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Facing fashion's sustainable challenge

Sustainability in fashion is the hot topic of the moment, and was the subject of discussion at Drapers’ latest roundtable.

Sustainability has risen up the agenda in recent years as brands and retailers have taken action to clean up fashion. Earlier this month, MPs called on retailers such as Next, Arcadia Group and Marks & Spencer to give evidence to a government inquiry on the sustainability of the fashion industry.

In light of this, some of the industry’s biggest businesses, including Burberry, Tesco, M&S and Pentland Brands, gathered at Drapers’ sustainability roundtable at in London on 20 September, held in association with sustainability solutions provider Yellow Octopus and clothes recycling app Regain, to discuss how to implement real change. The event took place at The Ritz, which has been awarded certification programme Green Tourism’s gold standard.

Attitudes within fashion organisations are starting to change, as they wake up to the importance of “greening” their businesses. Joe Little, head of sustainability at Tesco’s fashion brand F&F, says over the past year its commercial teams have “really started to embrace it”.

It is a similar story at Pentland Brands. Karina O’Gorman, head of corporate responsibility, says that her focus is the showing the “commercial viability” of embracing sustainability to commercial teams, and she notes that conversation has been “much more open” recently: “This year it’s been much more about people coming to find us, rather than us chasing people around the building.”

Many businesses represented in the room have set ambitious targets around sustainability. Ted Baker is aiming to reduce carbon, water and the waste generated or consumed by its products by 15% by 2020, and the M&S Plan A 2025 sets out its goal of becoming a zero-waste business.

One attendee says ambitious public targets are a good thing for the industry: “What other brands are doing is a huge influence. If everyone has a 2020 or 2025 commitment and you haven’t, customers will start asking why. The more people that are doing it, the bigger the momentum.”

A focus on materials

Many around the table are committed to using more sustainable materials, particularly cotton. M&S, for example, gets 77% of its cotton from sustainable sources, and aims to use 100% sustainable cotton by next year.

Several executives admitted their brands had had issues with the quality of recycled materials in the past, and said part of their role was to help buying and design teams recognise that technology has advanced and the end product is now much improved.

Another big hurdle to overcome is cost. The retailers around the table agreed that sustainable fibres tend to be more expensive.

One attendee says: “You’ve got to start from the very beginning and talk to buying, and make them understand there will be a small cost increase.”

But could retailers pass this cost increase on to consumers and charge more for sustainable products? Those in the room are dubious.

As one says: “People say they want more sustainable products but people are not always willing to pay extra for them.”

A short-term cost could [avoid] a longer-term risk to the business

Karina O’Gorman, Pentland Brands

However, the retailers around the table agreed that sustainability teams should encourage buyers to challenge their supply chain over cost rises.

O’Gorman also recommends frank discussions about the longer-term reputational risks of not making clothing in the most sustainable way: “a short-term cost could [avoid] a longer-term risk to the business.”

Stella McCartney environmental and social sustainability co-ordinator Sally Williamson says it can be difficult for high street retailers to change the way product is made.

“If you’re buying a finished product, you’re not going to have a relationship with the fibre manufacturer and that’s where you can have really intelligent conversations and be quite strategic,” she explains. “At Stella, we buy fabric so we have power in that area. On the high street you might not even know your manufacturer of that fibre.”

Jack Ostrowski, founder and chief executive of Yellow Octopus and Regain, says it is difficult to push sustainable solutions through if they are more expensive.

“The message from commercial is: if it’s 1p more expensive, we’re not getting it,” he says. “Buyers are incentivised by different metrics. They’re not incentivised by making the world a better place – they’re incentivised by hard numbers.”

To increase motivation, Little says Tesco included sustainability targets in employees’ KPIs (key performance indicators): “The big thing that changed is when it became people’s personal objectives, and not just a policy for buyers. This is how people get their bonuses.” Having both a margin and sustainable KPI to hit led its commercial team to demand efficient and sustainable solutions from its suppliers. 


Sustainable production is only part of the equation. Many retailers in the room also focus on encouraging consumers to recycle unwanted clothing.

M&S has run its clothes recycling scheme, Shwopping, for 10 years. Sustainability delivery manager Alexandra Florea says: “We’re trying to create the habit of customers bringing unwanted garments to us rather than put them in landfill.

“The clothes are collected and given to Oxfam, which tries to resell in the UK. If they can’t, they will send it to [their social enterprise in] Senegal or recycle it. The guarantee that we give to customers is that absolutely nothing goes to landfill.”

Florea says M&S has had a “positive response” to the initiative, but “there’s so much more that can be done”.

The change won’t come from consumers. We have to give people easy solutions

Jack Ostrowski, Yellow Octopus/Regain

Earlier this year, Ostrowski launched Regain, an app that allows users to recycle unwanted clothes in exchange for coupons at some of the UK’s largest fashion retailers.

The app, which has partnered with retailers including Missguided, Boohoo and New Balance, allows consumers to take unwanted clothes free of charge to more than 20,000 drop-off points to be shipped to Regain, and is designed to drive a more circular economy in fashion.

Ostrowski says making recycling easy for consumers is critical: “The change won’t come from consumers. We have to give people easy solutions.”

Consumer confusion

It is important to make things easy for consumers, as sustainability is a confusing area. 

Florea wonders whether the industry should adopt a universal labelling system to make things easier for shoppers: “For appliances or houses, you have a very clear labelling system, so you know what you’re buying. We don’t have anything like that in fashion. Is there a need to have a more widely spread system of explaining sustainability to customers?”

Regardless of consumer understanding of the issues, it is brands’ duty to act in as sustainable a way as possible, she insists: “It is our responsibility. They are expecting us to source product as sustainably as possible.” 

Making sustainability matter

Sustainability is a challenging area. To increase your understanding, download our report at or visit to get tickets to Drapers’ conference on the topic.



Tom Berry Director of sustainable business, Farfetch

Zoe Cokeliss Barsley Head of environmental and community affairs, Pentland Brands

Clara Eisenberg Head of legal, The Dune Group

Alexandra Florea Sustainability delivery manager, Marks & Spencer

Joe Little Head of sustainability, F&F

Lisa Lund Ted’s conscience co-ordinator, Ted Baker

Sarah Needham Sustainability manager, Alexander McQueen

Karina O’Gorman Head of corporate responsibility, Pentland Brands

Jack Ostrowski Founder and CEO, Yellow Octopus

Adrian Stevenson Ethical trade manager, River Island

Rebecca Thomson Head of commercial projects, Drapers

Kate Wakeling Ted’s conscience manager, Ted Baker

Rawnie Whittow-Williams Sustainability co-ordinator, Swarovski

Jocelyn Wilkinson Responsibility programme director, Burberry

Francesca Williams Ethical trading manager, Boden

Sally Williamson Environmental and social sustainability co-ordinator, Stella McCartney

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