For five days starting on February 14th, more than 200 fashion designers will showcase their creations to a global audience of media, retailers, and consumers at London Fashion Week (LFW). While revenue is a major part of the event (it’s estimated that over £100 million of orders are placed during the LFW season), a more consequential thread runs through this year’s collections – sustainability.
Dozens of this year’s designers advocate for ethical supply chains, increased corporate transparency and the use of sustainable materials. We combed through their brand missions to highlight five ways retailers can drive growth while also doing their bit for the planet.
Lesson 1: Use materials to lower your products’ environmental footprint
According to not-for-profit UK organisation WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Plan), an estimated £140 million worth of wearable clothing ends up in UK landfills each year, weighing around 350,000 tonnes. Much of this clothing is made from textiles with a significant carbon footprint. For example, it takes up to 20,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of cotton (roughly equal to the weight of one shirt and a pair of jeans).
At LFW this February, womenswear designer Yen Wong is circumventing the issue by experimenting with the concept of "cheap" luxury and "disposability". Her collection features handwoven tweed made from old Christmas decorations, ribbons, upcycled polypropylene bags, and bouclé yarns. Similarly, fashion brand Borbala is transforming post-consumer plastic waste, leftovers, and second-hand clothes into one of a kind, experimental garments and earrings.
You might think that these quirky materials are more suited to the runway than the world of retail. Still, many brands are proving that it’s possible to build a sustainable business on sustainable principles. For instance, London-based Riley Studio is a growing fashion brand founded to tackle overproduction and overconsumption. The company is big on the benefits of recycled materials (one of its t-shirts, made from plastic bottles, saves 1,500 litres of water). In an effort to achieve a completely circular model, they also offer a lifetime guarantee, repair pieces for free, and can repurpose returned items for new customers.
Lesson 2: Be creative in how you source your materials
If making your product from scratch using plastic bottles sounds like too much of a leap, you could consider sourcing materials that would otherwise be discarded. Lara Intimates does just that with its range of sustainable bras. Using "deadstock" fabric from the fashion industry (millions of tonnes of which goes to landfills each year), they craft new products in their London factory. Their motto is the triple bottom line framework – "accounting for profit, people and the planet".
Lesson 3: Create an entirely new sustainable product or service
Some designers aren’t just using sustainable materials to manufacture existing products – they’re devising entirely new concepts with them as well. For instance, Faldan is "the world’s first ethical fully-foldable bag". Designed for all multi-taskers, including mothers, workaholics, runners, and travellers, the bag is made from responsibly-sourced leather, recycled nylon made from plastic bottles and fishing nets, and recycled coffee cups. This year, Faldan will launch a new vegan-friendly, recycled nylon version of its pioneering bag at London Fashion Week’s Positive Fashion Exhibition.
Or how about self-washing underwear to cut down on wasted water? Danish startup Organic Basics claims its underwear remains fresh through weeks of wear. It’s treated with Polygiene, a product that uses silver chloride to kill the bacteria that cause bad odours.
Lesson 4: Be totally transparent with your customers
The days of fuzzy corporate responsibility statements are fading. It now pays to be transparent with your customers about where your products come from and the impact they have on people, animals, and the planet.
Joshua James Small, who will showcase his immersive contemporary pieces at London Fashion Week, is passionate about the long-term impact of the fashion industry. As well as creating pieces using a combination of organic fibres, deadstock, and reclaimed fabric, his website lists where each component of every piece originates.
Many large fashion brands, particularly those in the "fast-fashion" space, do this too. For instance, ASOS’s corporate responsibility page is a full dashboard of statistics on their factories, inspections, banned materials, and sustainability rates. H&M uses a similar approach. "Sustainability" takes centre stage in the site’s header menu, linking to information on its Conscious Products range, sustainability report, clothing recycling program, and more. In addition, every product page features a Product Sustainability tab that details the materials used, country of origin, and more.
These actions are appreciated by socially and environmentally-conscious consumers. According to Global Fashion Agenda’s Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2019 report, "...more than a third of consumers report they have already switched from their preferred brand to another because it credibly stands for positive environmental and/or social practices", and "...more than 50% of consumers plan to switch brands in the future if another brand acts more environmentally and socially friendly than their preferred one".
Lesson 5: Build a hyperlocal brand
Another way to differentiate your business is by showing you care deeply about the production of your product and aren’t willing to cut corners merely to improve your margins. For example, label Phoebe English is a brand entirely made in England that rejects mass-made or "fast fashion". In fact, it’s a hyperlocal company, as all production – from the first sketch to finished garment – takes place within a 15-mile radius of its South London studio. Far from acting as a restriction, the choice to keep operations local is part of the brand’s personality and a selling point. The label, which presents at LFW on February 15th, has 23 international stockists in nine countries.
Margin Studio, founded by graduates of the National Institute of Fashion Technology in India, is another label at LFW that leverages a specific location to add value to its products while benefitting the local economy. It develops its products with the help of independent hand knitters in Himanchal Pradesh using kala cotton, merino wool, and mohair wool.
75% of global consumers say that they view sustainability as extremely or very important, which means, in addition to the environmental upside, there’s an untapped opportunity here for businesses that can innovate in this space.