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The fashion industry has come under intense scrutiny over the past 18 months over its contribution to the growing global climate crisis. 

According to Good on You, “Fast fashion can be defined as cheap, trendy clothing, that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed.”

They are usually fashionable for a short period of time, before a new season comes in.

According to a report by the NY Times, 60% of all fabric fibres are now synthetic, made from fossil fuels. And an incredible 85% of textile waste is sent to landfill in the US. 

More and more people around the world are becoming conscious of how their day-to-day lives add to the climate crisis. They want to spend their money with brands that limit their impact. And, in turn, big brands are waking up to the profit potential. The use of buzzwords like ‘sustainable’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘zero-waste’ and ‘environmentally friendly’ by big brands has skyrocketed over the past 12 months and beyond.

It has led to backlash and accusations of ‘greenwashing’ – making it appear that you’re doing more for the environment than you really are. This article from Vogue outlines some of the tactics used by greenwashing fashion firms. 

In a recent roundtable discussion hosted by the Great British Entrepreneur Awards and haysmacintyre, a group of sustainable fashion entrepreneurs discussed the future of sustainable fashion and whether greenwashing should be seen as a first step to enacting real change.

Education, education, education

Geoff Van Sonsbeeck, co-founder of House of Baukjen, said: “We need to recognise that this is an incredibly complicated area. And I applaud anyone that is starting the journey if they really mean it.”

He tells people he’s in education, not fashion. And that’s because he feels it’s the most important aspect in the fight towards greater sustainability – educating customers, other entrepreneurs, other brands, and educating governments. 

House of Baukjen is part of The Fashion Pact, a global coalition of fashion brands, suppliers and distributors that accounts for 30% of the industry and is committed to achieving sustainability. Its signatories include major brands including Adidas, Burberry, Chanel, Gap, Nike, Karl Lagerfeld, Ralph Lauren, Selfridges, Stella McCartney and more.

Natasha Frangos, a partner at haysmacintyre who hosted the discussion, referenced research by research by Stanford University which revealed that people are more likely and more willing to change their behaviour when they see more people around them doing the same. 

Geoff said this is the impact The Fashion Pact will have. “As we move collectively in this direction, we will [educate] the remaining 70% as well as governments to understand you can do better,” he explained.

Nancy Zeffman, founder of Cucumber Clothing, suggested the industry needs to eradicate the idea that you need to be perfect in order to be a sustainable brand. 

“Making any item produces a carbon footprint,” she started. “What holds a lot of people back is the feeling that you have to be perfect.

“We started and along the way we’re trying to do everything a little bit better.”

Verifying the claims

Natasha raised the idea that the reason greenwashing has been allowed to happen is because it’s so difficult to verify the claims made about eco-credentials.

Both Nancy and Annie Holt, founder of Ethereal London, lamented the paperwork and financial commitment required to become certified by organisations like B Corp or Positive Luxury. Without the money to apply, Annie claims it has stopped her publicly revealing the various eco-friendly policies she has.

“As a small business, [the cost] is so difficult,” she said. “I was concerned about being labelled a greenwasher. I’ve waited until the business got to a certain level before I was happy to say that my practices are sustainable and that I’m applying for Positive Luxury.”

It’s a barrier that Annie believes creates more confusion for consumers. “With all the big brands out there talking about eco-friendly, sustainable ranges, the customer doesn’t know whether they’re coming or going.”

Lucy Greenwood, co-founder of Lucy & Yak, said: “It’s easier [for big brands] to make an organic cotton t-shirt than it is to actually focus on a sustainable supply chain.”

There is an alternative for cash-strapped small businesses, however. Georgia Wyatt-Lovell FRSA, founder of Wyatt and Jack, uses Good On You, a free platform that independently rates brands based on their environmental claims using 500 data points across more than 100 key sustainability issues. 

Touching on Nancy’s earlier point about improving your eco-credentials bit by bit, both Geoff – whose company is already B Corp certified – and Sarah Jordan, founder of Y.O.U Underwear – who is applying for it – argued that the journey to securing B Corp certification is the best holistic approach to making your business as sustainable as possible. 

Renting rules

An interesting growth area in sustainable fashion is rental. Two of the group, Eshita Kabra and Eve Kekeh run businesses that do just that. Eshita’s business, By Rotation, focuses on designer dresses and bags while Eve’s company, Bundlee, looks to address the problem of baby and toddler clothes.

They explained how building a community of customers has been essential in their growth, and indeed spreading the message of sustainable fashion. 

Eshita said: “We’re trying to make fashion rental about sharing with the woman that you would’ve otherwise already been friendly with. It’s about making that community realise there are like-minded people out there and sharing what they own, which just makes so much sense.”

Eve added: “We’re really trying to expand the lifespan of our clothes. We’re talking about big companies greenwashing, but ultimately what we really need them to be saying is ‘buy less’.”

As long as big brands continue with the same profit-driven strategy, any sustainability efforts “can barely even be labelled sustainable”, she said.

Both By Rotation and Bundlee have created a feature that shows customers the positive impact that their rental transaction is having. 

“Customers love seeing the journey of an item and seeing who else has rented that piece, too,” Eve explained. 

“[Sustainability] is always something that people like telling their friends about,” Eve argued. “Even if they’re doing it for convenience or cost-saving reasons, they’ll still tell other parents that they’re doing it for the sustainability side of it.”

How our grandparents shopped

While sustainability is embedded in the very core of the businesses created by the entrepreneurs in this discussion, that isn’t the case for a lot of bigger, more established brands. The concern is that big brands don’t see sustainability as essential and see it as more of a fashionable trend. The entrepreneurs taking part all know that in this industry what is fashionable today, might not be tomorrow. 

Georgia Wyatt-Lovell said that any real move towards sustainability will be “a huge shock to the system” for big brands, because so much of their model is reliant on seasonal trends. And “seasonal wear is just not sustainable”.

Sarah Jordan, founder of Y.O.U Underwear, believes consumers need to fundamentally change how they view sustainable fashion and the price.

“We need to change consumers expectations,” she said. “It’s actually fast fashion that’s expensive. We have to value our clothes, repair them, rent them, keep and not see them as disposable.”

Annie Holt pointed out that many consumers will happily go to a High Street store and buy several items, but complain about the price of one sustainable item. 

“We need to go back to how our grandparents bought,” she said, “they would buy one thing at the highest price they could afford and keep it forever.”

There appears to be hope among younger people.

“Of course, not every young person in the UK is like that. But Gen Z is much more aware and conscious of the climate crisis, which I find very inspiring,” added Eshita. 

Lucy Greenwood explained that Lucy & Yak still buys any items of clothing damaged in the production process and sells them as faulty with minor defects on Depop. It’s something she says is hugely popular with younger customers. 

Risk becoming irrelevant

Geoff argued that sustainability is “a profound change to the sector. And it is really accelerating now.”

“I think [the growth of smaller, sustainable brands] is going to balloon. It’s going to be a huge bush fire spreading through the fashion sector.”

He believes smaller companies, that have sustainability at their heart, will be able to come to the fore with the right product, the right language and messaging that speaks to the customers.

The signatories of The Fashion Pact are the ones driving change among the upper echelons of fashion, Geoff said. “But it’s the larger High Street brands that just don’t get it yet, they don’t see it and they’re truly at risk of becoming irrelevant.”

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