Sustainability is an inescapable topic of discussion in the fashion industry, but what does it involve? Is it materials? Is it manufacturing processes? Is it recycling? Is it all of these things and more?
The Techstyler X Avat Habit panel discussion on 12th April sought to answer these questions by bringing together sustainable brand founders Sabinna Rachimova of SABINNA, Charlotte Instone of Know The Origin and Shope Delano, Marketing and Communications Manager of Common Objective – a platform providing industry-wide guidance on sustainable business principles and processes. The audience spanned industry insiders from ASOS and Burberry to founders of fashion startups and sustainability enthusiasts.
Addressing the ‘what, how and why’ of holistic sustainable business models and how best to execute brand messaging, the panellists shared business and personal insights based on their experience within businesses that are both Europe and Asia-centric in terms of sourcing and manufacturing.
Know The Origin (KTO) is an online retail platform stocking 70 lifestyle brands that meet sustainability parameters set by founder Charlotte Instone and her team. These parameters are based on 18 months of intensive ‘on the ground’ research into materials, manufacturing and ethics in Asia and Africa, conducted by Charlotte herself. She launched KTO with her own Fairtrade collection after building partnerships with ethical suppliers and manufacturers in India. This allowed her to put in place a fair and transparent business model for a core range of ‘essential’ clothing. The collections meet her aim of delivering quality and style that is sustainable in terms of people, planet and purpose. Charlotte warned the audience that consumers will not compromise on design or price when it comes to sustainability – “it has to be a given” she said. KTO is an entry point into sustainability and for many consumers it is their first ‘sustainable purchase’, with retail prices ranging from £15 – £55.
Charlotte’s in depth understanding of supply chain mechanics, certifications and trade organisations in Asia and Africa led her to create a 30 point sustainability and ethics charter. The brands she stocks on KTO must meet at least six points to qualify as a stocked brand on the retail platform. Recognising that brands must start somewhere when addressing sustainability and ethics, the charter acts as a motivational and transparency tool. Its aim is also to give consumers confidence that they are purchasing from brands with sustainable foundations and strong future intent to produce and sell sustainability and ethically.
Sabinna Rachimova is the founder and head designer at London-based womenswear brand SABINNA. As a graduate of Central Saint Martins, she explained that her resulting view of establishing a fashion business meant “showing at London Fashion Week” and following the well-trodden route of chasing industry validation and a wholesale sales model. Eventually, rejecting this traditional approach opened up opportunities to implement ethical and sustainable practices into her business incrementally over the course of the past four seasons, and in the process, an exponential rise in direct to consumer sales.
A great appreciator of craft, Sabinna has long recognised and shared the contributions of all the workers in her supply chain. She has mapped the sourcing of her materials and the manufacturing locations of all garments in her collections for the past three seasons and transitioned to a direct to consumer business model via sales on her website and through Insta Stories. Whilst this might not sound immediately linked to sustainability, it underpins her ability to promote, sell and make her collections in a fair and transparent way across the entire supply chain.
Key to Sabinna’s business success has been Instagram-based sales campaigns featuring Influencers in place of a traditional London Fashion Week show, saving thousands of pounds on a London Fashion Week venue, show production, PR and models. By working directly with Influencers to create and share sellable content on Insta Stories she connected directly with consumers in telling her brand’s story and sharing its ‘fair fashion’ values. This strategy allows her to carefully track sales and manufacture only the quantities needed. Also, the money saved by implementing this campaign (instead of the London Fashion Week show) helped her balance the higher unit price she pays for her garments to be manufactured fairly and ethically in the UK. This Influencer marketing model saw her sales double, and her sustainability credentials increase to boot.
Shope Delano explained that Common Objective advise and support brands to implement sustainability principles, materials and processes to address all areas of their business. Consideration of end-of-life at the initial stages of design and product development is a key focus, in order to aim for circularity – the ‘holy grail’ of sustainable business models. Shope provided consumer sustainability insights, explaining that heritage brands with deep-rooted consumer sentiment are protected from long-term damage caused by shocking revelations, like the recent news that Burberry burnt millions of dollars worth of excess stock. On the flip side, lesser-known brands don’t hold such ‘mindset’ power, and an expose’ of this kind can be devastating to them.
An example Shope cites in a follow up conversation is Carcel, whose garments are produced by women in prison in a bid to equip them with skills and job opportunities. They came under fire recently for their ‘made in prison’ ad campaigns. Without context, this led to a big uproar on social media – the main argument being that they are glamourising slave labour. To see how this conversation played out between the brand and its followers check out Instagram and then a follow-up article in the New York Times.
‘Mindset Power’ poses both a risk and an opportunity. Agile brands can conduct in-depth due diligence and work directly with manufacturers to win on transparency and storytelling about how and where their products are made. Selling direct to consumer allows for further transparency over pricing and a greater margin for the brand and manufacturer, balancing the power across the supply chain and removing the traditional hierarchy that often leads to secrecy and exploitation. It’s clear though that the message has to be delivered carefully and authentically.
Emerging brands can control the narrative and change direction quickly, explained Shope. Sabinna shared an example of how she did this when she discovered that one of her suppliers in East London was forcing its staff to work under poor conditions without heating in the depths of winter. When she questioned the manufacturer he protested “what do you expect? You want a cheap price…” She switched manufacturer immediately and adjusted her business model to incorporate the higher prices required to ensure fair conditions for workers.
Closing remarks from the panellists on their advice for initial steps brands and founders should take towards achieving sustainable business models included ‘pay everyone fairly – even interns’ from Sabinna. “Sign up to Common Objective for free advice, supplier contacts and sustainability templates’ was Shope’s advice. Lastly, Charlotte urged the audience to “do your research into trade unions and suppliers in Asia to source responsibly”, reminding us that ethically sourced clothing is not only about the price of the garment.