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Lucy Drage

The sustainability manager at Sainsbury’s Tu tells Ana Santi about her complex role and why everyone should make an ethical commitment.

Why did you decide to work in sustainability?
I started getting involved in it to some degree in my previous role as technology manager for adultwear at Sainsbury’s Tu. It became obvious that people knew that certain things were “better” than others, but there was no tying up of information. It started to take up a lot of my time, and Tu was growing as well, so I discussed a possible role in sustainability with Adrian [Mountford, business unit director at Tu].

He said I could take it on full-time, so I wrote a job description, which was about being strategic and getting out there, rather than being in an office. Adrian was pleased, but it was a gamble as there is no equivalent role at other supermarkets’ clothing brands.

What are the main issues you are addressing at the moment?
The environment and ethical sourcing are areas we are looking into and we are coming up with a complex picture. The concept of sustainability is difficult to define. The first thing a company needs is a definition and everyone’s agreement on that definition, because it can mean different things to different people. At Tu, I am looking at a closed loop system, a concept which addresses sustainable sourcing of raw materials through to the end use of a product. The goal is to ensure the product has another life. For example, what can a 100% acrylic jumper become? We’re looking into using Sainsbury’s own plastic waste in sites in London, where we would turn flakes of waste plastic into yarn.

How fair is the media’s portrayal of fashion retailers’ ethical credentials?
The media can sometimes tarnish everyone with the same brush. I don’t see Primark at the sustainability events I go to, but I always see Tesco and Asda. If retailers have people who are endeavouring to do the right thing then that is a great step forward. I hear what our rivals have to say, I listen to their strategies – they really are putting their money where their mouth is.

Given the current downturn in consumer spending, is ethical fashion still at the top of the agenda for cash-strapped shoppers?
Yes, because the gates are open now. We all know what goes on in China and Sri Lanka, which makes us all more educated as consumers. We are all questioning where our clothing comes from and who is making it. It is the price at which retailers choose to sell their fair trade or organic collections that affects people in an economic downturn. They need to sell these products at affordable prices, which means that retailers need to invest in and commit to these collections in the long-term to drive volume.

What does the future hold for ethical fashion?
It is difficult to predict how it will evolve, but clothing will play its part in a small way. About 2.7% of the planet is covered in cotton – is it a sustainable product? Is there a better product to use? Should we use bamboo or hemp? Or should we blend hemp and cotton together? It is all about gathering lots of information, and new technologies will come on board too. But I’m optimistic, because in the long run we won’t have much of a choice.

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