Ethical etailer Adili knows it can’t change the world, but its director Sim Scavazza says that by giving shoppers the choice of being ethical the business can instigate a revolution in fashion.
With a career history including some of the UK’s top high street names, it must have been a major decision for ex-Miss Selfridge brand director Sim Scavazza to join ethical etailer Adili.
“Where do I start?” she says. “The main reason was to take a break from the high street – I’d been there for 20 years. There is no real comparison though, going from a large organisation to a start-up business – but that’s what makes it exciting.”
Scavazza, Adili’s executive creative director, started as a trainee buyer for River Island, working her way up at French Connection, Next and Bay Trading before joining Arcadia’s young fashion chain Miss Selfridge eight years ago.
Moving from the high street to a small ethical business has its challenges. “Ethical fashion is not everyone’s favourite way of shopping, but that was part of the attraction,” she says. “It is a new way of working and looking at product, so it’s refreshing and a huge opportunity. I’ve only just started the journey and there’s so much more to do.”
Adili was set up by etail entrepreneur and Asos co-founder Quentin Griffiths in September 2006, and was floated on AIM last December, raising £1.5 million. The company employs 12 people and is based in Dorset where it also has a 9,000sq ft warehouse.
Adili stocks 700 options from more than 65 brands including People Tree, Ciel, Patagonia, Howies and Green Baby. This will grow to 80 brands and 1,000 options for autumn. More than half of the company’s sales are womenswear. It competes online with designer ethical etailer Fashion-Conscience.com and some of the ethical brands it stocks such as People Tree, but it also competes in the broader market with the likes of Marks & Spencer, according to Adili chief executive Adam Smith. He adds: “But M&S are still a long way off having a full range. Suppliers such as People Tree are very small and we don’t see them as a real threat.”
In January, the company said sales had soared by 388% over Christmas compared with the year before, and it expects turnover to reach £365,000 for the year. However, in April it warned the market that losses would hit £1.4m this year against expectations of a £1m loss. This was due to more markdowns than anticipated to clear stock.
Anecdotal evidence suggests ethical concerns have fallen down the agenda for many shoppers, who are now refocused on price rather than eco credentials because they are faced with rising costs and falling disposable income. However, Smith insists Adili has not felt the effects of this. “We haven’t seen an impact on our business, but we are still very small and our customer base is very loyal. At the end of the day, if we can make a business in an economic downturn, it will fly in an upturn,” he says.
Independent research firm Edison has forecast that Adili will hit sales of £2m in 2009. Smith says: “We are broadly in line with that expectation and I’m hoping the business will break even by 2010. I’m looking to follow the Asos growth model, but we will not be reaching Asos’s size in the same time frame.”
Adili is already hungry for growth. Earlier this year it bought ethical fashion label Ascension. Scavazza has been charged with converting Ascension into an own-label womenswear offer for the site from spring 09. Adili also plans to wholesale the collection. Scavazza hopes this will help to raise Adili’s profile outside the UK.
The etailer is looking to widen its UK customer base by launching a 60-page catalogue this autumn. Scavazza also doesn’t rule out the possibility of bricks and mortar stores. “Who knows, in the next five years?” she says. “But first we’ll focus on our own brand.”
Focusing on the Adili brand has led to a shift in strategy, according to Smith. “We want Adili to be an ethical lifestyle brand, rather than just a clothing brand. We will introduce homewares, accessories, gifts and kidswear in the next year to broaden our range.”
Smith says the sheer volume of brands the website stocks also helps set Adili apart. “This gives us a wide range of price points and therefore a broader appeal. But we’re hoping to grow our own brand to 40% of the mix in the next three years. It is quite a business risk for us when small suppliers struggle, which can result in delays with stock. A key business objective for us is to be fully stocked throughout the year and our mission is for ethical fashion to be affordable.”
Scavazza adds: “The challenge for an etailer is how to engage customers, how to make them form a relationship with the brand. You have to create the emotional experience of a store, with the smells, colours and textures through a screen. One thing we’ve done is redesign the website to make it more exciting, interactive and fun.”
Adili will launch a blog and online forum this year to inform people about the issues surrounding ethical retailing. “It will be more personal, not just a site selling things,” says Scavazza. “We want to educate people in a fun, inspiring way and invite them to spend money. We want people to understand the process and why they’re paying slightly more for some items.”
Scavazza is not alone in her obvious excitement about the prospects for ethical fashion. In May, Oxfam completed an image overhaul, aided by former Topshop brand director Jane Shepherdson. It opened three fashion boutiques in London, highlighting that ethical product must also be fashionable if it is going to sell.
At the time, Shepherdson summed up the challenge facing ethical fashion companies when she said: “Guilt doesn’t drive change – desire does. If you want to buy a fair trade dress, make sure it looks absolutely gorgeous. You can’t expect people to do it altruistically, because they won’t.”
According to Scavazza, ethical retail does involve a change in consumer behaviour, with the key being to buy fewer items but of better quality. “It’s all about changing perceptions about fast fashion, with different buying desires,” she says. “It’s about having 10 beautiful pieces hanging in your wardrobe, rather than it being cluttered with poor quality, throwaway clothes.”
With Adili’s own label, Scavazza wants to change perceptions of ethical fashion, showing it can be “contemporary, up to the minute, compelling and exciting”. She is creating the label with ex-Debenhams designer Sury Bagenal, who joined as a senior designer in January.
However, producing well designed and long-lasting fashion is not without its problems. Scavazza says the biggest challenge for Adili is the supply base. “The parameters in which we work and the procedures that need to be in place slow everything down. It’s not exactly fast fashion. For example, the dyeing methods – equipment in the factory needs to be washed thoroughly before it can be used. Organic cotton needs to be booked a year in advance. We’re constantly up against it in terms of deliveries,” she says.
The purchase and production of organic cotton also creates huge difficulties, explains Scavazza. “From a global perspective, there is a limited supply, and we’re all picking from the same pot. We need to book seeds 18 months in advance, and then you find the big boys like Mark & Spencer have booked all the production,” she explains.
“This is why ethical fashion is such a small part of the overall fashion market. And that’s why we’re setting up our own supply chain for spring 09,” she says.
In April, the etailer acquired ethical brand Ascension at cut price, after its parent company became insolvent. Ascension is a lower-priced brand, enabling Adili to sell ethical T-shirts for about £20 and jeans for about £50. Women’s branded tops on its website generally range from £28 to £117, with dresses from about £32 to £290.
Scavazza disagrees that ethical fashion is too expensive, saying: “It is the excuse used by lots of people for not investigating.” She adds that consumers’ perception of price has been distorted. “If I buy a T-shirt for less than the cost of a loaf of bread, is that right? People have forgotten how much it costs to make a T-shirt – the process, the handling and the number of people [about 30] who deal with it. Ethical garments aren’t expensive – they’re actually priced right. The T-shirts were underpriced in the first place. The cost of buying cheap is that someone, somewhere gets harmed, whether it’s the people in the factory or the environment. Something or someone in the supply chain will pay.”
So what does it mean to be ethical? Scavazza says it can be as simple as buying vintage clothing. “There’s more than one way to be ethical,” she says. “We are not preaching a point. We want customers to decide what’s important to them.”
Scavazza adds: “Who are we to tell a person what’s important for them? We want to give people the choice and the information so they can decide what ethical means for them. People don’t want to be preached to – all we are advocating is to do more. We take an optimistic view on the world, not a virtuous one.
She adds that fair trade isn’t just about paying a decent price for a product so the worker can earn a fair wage. It is a social movement that has grown out of work done by development and campaign groups and businesses.
When considering what brands to sell online, Adili assesses both the company and its products against a set of ethical criteria. These look at environmental impact, working conditions and fair trade. Scavazza says: “We don’t expect perfection – garment supply chains are often complex and fragmented and many ethical brands are still small companies – but we do look for real commitment.”
She remains realistic about Adili’s targets. “We don’t expect to start dressing the whole nation. We want to dress people who want quality. We were never going to sell cheap clothes, but we are going to sell clothes at the right price. We want to sell special, gorgeous clothing and make it accessible to all. It is a more considered purchase,” she says.
Adili’s plans to become a “global ethical lifestyle brand” are ambitious to say the least, and with the consumer downturn and the unique challenges it faces with its supply chain, Adili will not escape the pains that most start-up businesses face. But Scavazza sums things up perfectly when she quotes the late Body Shop founder Anita Roddick. “We all talk about not doing something because it’s not perfect, but ‘let’s just do something’.”
2007 Executive creative director, Adili.com. She was previously a non-executive director at Adili. Chair, Mentor UK
2000 Various roles at Miss Selfridge, including brand director, buying director and head of buying
1998 Head of buying, Bay Trading
1996 Buyer, Next
1995 Product manager, French Connection
1988 Trainee buyer, buyer, Chelsea Girl/River Island