As the world becomes more engaged in the climate debate, consumers are increasingly starting to demand ethical and sustainable practices from the businesses they buy from. This demand for change and transparency is becoming especially prominent in the fast fashion industry, notorious for poor manufacturing standards, excessive water consumption, and a terrible carbon footprint. The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and consumes more energy than the aviation and delivery industries combined.
It may sound all doom and gloom, but there is hope in this world of textile chaos. There are quickly becoming more and more UK fashion retailers who are looking beyond the ordinary to create products that put the planet first and profits second.
But what does it mean to be 'sustainable'?
It has become trendy to be a sustainable company, but the term is constantly thrown around like a dog's chew toy without anyone pinning down what it really means. Being sustainable should mean a company abides by a specific set of measurable standards. Still, as there is no legal gauge for sustainability, many brands are getting away with greenwashing their practices because, in reality, most consumers don't check.
Put simply, however, sustainability means conserving what we have today so that future generations can continue to enjoy it too.
What is 'greenwashing', and why is it an issue?
Greenwashing is when companies falsely advertise or inflate their products sustainability to mislead consumers.
The problem with companies greenwashing their practices is that consumers are led into a false sense of security that where they're buying from is ethical. Not only does this devalue genuinely sustainable products, but it has a long term impact on our psychological expectations of what sustainability is and how much it should cost. Consumers will not be prepared to pay ethical prices when they believe they can get sustainable pieces at fast-fashion prices from companies that greenwash their brand.
What are UK fashion retailers doing to combat it?
The global fashion industry is evolving, and some brands are making sustainable practices a core business goal, not an overlooked afterthought. Let's have a look at some of the eco-conscious UK fashion retailers who are changing the way we shop.
Lucy & Yak
Today we know Lucy & Yak for creating vibrant and outlandishly patterned dungarees seen on every hipster from Brighton beach to Edinburgh Castle, but it didn't start that way. Owners Lucy and Chris began their business sewing tobacco pouches for travellers on the New Zealand coast. Flash forward to 2022, and Lucy & Yak has become a staple for eco-conscious shoppers looking for something durable, unique and responsible.
What are they doing?
Lucy and Chris travelled around Asia searching for a manufacturer who shared their ambitions of creating ethical clothing that supported the local community. They met Ismail in Rajasthan, India and set up production with him there. Lucy & Yak now employ 49 tailors in their rural Indian factory. You can learn a bit about all of them on their website's 'Who Made My Clothes' section. Their factory workers are paid a living wage, and their family-owned factory has air conditioning and solar panels, which provides 100% of the electricity needed to power it.
When you buy a pair of dungarees (or any of their other products) from Lucy & Yak, you can rest easy knowing they are transparent about everything from their workers to their suppliers and even the fabric dyes they use. They also highlight their ever-expanding list of social commitments, such as using real people as their models and supporting the Fior Di Loto Foundation. The Fior Di Loto Foundation supports girls getting an education in the local Rajasthan school where the Lucy & Yak factory is located.
Sheep Inc has erupted onto the scene, creating next-level knitwear that looks after the planet and the sheep who deliver their super soft, super long-lasting wool. If you're looking for clothing that sits in harmony with the landscape, these knits are the answer.
What are they doing?
Sheep Inc has a whole plethora of sustainability credentials to its name. Their raw materials are carbon negative, and their manufacturing processes are 100% solar powered. Not only that, but they are highly selective of their wool suppliers as they are big supporters of the regenerative farming movement. Sheep Inc's sheep are integral to closing the nutrient loop by treading the land and reducing the need for fertilisers. Plus, when you buy a knit, you'll get your own trackable sheep! You can keep up-to-date with their daily antics, see when they're getting a haircut or even when they're expecting a baby.
These are also no ordinary sheep! Sheep Inc has specially selected Merino sheep who live in High Country New Zealand for their excellent quality and living standards. Although we have sheep here in the UK, Sheep Inc quickly notes that the innovative land management techniques adopted in New Zealand mean their carbon impact is significantly less harmful than in the UK/EU, where farming is less advanced.
PANGAIA is a revolutionary materials science company that makes colour-popping clothing out of everything from fruit fibres to seaweed. Their innovative materials have garnered international recognition and a preeminent reputation on the sustainability scale.
What are they doing?
PANGAIA's textile innovations are so crazy it does give off real-life Cinderella's pumpkin into carriage vibes. Just instead of it being a magical carriage, it's hoodies, t-shirts and trainers. If you thought it impossible to have trainers made of grapes or a coat made from wildflowers - you're dead wrong. Not only are PANGAIA combating the cotton and synthetic material problem, but they are also turning air pollution into an eco-ink. Now that really is 'problem-solving science you can wear'.
Pushing their materials to the side, PANGAIA makes a significant social impact. They support several causes, including the New South Wales Rural Fire Services, which are instrumental in fighting Australia's wildfires and producing PPE equipment for hospitals in Italy and New York during the pandemic. On top of their philanthropic work, they fund the PANGAIA Prize, a fellowship programme created to support underrepresented voices in STEM to make a difference.
Labelling itself as 'disruptive activewear', TALA's ambition is to find the balance between ethically made athleisurewear and affordable prices. Unlike a lot of competitors who claim this contradictory balance, having done the research, it does seem TALA are holding up their side of the bargain.
What are they doing?
The biggest credit one can give to TALA is their utter transparency about who they are, where they manufacture and what fabrics they use. TALA use a whole host of innovative eco-fabrics, natural materials, like bamboo and cotton, as well as recycled nylon. They recognise the issue with microfibres and encourage their customers to take extra precautions to protect the environment. On their website, TALA also gives detailed information on which factories produce which of their products and what credentials they have. Although they manufacture their products worldwide, leading to a more significant carbon footprint, again, they do not hide away from informing their customers.
Aside from their products, TALA pays attention to the small details by having plantable labels filled with seasonal seeds on all their products. Moreover, their TALA Talks blog advocates critical social issues such as mental health, Black History Month and Pride Month.
Urged to action after seeing the lingering impact of ghost gear around the globe, marine scientist turned entrepreneur Harry Dennis created Waterhaul. Having found a way to turn neglected fishing gear into glasses, Waterhaul hopes to inspire marine conservation whilst giving our oceans a much needed clean.
What are they doing?
Primarily Waterhaul makes sunglasses as well as prescription sunglasses and optical glasses from end-of-life ghost gear they recover from the Cornish coast. This solves ocean pollution problems and provides the ideal materials for seriously sturdy glasses frames. Their excellent products don't end there, however. They also make beach clean up gear such as litter pickers and beach pen knives to inspire you to get involved.
When you buy a pair of their glasses, you'll also be supporting their PlaNET Action education programme. Led by marine biologist educators, PlaNET Action leads workshops across the UK on marine conservation and why it is seminal to the planet's survival.
We can never get away from the fact that never buying anything new is the most sustainable option, but we're all human at the end of the day. However, we need to start making better choices about where we buy from. In the present economic climate, sustainability costs more, and there are undoubtedly financial barriers preventing sustainable consumerism from becoming mainstream. But maybe instead of buying 20 items from a fast-fashion retailer, make one considered purchase that will last a lifetime and leave exploitation at the door. At the end of the day, there is a new burgeoning future for the fashion industry, and who consumers support will make or break it.
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