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A common thread will strengthen eco fashion

Whether to save costs or as a branding exercise, the high street is joining small brands in seeing the benefits of recycling the 2 million tonnes of fabric waste created each year.

Sustainable fashion has historically been a niche market but with high street initiatives announced in the past two months, interest from multiples may finally be providing a catalyst for growth. 

Both Topshop’s Reclaim to Wear range, which launches on June 8, and H&M’s Conscious Collection, which launched in April, are made from recycled, discarded and waste fabric. Marks & Spencer’s Shwopping initiative lets customers return unwanted clothing to any UK branch of M&S and represents the retailer’s first step to recover fibre in the face of volatile raw material costs.

All three are looking to explore how waste could become a resource and help “close the loop on fibre”.

Dilys Williams, head of London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainability, points out that unstable raw material costs and a difficult economic climate are forcing retailers to rethink their supply chains to improve efficiency. There is the beginning of a “sea change” among high street retailers, with a race to break ground and innovate.

“Retailers are thinking more about resources used and what consumers dispose of,” she says.

M&S head of sustainability Mike Barry tells Drapers he expects the retailer’s Shwopping scheme to earn kudos in terms of corporate social responsibility, with M&S the first high street retailer to facilitate clothing recycling in-store. According to Barry, 80% of M&S customers feel “green matters”, but that they want M&S to “sort it”.

“It’s about giving consumers a way to be more sustainable. To demonstrate that M&S is a more sustainable, ethical business is good value for us,” he says.

However, the womenswear buyer of one London department store feels any sustainability efforts by multiples are likely to be seen as a “branding exercise”.

“It’s not something a buyer would seek unless corporate social responsibility directions came from the top. Product is the most important thing. It’s more likely to show that although they are doing fast fashion, they can also do sustainability,” the source says.

Across the rest of the sustainable market, a number of brands and indie boutiques agree that while high street retailers could do more to demonstrate commitment by setting targets to grow their sustainable fashion offering, their marketing activity will only increase consumer awareness and raise the fashion appeal of sustainable brands.

“It’s in danger of being a token effort, but it’s good because those companies will spread awareness,” says Tamsin Davis, co-founder of sustainable jersey brand Nancy Dee.

Nin Castle, co-founder of ethical womenswear brand Goodone, which has produced ranges for Asos and Topshop, points out that it’s much easier for high street retailers to “shout” about sustainability.

For smaller brands, putting sustainability as their major selling point can undermine the product because of the historic lack of design appeal associated with ethical brands. While high street chains are playing up their sustainability credentials, brands working in the space have become more reserved about their eco positioning.

“When big retailers do it, it’s all jazz hands, but for us to sell to customers and tell them facts like 2 million tonnes of fabric waste is created every year in the UK, it’s very hard to bring that into a selling environment. It’s got to be design foremost.

“We set up a sustainable business because we wanted to, but on a selling basis, it needs to be about fashion.”

Phil Wildbore, founder of sustainable denim label Monkee Genes, says design and product has to come first because that’s how the consumer shops. The success of Monkee Genes is due to its design and production merits, he says.

The brand, certified by the Soil Association, which audits its dye processes, fabrics, parts and components, is sold through 500 doors including Topshop and Selfridges.

“Our brand is ethical and sustainable. People are drawn to the garment because they like the fabrics and colours – it feels different,” he says.

Nancy Dee, which has 60 global stockists, has found traction due to having a strong identity as a “day to night”, well-made jerseywear product with an accessible price point, according to Davis.

For the same reason, a number of indies, including 69b in Hackney and One Boutique in York, have also chosen not to market themselves as eco specialists, opting instead to focus on the designs first and foremost.

Merryn Leslie, owner of 69b, a 700 sq ft store that stocks 25 sustainable brands, says: “We’ve chosen not to advertise as an eco store. There’s still a lot of stigma attached to it. The past two years it has changed a bit but the whole eco thing for me has no design integrity. It’s all itchy and shapeless.”

Of the brands Drapers spoke to, being sustainable means fast-track growth is not an option. The complexity of design and production processes means there are no cutting corners. Nancy Dee, for example, ships its fabrics rather than using air freight, meaning it has to work further in advance.

Castle agrees: “As designers we do so much more. We’re trying to compete with fashion brands but we have to do so much more to the product.”

Wildbore adds: “[The accreditation and standards] can hold back growth, but the end result is that you’re starting off with respect and this does give you long-term credibility. It’s not a three-year growth plan but a long-term vision.”

Brands and indies agree that while they are determined and committed to their businesses being sustainable, their size does not – and will not – have any real impact on wider change. Only high street retail can have real impact, they say.

For this reason, Goodone is now shifting its focus towards working with larger retailers to help them identify where they re-use waste fabrics and make cost savings. It has set up a specialist upcycling factory in Bulgaria because conventional factories often do not have the capabilities to deal with the production of garments made from waste, recycled or recovered fabrics.

Castle says: “Big retailers – that’s where the damage is done. They’re aware of waste and the rising price of fabrics and raw materials. Pre-consumer waste is huge. They’re beginning to understand that fabrics have value. Eventually, this will save them money and tick a big green box.”

Eco trade shows

Ethical Fashion Show, Berlin July 4-6

Ethical Fashion Show, Paris September 6-9

Estethica, London Fashion Week September 14-18

EcoLuxe, London September 16-17

The Good Fashion Show, London September, TBC

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