Over the summer, the local outbreak of COVID19 in Leicester highlighted a very uncomfortable truth, the English based clothing supply chain is not as sustainable as we might have hoped. The share price of fast fashion brand Boohoo took a tumble, and outrage was ferocious on social media.
Here in Cumbria, a county regarded as having clean air, breath-taking vistas and majestic mountains, several clothing-related businesses are rejecting fast fashion and concentrating instead on building sustainable brands which have certified supply chains, link to the local environment and are community-driven.
One such brand is Ascendancy Apparel created five years ago by Laurie Crayston. Originally from Frizington in West Cumbria, and now based in Kendal, Laurie aims to provide outdoor adventurers with high-quality, sustainable clothing, which is ethically produced.
As a business model, Ascendancy's route to market is a little unorthodox. Initially buying one unit at a time and hand printing his own designs - something he still does and intends to keep doing, Laurie then felt the need to head overseas and travel. Entrusting the fulfilment of his clothing orders to a printer friend, Laurie decided the way to grow his brand was to grow his Instagram community while he travelled, creating a hub of like-minded adventurers who cared about the environment and living sustainably.
"When I started about five years ago, Instagram was a different beast to what it is now," says Laurie. "There weren't any hubs, and there wasn't really any young athletic people who were shouting about the outdoors either.
"I remember a magazine editor telling me that fashion would never combine with the outdoors as 'cool' people would never want to wear it.
That thought has been turned on its head, and I think I got onto the trend right at the start and have ridden the wave."
Fast forward five years and Ascendancy Apparel celebrated its fifth birthday last month and launched three new ranges - organic cotton T's, hoodies and the company's latest range of clothing, tech T's made entirely from recycled plastic bottles. With every sale £1 is also donated to charity.
For Laurie, every supply chain partner - from manufacturers to ambassadors and the charities he supports - must fit with his ethics and values. Currently, he buys from distributors in Manchester and Scotland who only buy from manufacturers who have been certified by WRAP - Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production. WRAP only certifies individual facilities and has twelve principles on which they base their audit, including the prohibition of forced labour and child labour, hours of work and health and safety. In the new year, Laurie foresees changing this model and buying directly from the WRAP certified manufacturers. Business has been brisk for Laurie, May was his second busiest month since he launched the brand five years ago and although his supply chain shut down for a while, it is back on track.
So while the UK fashion industry has seen a decline in sales despite lockdown easing - 6.5% year-on-year for the month of June - Ascendancy Apparel appears to be bucking the trend.
For The Fibre Co, a small, luxury yarn company, founded by Daphne Marinopoulos and based in Threlkeld, near Keswick, sustainable wool sources are core to her business.
While The Fibre Co's supply chain has been heavily affected during COVID19, online sales have increased.
"Our sock yarn called 'Amble' was supposed to be released in May, but the mill in Peru was forced to close the day before they were due to send our colour samples, which meant we couldn't approve samples nor could we place a bulk order until they returned in May.
"They are still only operating at 25% capacity so we won't receive the bulk order until October. The two UK mills that we work with have similarly had to reduce their capacity to produce once they returned to work."
Normally The Fibre Co work with 8 to 12 week lead times, they now have 12 to 20 week lead time. Their autumn season order was placed in the middle of the pandemic, and the success of the autumn and winter sales (normally the high season) will depend on the mills' ability to deliver.
However, like Ascendancy Apparel, connecting with the Cumbrian environment is key to The Fibre Co brand and that has helped them build an Insta community who appreciate the stories and values behind the brand. The Fibre Co takes the use of Insta one step further and engages with partners within their supply chains, such as sharing the designs and work of independent designers and collaborators.
As we move forward and set upon a path of recovery from the impacts of COVID19, digital, and social will continue to be the drivers for change.
As clothing brands compete for discretionary spend, the need to build loyal communities will become increasingly important to help brands survive. But with that comes the need to meet consumer demands. Some consumers will care about the impacts of production on the environment; others will care about child labour or human trafficking.
Indeed, TrendWatching, a consumer trend firms, has identified GREEN PRESSURE as a trend for 2020. It predicts that more and more consumers will move from eco-status to eco-shame. This means rather than opting-in to buy sustainable products, consumers are essentially opting-out if they don't buy sustainable products which are now readily available in the market place. And with the use of social media, the concept will reach the four corners of the world.
If brands can tell the whole supply chain story through platforms like Insta and connect their followers with the entire ecosystem, consumers will be able to educate themselves on their purchasing decisions. Consumers will no doubt appreciate the transparency and reward businesses with increased brand loyalty. This more transparent storytelling will also, hopefully, lead to more sustainable clothing manufacturing practices across the global supply chain, including in England.
Originally published in In-Cumbria Aug 2020