Sustainability is on all our minds, a lot of politicians’ lips and a lot of businesses’ marketing strategies. But what if being green was a central tenet of a brand, rather than a piece meal afterthought?
Thanks to social media, brand transparency has never been greater and small businesses are able to engage with their customers better than ever before.
A new ecosystem of brands has emerged, run by entrepreneurs who are rooted in the communities their products are aimed at. They combine design led by urban lifestyle, with the sustainability they know is important to their customers.
Blending boldness with practicality
Ali Namdari founded his company, Labo Mono, following feelings of frustration that there wasn’t a practical jacket that suited his London lifestyle; a weather resistant garment that he could wear to meet a client, get the tube, and cycle to work - which was also bright and stylish.
“All the practical and technical jackets were designed for the mountains, the great outdoors were really activity specific and all really looked dull and grey,” Namdari explains.
“I decided to do something. What if there was a jacket that would look quite fashionable and be quite bold but would have all those technical features that was designed for the city?”
En route to developing his product, Namdari came across a recycled polyester fabric at a Paris trade show. The textile was made from water bottles which had been shredded into small pellets and then turned into polyester yarn. This process has the added benefits of using less water and less electricity.
“I was like ‘Woah! I could use something like this to make my jacket even more sustainable!’ It was a great discovery for me.”
After finding the recycled fabric Namdari also sourced Bionic Finish Eco, a biodegradable waterproofing agent, which serves as an alternative to the pervasive chemical compound, PFC. He reduces plastic waste by wrapping goods in fabric to be exported, which is then later reused.
Environmental concerns are often painted as red tape, stifling creativity and innovation, but Namdari disagrees, saying that this leads him to be more creative in producing durable, versatile garments.
“I think it’s actually fun to have constraints and try to build the best product possible and also doing the least harm possible,” he explains.
“A great thing about being an independent entrepreneur is that I’m the only one that makes these choices; there are no other investors pushing me for profits. I can just take my time, design my product.”
Identifying a niche
Much like Namdari, Jacqui Ma developed her products in response to a gap in the market.
While on maternity leave, living above a bike shop in Hackney, Ma noticed a dearth of well-designed cycling accessories and set to work setting up her company, Good Ordering.
“All the bike bags that were available were quite big and black and manly and sack-like and not really that much fun,” says Ma.
“The idea behind Good Ordering was to inspire people in cities like Manchester and London. We want to have fun and personality, but also aim at women and families.”
Developing her knowledge of her audience through face-to-face sales at Broadway Market in East London, Ma was able to engage with her customers and understand what is important to them.
“Co-design is something I really like,” she explains, “I see how people use my bags. The community is like a small window into the rest of the world. The more that I’m plugged into the community the more I’ll get that feedback.”
The bags are made with 30 per cent recycled polyester and all Ma’s new products will be made from this material. She is also clear about how sustainability, although it is a balancing act, is improved by brand transparency and customer engagement.
“All consumers want to know much more about the brand, everything behind it, what they stand for, what their philosophies are. We’ve been exposed to too much and there are too many horrible stories about labour, factories and…the environment.
“I’m not going to claim my bags are 100% amazing, but it will last you a long time and the majority of the materials and the philosophy behind the brand is sustainable.”
Like Namdari, Ma is clear she wants to remain an independent business as it reaps its own rewards.
“I think once you focus too much on the bottom line you get distracted and make decisions which aren’t the right decisions. If you can be more in touch with the community, you’ll get massive benefits.”
Sustainability needs to be a passion
Manchester-based Emma Loughridge also designs community-inspired products. Her handmade bucket hats are a twist on the classic Manchester icon, and reflect the creative community she comes from. She came up with the idea for her company, Lid, after a serendipitous meeting on the street.
“I’ve just thrown myself into the creative culture of Manchester,” Loughridge explains. “All the people I’m friends with now are all young entrepreneurs…we all bounce off each other and be creative.
“One day I saw someone in a bucket hat, and I said that’s really nice where did you get that from, and he said ‘I made it!’”
Inspired by menswear designers like Carhartt and the dreamy qualities of Molly Goddard, Loughridge places sustainability front and centre of her work. As well as reusing all their scrap fabric as labels, Lid creates products from sustainable wool, linen and upcycled materials sourced from charity shops.
After learning from previous employers, Loughridge is passionate about ensuring sustainability at Lid is about more than just marketing.
“There was a place I worked where they talked about being sustainable quite a lot but…they didn’t even have basic recycling in the office,” she says. “People use sustainability as a marketing tool and not really as a passion.”
“It’s just how the world needs to work isn’t it? It’s just great to be green.
“For the next collection I want everything to be completely upcycled. I need to learn about making the most out of a pair of jeans, making sure I can get more than one hat out of that otherwise it’s putting more scraps to waste.”
The future of brands and sustainability, for Loughridge, is obvious but there is still an issue with cost. She maintains, like both Namdari and Ma, that community-inspired design and independent business are the way forward for sustainable fashion.
“To be honest there’s no point in a brand starting up now without a sustainable element because it’s not just a trend it just has to happen.”
That all these designers are connected to the people they create for is emblematic of a new kind of democratic design: born of an understanding of contemporary urban lifestyle, intricately woven with customer feedback and driven by desire for sustainable goods.