Amidst the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 was a year when activism for human rights, racial and environmental issues became mainstream, according to Natasha Frangos, head of corporate at haysmacintyre. 

Following the rise in popularity and understanding of the climate crisis, sustainability and what we can do as individuals to mitigate our impact on the planet, consumers became more aware of the dangers of fast fashion and momentum in the ‘fashion for good’ space gained real traction. 

So when consumers are increasingly looking for brands with a purpose, what do fashion brands need to do to stand out? 

It was the topic of (virtual) discussion between a group of entrepreneurs in the ethical and sustainable fashion market, hosted by the Great British Entrepreneur Awards and haysmacintyre.

Natasha said: “2020 definitely felt like it was the year that fashion for good gained mainstream momentum, as we became acutely aware of fast fashion’s effects on people. Labels with ethical and transparent supply chains are growing in popularity and it’s likely then with habits formed, that consumers will continue the trend of making more mindful choices; investing in brands who stand for and speak out on issues they’re passionate about, from supporting important causes and charities, to sustainability to representation. 

The entrepreneurs who joined us are innovators; they are paving the way for doing things differently and the passion and ambition around our virtual table was evident. It also struck me that there is a great sense of community as the industry is uniting to make a step change and it was clear through our conversation that big brands are wanting to engage in discussion with these earlier stage businesses in driving that change.”

‘Sustainability is a journey’

With consumers scrutinising a brand’s sustainability credentials more than ever before, Montana Brown, founder of Swim Society, argued that businesses, particularly smaller ones, need to make it clear that 100% sustainability is not achievable straight away. 

“Sustainability is a journey,” she said. “[As entrepreneurs] our hearts are in the right place and we want to be looking after the environment but the reality is that it is costly to achieve a certain level of sustainability. It’s a step-by-step process because we just don’t have the funds at this point.”

She added: “It’s about communicating that you’re as sustainable as you can be right now, explaining specifically which areas of your business are sustainable, and what you’re planning to improve next in the coming years.

“As a small brand, your customers are so emotionally connected because of the stories you share. It’s really invaluable.”

Building on Montana’s point, Rory Atton, founder of Dewerstone, suggested that any brand or business claiming to be sustainable also has the responsibility to own up to its shortcomings. 

“You have the responsibility to really look at what you’re doing and ask yourself if it’s truly sustainable,” Rory explained. “You have to get the message across that your business isn’t perfect, but highlight how you’re taking responsibility, how you’re measuring it and what you’re doing to improve.”

With confusion growing between brands and consumers about exactly what sustainability is, Sophie Calderbank, founder of The Slowlist, also argued that transparency is essential in helping to improve understanding. 

“Sustainability really isn’t a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question,” she began. “It is incremental and that’s why transparency is so important.

“For the brands we work with, it’s really important for them to show their manufacturing processes to back up their claims. And if they can’t source materials in an environmentally friendly way then they need to show that they’re working on it.”

Confusing the message

Eleanor Howie, founder of Valiant Lingerie, highlighted that there is a lot of consumer confusion surrounding sustainability, stemming from a lack of transparency.

“This discussion just highlights how confusing it is for the consumer,” she said.

“We see large fashion brands talking about sustainable lines, but there’s no communication and it’s actually very difficult to ascertain exactly what they mean by ‘sustainable’.”

Elena Ferrara, co-founder of rho, said: “As much as sustainability awareness is massively growing, so is consumer distrust because there’s so much noise.”

Confusing and unsubstantiated claims about sustainability have led to accusations of greenwashing in a number of industries, not just fashion. Rory believes that accreditation is also a vital tool in standing out from the crowd, and said it has made a huge difference to Dewerstone.

“We’re surrounded by brands that are greenwashing so accreditation is setting us apart,” he began. 

“We’re part of 1% for the Planet, where we give 1% of our revenues to environmental non-profits. We have a rigorous measuring process for offsetting and reducing emissions which allows us to be Climate Neutral Certified. And we’re applying for B Corp certification, which means we’ve assessed every aspect of sustainability in our business.”

He added: “We’re pushing those messages and telling those stories, because they are what other brands don’t have.”

More than the environment

While the sustainability mission has grown in popularity, so has the debate around definition. Yes, some only care about the environmental impact to the planet when they see ‘sustainability’, but to many businesses and consumers, sustainability means much more. 

Lorraine Pringle, founder of Loca World, suggested that to build trust and advocates brands should be aiming to be ‘purposeful’, not only looking at their sustainable practices and the impact on the environment but also delivering in other areas including the “treatment and health of their people, their support for social issues and their support for their industry and communities”.

Maïna Cissé, founder of the underargument, began the discussion by saying it frustrates her when her business is labelled ‘sustainable’ without context. 

“I think a lot of consumers think when a brand says it is sustainable, it means that it is good for the environment and that’s a big, big misleading statement, she said.

“In my wildest dreams, all of my products are biodegradable. But I do use man-made materials and bras have so many components that they’re difficult to recycle properly.”

She went on to explain: “I try to define what sustainability means for our business. And that is being conscious of the way we source our materials, how we produce, it’s the people who make it, creating something long-lasting.”

Tokunbo Ahmed-Salawudeen, co-founder of SOUL CAP, added: “In the background we’re always thinking about sustainable or recyclable packaging, but there are so many issues that have limited us being sustainable in that way. 

“At the forefront of the work we’ve done is inclusivity and diversity. What we do in the community has been around people.”

Hannah Ludlow, Elena’s co-founder at rho, suggested that small brands’ ability to focus on sustainability beyond the environment helps them to stand out. 

She said: “There’s not as much focus [among large brands] on the people making the clothes and the working conditions. They’re not in a position to have transparency in their supply chain. 

“So as a small brand, if you can do that, bring in transparency of the supply chain – who makes it, what their working conditions are, how they’re valued for their contribution – and tell those stories, it’s a massive standout point.”

Competitive edge

Small businesses are widely known for their innovation, thanks in large part to their size compared with their global corporate counterparts.

“We [small brands] are responsible for pushing innovation, standards and expectations around sustainability,” Elena said.

“Small businesses are constantly raising the bar and the bigger companies have to adapt, figure it out and follow suit.”

Lorraine added: “I think everybody assumes that the big guys have got it all sorted. Far from it. They’re too big. And actually they need the smaller brands. You look beneath the surface and realise they’re so stuck in their ways. They can’t see beyond what they’ve been doing for 40 years because it’s worked so far.”

Concluding the discussion, Maina said: “We’ve seen a lot of large fashion brands in the UK disappear because they’ve lost their purpose or demographic. They’ve tried so many things, catering to everyone but it’s not genuine and has hurt them. 

“It’s now a great opportunity for smaller, purpose-driven brands.”