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Pure London: The role of smaller businesses in pioneering sustainable fashion

By Huw Hughes


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Image: [From left to right]: Olivia Pinnock, Kalkidan Legesse, Josefin Wanner, Simon Bell | Credit: Hyve Group

As the conversation of sustainability continues to play an increasingly important role in the notoriously harmful fashion industry, the topic has taken centre stage at fashion trade shows across the world. And British fair Pure London is no exception.

On Monday February 13, on the second of the three-day event, the trade fair’s sustainability ambassador Olivia Pinnock spoke to three business owners making strides within sustainable fashion, asking about the trials and tribulations faced by those trying to clean up the industry.

While deep-pocketed fashion giants across the world have the potential to make the most significant impact if they were to sincerely use their resources for good, smaller retailers still have a pivotal role to play, according to the panel.

Freedom to take risks

“I think the beauty of being a smaller independent business is that you can really build the company around your values,” said Kalkidan Legesse, the CEO of Owni, a digital resale platform for sustainable fashion brands.

“You have the freedom to make choices that larger companies don’t have because of their more complex organisational structures,” she said, noting that as the reason so much sustainable innovation is coming from smaller organisations.

Legesse said this freedom allowed her to experiment with things “larger peers would never dare to try”. For example, when she opened Sancho’s in 2014, a physical store that only carries items from sustainable brands, she introduced a Transparent Pricing model, allowing shoppers to pay what they can afford. So how does that work exactly? Items have three different prices: The cheapest just covers costs, the middle price also covers overheads such as the shop and staff wages, and the third also invests into the future of the company.

Simon Bell, the co-founder and chief operating officer of Immaculate Vegan, an online platform for animal-friendly independent brands, agreed that smaller companies are “unconstrained” when making such business choices which may be considered too risky for larger organisations, allowing them to be at the “vanguard” of innovative and sustainable business models. Founded in 2018, Immaculate Vegan was ahead of its time, beating the boom in non-animal brands, products, and innovations that have inundated the industry in the last few years.

Sustainable = more expensive?

A typical issue retailers face when considering adopting more sustainable brands or business models is the increased price that comes with it. But that’s not always the case, according to Josefin Wanner, a fashion designer and the co-founder of Tråd Collective, a Leeds-based store offering upcycled, pre-loved, and “sustainably made” products.

Wanner notes that her company has a variety of different products and price points. “Because we do a lot of second-hand fashion and upcycled fashion, that means for those item we can keep the price points lower.” Meaning even people who can’t buy first-hand sustainable products have an alternative option.

Simon Bell from Immaculate Vegan notes also that while now there is an ongoing cost-of-living crisis, “there’s also an ongoing environmental crisis”, and there is a growing number - particularly of younger consumers - who are increasingly willing to buy more expensive but sustainable fashion, which, he adds, often lasts longer due to its better quality, making it a better investment in the long run. “We’re really seeing that fast-fashion is becoming much less appealing to consumers,” he said.

Sustainable fashion - not just a Gen Z craze

While Gen Z have certainly been the face of sustainable fashion consumerism, retailers should be aware that other demographics are also catching on. In the case of Immaculate Vegan, most of its customers range from the 25-34-year-old age range. For Tråd Collective, the company is actually seeing a variety of ages due to its store's broad offering. “The students will tend to go for the second-hand stuff, young professionals will go for upcycled things, while the older generations will go for the tailored services,” co-founder Josefin Wanner said.

Greenwashing, and how to avoid it

In the increasingly murky space of greenwashing, trusting companies’ sustainability claims can be challenging at best, impossible at worst. But there are certain green flags to look for, according to the panel. One main point was backing up sustainability claims from brands by asking for verification, such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) label, the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) label, or the Fair Wear Foundation (FWF) label.

Owni’s Kalkidan Legesse said a green flag is “if you can get very close to the manufacturer”, which the two other panellists strongly agreed on as a top priority. “It’s about knowing exactly who is making someone’s products, so you can know more about their working conditions and bargaining power,” Legesse said.

For Josefin Wanner, another green flag is knowing that products are made in the UK. “We do on occasion buy things that are made in Europe, but that’s about as far as we could go,” she said.

Simon Bell from Immaculate Vegan added that, unsurprisingly, his company will allow no animal products in any items on its platform, while again highlighting the importance of ensuring quality wage and working conditions across its brands’ supply chains, and noted that smaller details, such as sustainable packaging, should also not be overlooked.

So what’s the future of sustainable fashion?

Well, the future is bright, the panellists agreed, but smaller companies need to continue to experiment and innovate to keep the momentum moving. Owni’s Kalkidan Legesse said: “An area I'm really excited about in terms of sustainability, really because of the benefit of second hand when it comes to carbon saving, is connecting brands to the lifecycle of products.”

She cited WRAP research which found that the average UK household uses only about 30 percent of the clothes it owns. “That means huge volumes of potential inventory are just sitting there not creating value,” she said. “So if we can create a demand for that 70 percent of products then we can grow the second hand market at an even higher rate than it is currently growing. I think that's really exciting and comes with huge carbon saving potential.”

Another exciting prospect all panellists agreed on was the fast-rate at which innovations in new materials and recycling capabilities are advancing. “Vegan fashion is not going out of style anytime soon, and I’m really excited about the fact that people are coming up with really interesting non-animal alternative materials,” said Simon Bell from Immaculate Vegan.

“We have apple leather, cactus leather, pineapple leather - there's all sorts of new and innovative ways to create materials with the same texture, feel, and longevity of animal leather and that's really exciting,” he concluded.

Immaculate Vegan
Pure London
Sustainable Fashion
Tråd Collective