In the past two decades, sustainability considerations have become part of our lives. More and more consumers have become environment-conscious ethical shoppers and now you also wonder what are the conditions for launching a sustainable brand.
First, the good news is that a sustainable business model can be hugely profitable and if well-planned and organized it can actually save money.
Also, the overall process of launching a sustainable brand is exactly the same as starting any brand as it involves defining your UVP and your target audience, organizing and pricing your collection, establishing a distribution model, creating brand identity and organizing your supply chain.
Therefore, in this article we focus on sharing with you our tips and best practices on how to make sure that you cover all of these steps, but in an eco-friendly and sustainable manner.
Sustainable or ethical?
For many consumers, sustainable and ethical are both interchangeable notions, but in fact they’re two different things.
When we say sustainable, we refer to the impact our actions have on the environment. A sustainable brand is a brand that generates the least possible pollution, has the lowest carbon footprint and uses natural resources, like animal skins or natural yarns, in the most considerate way possible.
Whereas ethical, refers to the health and well-being of people and animals involved in the production process.
In short, your brand can be sustainable but not ethical or ethical but not sustainable, depending on the choices you will make along the creative, manufacturing and distribution processes.
If starting/launching a sustainable brand is your ultimate objective, you must place sustainability at the core of your brand’s values, philosophy and identity.
Indeed, when you consider gas emissions, raw materials, packaging and transportation, you will have to make tough decisions and prioritize your battles.
Finally, your customers will expect from you a clear outline of your mission, views and beliefs so as to make informed choices. There are therefore two additional values you cannot afford to neglect: transparency and honesty.
Sustainability – principles to apply across your whole business.
Creating an eco-friendly brand is not an easy task.
It involves looking into every part of your business and making better eco-friendly choices. Your considerations should start with the way you light your office, the way you ship your goods and receive your supplies, the way you manage the waste created in the production process, the quantity of plastic you use for packaging or the transportation you select for your deliveries.
Caring and ever-more knowledgeable customers are expecting brands to be sustainable, across all their activities and do not shy away from exposing greenwashing imposters and/or culprits.
Even if it is impossible for you to fulfill all sustainability requirements, simply choose a few, the ones you truly care about and feel confident that you can implement in your business. Also, don’t hesitate to proudly share your progress with your customers. Truth and transparency are key, as you might recall.
Simple steps to make sure that you are launching a sustainable brand
• Raw materials
Being sustainable or ethical no longer has to mean sacrificing your aesthetics.
There are sustainable fabrics and raw materials, man-made, that can replace traditional ones, so even small-scale businesses can afford small improvements without having to spend a fortune.
In terms of sourcing your raw materials or yarns, the easiest way is to make sure you choose certified products.
There is a growing number of independent organizations around the world that monitor supply chains so you may easily choose to collaborate with an already certified supplier or mill (next month, we will share with you the information on sustainability standards and certifications – stay tuned and register to our newsletter if you don’t want to miss it! ).
By using certified suppliers, you obtain a guarantee of origin and usually of traceability as well. Also, as all the information of certification requirements is widely available on the net, you will be free to share it with your customers.
There are several different certifications available, each covering different aspects of sustainability; for instance, the most popular GOTS (The Global Organic Textiles Standard) covers all aspects of product sourcing and manufacturing processes with a special focus on the origins of fibers (organic or non-organic), whereas Fair Trade focuses more on ethical issues and labor rights.
When organizing your supply chain, you need to focus on making knowledgeable choices. For instance, if you choose organic rather than standard cotton, you will contribute to diminishing global water stress (standard cotton needs huge amounts of water for irrigation) and the use of harmful pesticides (widely used to enhance the growth of standard cotton but forbidden in organic farming).
Similar choices can be applied to polyester. Being a sustainable brand, you do not need to exclude polyester but you may want to opt for a recycled one instead. Recycled fabrics are available for a whole range of uses from swimwear to sportswear to stretch fabrics or cosy sweaters. They are comparable in terms of costs and quality to standard ones, and available at small minimums, which can be very attractive for a new brand.
One of the first sustainable steps when you are launching a sustainable brand is rethinking and limiting the amount of packaging used.
Not only is using less packaging better for the environment, but smaller demand means smaller needs: the whole operation becomes cost efficient.
It’s true that packaging is part of brand image and branding so if you cannot afford (for positioning and strategic needs) to discard it entirely – like LUSH successfully did, for example – you may still consider recycling the packaging you do use by collecting it and sending it off for recycling or by reusing things that you already have.
Plastic garment bags that are used for transportation or plastic hangers can last forever, you do not need to replenish them with each delivery.
The same considerations can apply to shipping your products. Do you need to wrap your items in a plastic bag and then put them in an envelope? Maybe a single envelope is enough? Does it need to be an envelope with bubble wrap, or could you use a regular envelope? Clothes are not breakable, so there is no need for multiple layers.
However, if you are worried about your customers’ reaction, do not hesitate to communicate with them. In most cases, they will be happy to receive their order in good condition, avoid opening multiple layers of packaging and later having to dispose of voluminous waste. And I am sure they will also appreciate your conscious effort of limiting waste to save the planet!
The choice of a transportation method is one of the essential contributions that you can make while launching a sustainable brand.
Transportation is indeed a significant source of air pollution. It’s responsible for a large part of gas emissions in the world and therefore for global warming. It’s also noisy, causes damage to marine and air ecosystems and has a harmful impact on natural spaces.
Therefore, whatever step you take to limit the number of deliveries or opting for “greener” transportation, privileging trains over cars or ships over planes, you will get closer to meeting sustainable brand goals.
The choice of less-polluting transportation means will diminish the brand’s carbon footprint. Solutions as simple as sharing sea cargo, planning ahead of manufacturing and not committing to overnight delivery will be the first efficient steps on this path.
If you want to go further, a brand can calculate its carbon footprint and offset it by participating in various programs such as replanting forests or contributing to shared urban gardens.
• Office – limit your use of paper and optimize lighting
One of the principles of launching a sustainable brand is limiting the negative impact on the planet. One of the best ways to help is limiting the number of documents you print.
The sales reports or the weekly updates can be read on screen, customers can receive their invoices by email, they can read your e-newsletters and your business cards or other stationary items can be printed on recycled paper.
The same principle can be applied to the way you light your offices or atelier. Timers and movement detectors will help reduce the amount of electricity used and if you opt for LED bulbs, after initial investments, the system becomes cost-efficient.
• Visiting and respecting your suppliers
Living in developed countries where workers are protected by labor rights and unions, it is quitehard to imagine that – in the garment industry – over 25 million people worldwide are considered to work in slavery conditions (UN Sustainable development Goals/ UK Labor Slavery Act 2015).
Fair pay for labor and safe work environments are part of basic human rights so as part of your sustainability brand objectives, if you can, try to visit your manufacturers and suppliers and see for yourself what labor conditions, working hours and pay they truly offer.
If you cannot afford to visit them, do know there are independent agencies who can visit your suppliers on your behalf.
To Sum up
Launching a sustainable brand is a vast and exciting project. Not only will you create a profitable business model, but you will do so while respecting both people and the planet and saving natural resources for our future generations.
Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible for big and old brands to be 100 % sustainable as the sourcing and manufacturing processes are often too complex to be fully monitored, but launching a sustainable brand, small and from scratch, is entirely possible.
You will need to rethink your business model and confront your ideas with the sustainable business principles we discussed above!
Special thanks to Anna Bidard, Corporate Social Responsibility and merchandising expert, for providing interesting insights for the writing of this article!