This August, SOURCE took part in Pure London, one of the UK’s leading fashion buying tradeshows. Tamsin Lejeune, Managing Director of Ethical Fashion Forum, hosted the ‘Better Buying’ workshop, which saw 5 buyers and experts in sourcing sustainable fashion products come together to discuss how to plan the perfect range with two main aims: ethical priorities and maintaining profit margins.
- Merryn Leslie, owner of 69b – a directional, forward-thinking shop on Broadway Market in East London
- Siobhan Wilson, owner of The FAIR Shop in Brighton – specialising in Fair Trade fashion products
- Emma McCutcheon, buyer at Tellus Fashion – an online platform for luxury fashion
- Victoria McQuillan, owner of Think Boutique – an online shop for fashion ‘Made in the UK’
- David Thomas, owner of Danaqa – a high-end accessories boutique in London’s Notting Hill
Stocking sustainable brands, changing consumer perceptions
The main aim of the panel discussion was to uncover the opportunities for retailing ethical and sustainable fashion and the approaches that multi-brand retailers can take for integrating more ethical/sustainable products into their collection.
One clear message discussed by the panel was that ethical and sustainable brands need to stand up in terms of design and quality compared to more conventional fashion brands.
I believe that people have an intrinsic attraction to being good… It feels different; you can feel the quality and see the values of it”
At online retailer Tellus Fashion, ethical brands are stocked amongst conventional brands. This approach does well to showcase how ethical and sustainable fashion products can be just as design-led, high quality and price competitive as the rest.
“Tellus Fashion is a design-led service, promoting both ethical and sustainable fashion alongside ‘standard’ designers. We expect the same dedication from our ethical brands as we do from our other brands. We’re proving that ethical fashion really can stand up against mainstream fashion,” said Emma McCutcheon.
Likewise, Merryn Leslie of East London boutique 69b strives to create a carefully curated collection. Although all its products have a sustainable story, 69b is “not branded as an eco-shop – just as a directional shop, which is very important.”
“Having worked in the fashion industry with interesting designers, sustainable fashion was never seen [just] as itchy fabrics, but definitely was more for the middle-aged market.”
However, this is starting to change; younger people are becoming more interested in how clothing is made. Merryn goes on to describe this shift; “There has been a perception change; consumers are more exposed at a mainstream level to what ‘green’ is and not just at an artisan level; 69b supports both.”
Determining your customer base and their needs
Drawing on research for SOURCE, Tamsin Lejeune, Managing Director of EFF, pointed out that there are currently two markets in ethical and sustainable fashion:
- The established market of 30-35 year olds who are interested in sustainability who seek it for social reasons rather than design
- An emerging market of younger customers who are more trend-led and fashion-focussed
Understanding what’s most important to these customers can help develop sector growth. For example, Merryn describes 69b customers as “women, aged around 30 – 40, who want something practical and detailed. They’ve become disillusioned with the high street and high-end market. It does well in the mid-market, some of the pieces are expensive but the detail is something extra.”
Design, quality, fit and price are all essential factors, but the panel agreed that communicating the stories behind the garments had been important in adding value for their customers.
The story of the garment helps create intrinsic value
Siobhan described how her customers engage with the FAIR Shop ethical ethos; “We find a lot of people coming into the shop not necessarily looking for Fair Trade, but when you say ‘Oh, it’s Fair Trade’, it’s an added benefit; they feel good about what they’re buying. We find we have a lot of people who are interested in ethical and Fair Trade fashion who come in, but we also have a block of customers that just really like what we’re selling.”
Sharing the sustainable story behind the garments is not a one-size fits all approach. It depends largely on the customer base. At FAIR Shop, it’s quite direct. “We have photos of the working women around the shop, but we discuss the products; industrial processes, where they are from… the customers are there to buy a dress, but then they get a great story of where it comes from.”
At 69b, it’s even a bit more subversive. There are no signs or marketing gimmicks. “I believe that people have an intrinsic attraction to being good… It feels different; you can feel the quality and see the values of it.
Consumers who shop online tend to do a bit more research and are looking for something quite specific, so for e-tailer Tellus Fashion, featuring the sustainability story for its products online is crucial; “ethical consumers are more interested in the story behind the garment and they connect with it; they actively look for the ethics.”
Finding sustainable brands to stock
Deciding what brands and products work best is a challenge for any buyer. Popular sustainable brands that were discussed included Nancy Dee, a brand known for it’s trend-inspired designs, and People Tree, which is competitively priced and sells itself comparatively easily. Other highlighted brands included: White Tent, Tricotaje and Monkee Genes.
Finding sustainable brands that fit with the shop’s unique identity is paramount. Emma from Tellus Fashion explains that “the ‘green’ credentials of the brands are not the most prominent issues; the clothes and the ethos of the brand needs to fit with the Tellus direction and identity in order to be sold through the platform.”
At Danaqa, it’s more than just working with a particular brand, it’s more about choosing the right products. “A beautiful silver necklace will sell because it’s a beautiful silver necklace. The product itself will make the sale easier… Vegetarian leather sells because leather is a recognisable, established product.”
You don’t have to look far to find great ethical or sustainable brands. Pure London is now showcasing a wide range of ethical brands and more trade shows are featuring ethical brands all the time. “You just need to look and move beyond the traditional,” Danaqa’s David agrees.
David Thomas explained that for his shop, Danaqa in London’s Notting Hill neighbourhood, working in accessories is a great way to begin engaging in ethical fashion for both retailers and suppliers. “Small businesses and communities struggle with [garment] sizes. The margin for error is much higher. With accessories, it can be easier to achieve consistent product quality.”
Positive impacts for suppliers
David also explained the influence that buyers can have for small-scale producers in less developed markets; “Buyers are the first step, an entry to the market and can form an understanding of how shops work. It helps to stabilise new designers and give them a chance.”
“There are a lot of benefits to Fair Trade, for example with People Tree” explained Siobhan Wilson of FAIR Shop. “Women go from sitting in circles to doing embroidery to using proper machines. There is a wonderful change in the women. They become more confident; they not only make things for the international market but they are able to provide domestic products as well. It improves lives. For quality of the product, the makes and the fabrics are better than you can find on the high street, so it’s a win-win situation.”
Achieving sustainability, it’s all relative…
The final thoughts had one clear message. For retailers, ethical and sustainable fashion does not mean having to compromise on design or price. And for brands, saying something is ethical or sustainable is not enough, products need to stand up in design, quality and price.
Finally, shops and brands alike need to communicate their passion for ethical fashion. It’s hard to be 100% ethical or sustainable as there are often so many competing priorities, but if you create a dialogue and transparency, then you can be comfortable with what you have achieved in terms of ethical fashion business practice.