on setting targets to reach carbon neutrality a few years or decades down the line, often supported by the use of buying carbon offsets. And we felt, this mindset was simply far too little too late — we wanted to demonstrate that things can be done differently in the industry and that natural carbon negativity, or in other words, regeneration needed to be the objective.

Can you tell us about your manufacturing process and how you created the infrastructure for carbon negative clothing production?

Our starting point is our raw material, where usually the biggest impact comes from for the average fashion industry. So instead of looking for the best garment manufacturers, we flipped this traditional approach on its head and started with identifying the perfect raw material, and the best material providers.

After a long research process, we identified Merino wool as the optimal material for knitwear — it’s incredibly soft in hand feel, is perfectly temperature regulating, extremely durable and very low in maintenance, thanks to its self-cleansing properties. So, we did a deep dive into Merino sheep farming and teamed up with a number of sheep stations in New Zealand that were at the forefront of the regenerative farming movement. This means they manage land in a way that results in more CO2 getting taken out of the atmosphere, through the natural plant and soil sequestration, than the amount of total CO2 that gets produced on the farm.

The the end result is that the wool we source has a negative CO2 footprint of -14kg CO2e, which has been independently validated and verified. In addition to their regenerative farming commitments, the sheep stations we work with are also all ZQ certified, meaning they conform to the highest animal welfare standards worldwide.

This same mindset is applied across the rest of our supply chain. All of our suppliers are committed to having a positive carbon impact, whether by running on solar electricity or by spearheading other innovative sustainable manufacturing methods. Manufacturing accounts for only c.0.5kg CO2e and, as Merino wool is fully biodegradable and requires little washing and drying, this minimises the CO2e footprint in the use and end-of-life stage.

The bottom line is that every product we produce has a net negative CO2 footprint from cradle to grave — so in our products’ creation we naturally take more CO2 out of the atmosphere than we produce. It is important to note that this includes all activities along the chain, including packaging and transport.

All of our product footprints are independently calculated by an auditor called Carbon Footprint Ltd. This is done based on an unbiased Product Life Cycle Assessment from cradle-to-grave that aligns with the Carbon Neutral protocol. Our footprint does not rely on any carbon offsets, but is achieved fully naturally.

In order to bring full transparency and traceability for our supply chain to the end consumer, all our garments carry an on-garment NFC Tag (we call it the “Connected Dot”). The Connected Dot is a unique digital fingerprint of the garment and offers the customer a digital experience around the provenance and environmental impact of the knit. Allowing us to use it as an educational piece for the customer.

Why do you think you were the first brand to think of this and/or put the plan to create carbon negative fashion into action?

I can’t imagine we were the first brand that ever thought of creating regenerative clothing, but perhaps we were the first brand that focused on putting its priorities straight. Our advantage was that we started with a blank sheet of paper. We looked at the industry, recognised the need for fashion brands to behave better and scrutinised every single aspect of the supply chain, sourcing, processing, design, stock management and customer involvement. Every decision was meticulously analysed with the aim of achieving the perfect outcome in terms of quality, innovation and sustainability. If any process or initiative did not fulfill our criteria, we either dismissed it or pushed our suppliers until it did.

What was most rewarding was the strong alignment among all internal and external stakeholders to create fashion’s first truly regenerative products. Working towards this joint objective created a hugely optimistic, can-do attitude within the company and our supply chain partners and ensured that our priorities would always remain steadfast. This spirit has remained, and grown, over the years.

Is this solution scalable for large retailers to adopt? If not, are you working on creating scalable solutions?

Our starting point was that the future of our industry, and all other industries, needed to be regenerative. Som when we launched Sheep Inc., we focused on building scalability into every aspect of the value chain.

From a raw material perspective, in our case our regenerative Merino wool, we have the benefit that we are not only extremely close to our current regenerative farms but we also teamed up with New Zealand Merino as a strategic partner. Through them, we have very clear visibility on the majority of New Zealand Merino wool farms, which creates a high degree of scalability.

Equally, across the supply chain we have spun a wide network of like-minded partners, with specialist yarn processing and garment knitting capabilities who are set up to operate on significant volumes. We actively aim to bring these partners together regularly for R&D initiatives. It has been great to see what can be achieved if these various sector specialists all focus on a specific outcome.

Now that Sheep inc. has created the first carbon negative T-shirt, what’s next for the brand?

One product initiative I’m particularly excited about in the near term is the introduction of an innovative organic nano dyeing process based on fully traceable minerals to further improve the sustainability credentials of the garment. This nano dye is highly sustainable, and eliminates the use of chemicals. Compared to other more sustainable dyes in the market, is able to create very bright and bold colours and demonstrates an excellent washing performance. We will launch this dye on a super lightweight version of the T-shirt in the next few months and then be rolled out to our entire product range.

Separately, we are upgrading the design of the “Connected Dot” and have identified a few really interesting innovative materials to replace the castor bean biomaterial we currently use. From a digital experience of the Connected Dot, we have recently introduced some additional features, ranging from a “Farmflix” module that provides content about farms and manufacturers, to a gamification element for how you can interact with the farm your garment’s wool is from. And we are working with our New Zealand partners to deliver on-farm sheep facial recognition software to bring “Sheep Selfies” to our customers. This is the joy of offering a digital experience alongside a physical product, as we can constantly update and add to the experience without customers having to change the physical product.

So in general, we aim for continuous innovation across the board. We are constantly aiming to improve by identifying new materials, adding new specialist suppliers, trialling new processes and refining our technology. We want to remain ahead of the curve when it comes to our approach to creating high quality products for the fashion industry of tomorrow.

Do you think the future of fashion is carbon neutral/negative?

Undoubtedly, the future of fashion must look fundamentally different than how the industry does today. The current impact of the fashion industry is staggering. At the current pace, the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions are not expected to reduce, but to increase by 60% by 2030.

Companies and entrepreneurs have to push the thinking and the conversation around what is possible. To challenge everything. To come in with a mindset of “I know things have historically been done like this, but how can we do things differently?”. One key question is how to minimise the emissions and pollution of the industry and strive for regeneration.

There are encouraging signs that many companies (new and old), groups and individuals are genuinely energising this change, bringing new ideas and innovations to market daily. I think, and hope, we’re just at the starting point of a clothing revolution. Where every part of fashion is analysed and rethought. Where brands rethink how they source raw materials. Where material science improves performance and durability of garments whilst reducing environmental impact. Where clothing serves as a connection point to the natural world and brings us back in touch. Where we wear clothing that lasts for generations. Where the materials used can either be part of a circular economy or can be returned to the earth without impact.

The real power to drive change also lies in the hands of the consumer. Consumers have already started being much more critical about brands and their behaviour. The optimal outcome would be that we stop buying from brands that have an adverse impact on the planet.

This will not be an easy journey and it will require a significant amount of effort by all industry participants and stakeholders. But I’m optimistic that, collectively, we can change the face of the industry in the years to come and work towards a regenerative future.

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