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Bestseller's blockbuster sustainability story

Bestseller aarhus bsafo230 cf moller architects photo adam moerk

Drapers visits Bestseller headquarters to find out how the Danish brand powerhouse is driving forward its sustainability strategy 

Driving along the narrow roads to the small town of Brande, nestled in the west Danish countryside, the last thing you expect to find is the expansive headquarters of fashion brand house Bestseller.

The village-like campus comprises 12 light, airy, modern buildings complete with high ceilings and sleek Scandi furnishings. It is the base of several of Bestseller’s 26 brands, including Jack & Jones, Selected, Only, and Only & Sons, as well as some of the business’s central functions and a swanky restaurant-cum-canteen for staff and visitors.

Brande is the location of just one of the company’s four sites in its native Denmark, along with a logistics centre in Haderslev in the south, additional offices in the capital Copenhagen, and a new building on the harbour in Aarhus – the interior of which features pale Italian stone and contrasting dark oak to a very dramatic effect.

Globally, Bestseller has offices in 22 countries, sells in 70 markets, has 2,700 owned and franchise stores, 15,000 stockists, and more than 15,000 employees. Founded in 1975, the family-owned business had turnover of €3.15bn (£2.8bn) and profits before tax of €337m (£295m) in its most recent accounts, for 2016/17. The UK had 18% sales growth last year. It comprises 380 wholesale accounts and is the sixth-largest market for Bestseller. Of its 26 brands, 17 are available in the UK. 

2020 vision

To future-proof the business, Bestseller is doubling down on key areas and one of the main focuses for 2019 and beyond is accelerating its sustainability strategy. Like a lot of Scandinavian businesses, Bestseller was an early adopter and created its first sustainability strategy back in 2000. Its most recent version – called 20 by 20, in reference to 20 goals to achieve by 2020 – launched in 2013 and pledged to integrate sustainability into the business across the key areas of workers, product, communities, environment and chemicals.

As the group has achieved some of these ambitions ahead of schedule, in December it will publish a new strategy outlining a bolder ambition that will reflect the full value chain from design to sourcing, manufacturing and operations, retail, consumer use and disposal, as well as looking at its owned and operated buildings.

We wanted to bring sustainability to a brand level to make a business case and prove that it was possible

Camilla Skjønning Jørgensen, sustainable material manager, Bestseller 

The goal is to move beyond compliance and create a more holistic approach to sustainability. It plans to do this by integrating a sustainable mindset and working practices into every part of the business so it becomes “second nature” explains Bestseller’s sustainable material manager, Camilla Skjønning Jørgensen, over a cup of coffee in the Brande HQ.

“When you work with systematic change you have to embed it into the structure, into the way we do business. Our hope is we don’t have to push [sustainability] as much or talk about it as much in the future, it will just be the way we do things.”

Bestseller by numbers

Every year Bestseller brands manufacture around 250 million products at 800 factories in China, India, Bangladesh, Turkey and Italy. To create the step change across the company’s vast network, it focused on making one of its brands more sustainable in an effort to test and learn, and then aimed to scale up to include the rest of the business. The test bed was contemporary brand Selected – known as Selected Homme for menswear and Selected Femme for womenswear – which was originally launched in 1997 as a menswear brand.

“I joined Selected two years ago from [fellow Bestseller womenswear brand] Vero Moda, with the ambition to make it more sustainable,” says Skjønning Jørgensen. “It was compliant to the Bestseller sustainability plan but did not use a lot of sustainable materials other than Better Cotton Initiative [BCI] cotton. I wanted to bring sustainability to a brand level to make a business case and prove that it was possible.”

Uphill journey

However, resetting the structure of a brand, particularly one as big as Selected, which has 112 UK stockists, including John Lewis, Asos, Zalando, Next Label, Anthropologie and Very, is not without its challenges.

“It was a bit uphill for the first six months,” Skjønning Jørgensen laughs. “It’s much easier to start a sustainable brand than to take something existing and [make it] more sustainable … as you have fixed supply chains, fixed materials and fixed ways of doing things.”

Challenges included longer lead times for recycled polyester thread, sustainable buttons being more expensive than plastic buttons and differences between fabrics in men’s and women’s wear: “In menswear there tends to be a lot of cotton and there are options for [sustainable] cotton – BCI, organic cotton and recycled cotton. In womenswear we had a wider range of fabrics, and we struggled with minimums and availability. One size doesn’t fit all.”

Organic cotton is 0.5% of the cotton market. We need it to be high quality, so it’s like finding a needle in a haystack

Camilla Skjønning Jørgensen, sustainable material manager, Bestseller

When sourcing sustainable fabrics, Bestseller works directly with the raw materials suppliers, and introduces them to its factories and other suppliers to help traceability. Costs were kept down by simplifying the designs, and forgoing trims and difficult cutting with expensive fabrics. Within six months the team had “cracked the code” and half of the collection was created using more sustainable materials.

For autumn 18, 59% of Selected’s collection is made using materials that are more sustainable than previous materials used. This will increase to 66% for pre-autumn 19. In the current financial year, 24% of Selected’s cotton is organic and the rest is BCI.

Cottoning on

Cotton is a core focus for Bestseller’s sustainability team, which is made up of 10 people, as it is a mainstay in most of its brands’ collections. At group level, according to the company’s 2017 sustainability report, 43% of all cotton used across the business was a mix of BCI, Cotton made in Africa [organisation for sustainable cotton], organic cotton and recycled cotton. Bestseller is now trying to integrate more organic cotton into its supply chain. 

“Organic cotton is 0.5% of the cotton market. We need it to be high quality, so it’s like finding a needle in a haystack, but we’re trying to raise the bar [in terms of standards],” says Skjønning Jørgensen.

We need recycled materials to be completely integrated. That is the mission

Dorte Rye Olsen, sustainability manager, Bestseller

Part of this elevation effort is the launch of a 100% sustainable capsule collection for Selected for autumn 19. The range will comprise around 15 styles each on Femme and Homme, and all products will be made using only sustainable fabrics, yarns, trims and buttons, including organic cotton, organic wool, recycled wool, recycled polyester, EcoVero (sustainable viscose) and Tencel Lyocell – a branded fibre derived from tree pulp dissolved in a non-toxic organic solvent.

Skjønning Jørgensen says the range is pushing the boundaries of what the brand thinks is possible in terms of sustainability and allows the business to test what is scalable: “The capsule collection is to teach us about the styles and the fabrics internally more than for the consumer’s benefit.” 

sustainable fashion 2019

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Dorte Rye Olsen, sustainability manager at Bestseller, agrees that giving brands the opportunity to test new ideas is essential in driving change: “We need to make sure we have sandboxing opportunities. New and innovative fibres are often expensive to work with and demand greater effort, so we need to work with them and work out what is feasible and scalable and how to adapt the supply chain for it.

“We need recycled materials to be completely integrated. That is the mission. We want [using recycled and sustainable materials] to become the norm and be business as usual, but there is a transition, which takes time.”

All-encompassing

Bestseller’s new sustainable strategy will focus on this integration across all of its brands. Although the company declines to outline specific goals and targets, Rye Olsen says there will be a strong focus on fabrics with benchmarking for materials, including sustainable cotton, responsibly sourced man-made fibres and recycled polyester. There will also be a push on social and labour conditions, environment and chemicals, circularity, transparency, animal welfare, and new materials and innovation.

“It will bring Bestseller to the next level of sustainability over the next five or six years,” she asserts. “We have a promise to make each collection as sustainable as possible and make each more sustainable than the last. We have to keep improving. New innovations [using] pineapple leaves, banana leaves, orange peel – these are the materials of the future. If our industry continues to grow at the current rate, the need for new materials is staggering.”

You need to work at being more sustainable, or there won’t be any cotton or water for us to use

Camilla Skjønning Jørgensen, sustainable material manager, Bestseller

Rye Olsen says a lot still needs to be done across the industry, particularly relating to the traceability of animal-based fibres such as wool and leather, but Bestseller is working with multiple industry organisations, including BCI, Ethical Trading Initiative, Textile Exchange, the Ellen McArthur Foundation and the Bangladesh Accord Foundation to tackle the problems.

“We need to commit to change – and collaborative change, as we can’t solve it alone. Working together we can create more efficient standards,” she says.

16063554 recycled wool

Amy Jackson, director of membership at Better Cotton Initiative, says: “It’s a big challenge for retailers to begin to take more responsibility in relation to sourcing given the complexity of their supply chains. It often involves changing the behaviours of farmers who have worked a certain way for generations, across multiple countries and continents. By working with large retailers and brand houses we can pool our efforts and investment to implement real change, without them it wouldn’t be possible.”

Skjønning Jørgensen says fashion companies have a duty to work more sustainably to help preserve the future of the industry: “It’s an added value and will attract consumers, particularly of the next generation, I have no doubt. But in the fashion industry we depend on raw materials. We can’t make our clothes without them, so, even if the consumer doesn’t care if you want to future-proof your business, you need to work at being more sustainable, or there won’t be any cotton or water for us to use. 

“If we want to keep our businesses running, we need to work with sustainability [in mind], no matter what the consumer thinks. It is a definite.”

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