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Emerging Labels Shore up the UK’s Sustainable Future

Fashion holds a mirror up to society, reflecting back at us what is going on in economic, cultural, social and environmental terms. In light of the recent UN report on climate change, it is no surprise that people are finally taking sustainable fashion seriously.

Broadly, sustainable fashion is choosing clothes that are kinder to the environment—after oil, the fashion industry is considered the second-largest global polluter—and to the people involved in the production process.

In many ways, sustainable wardrobes are the antithesis of fast-fashion. It is about switching our shopping habits from buying a new, cheap dress for every night out—one which we may well bin after a couple of wears—for something well-made and long-lasting.

Britain has been one of the biggest culprits when it comes to disposable fashion. World-renowned high street has long been filled with brands flogging suspiciously cheap clothes, such as Primark and Claire’s Accessories. This high street culture encouraged people to buy items that cost less than the price of lunch.

However, it seems the U.K. is finally shifting its shopping habits to fit in line with the rest of Europe, where citizens statistically buy fewer clothes but spend more on each item.

The sustainable fashion industry’s growing confidence in the U.K. is illustrated by the arrival of a number of new brands on the market. One of them is Allbirds—a sustainable footwear brand from San Francisco launching in London’s Covent Garden. The 1,600-square-foot store will house the brand’s eco-friendly trainers and casual shoes made from environmentally friendly materials.

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The London store will mark the California-based brand’s third brick and mortar venture, adding to its retail locations in New York and San Francisco and illustrating how the U.K. has become one of the biggest markets for sustainable fashion outside the U.S.

Then there is Stella McCartney. After studying spiders’ DNA and their webs, Bolt Threads—the company with which her brand has partnered—developed similar proteins that are injected into yeast and sugar and then fermented. The resulting liquid silk is turned into a fiber through a wet-spinning process that creates strands that then can be knitted into fabric.

“You can’t ask a consumer to compromise,” McCartney said. “I don’t think you can say, ‘Here is this jacket that looks terrible but it’s organic, and here is a really beautiful jacket that’s cheaper but don’t buy it because it’s not organic.’ My job is to create beautiful luxurious things. I love that people come into the store and don’t even know that something is organic or in faux leather. That’s the biggest challenge, having people not notice.”

McCartney was, for so long, a lone advocate of sustainable fashion in London. But now she has company, as sustainability finally becomes a business opportunity. Brands such as Thought, Finisterre and People’s Tree are being sold in the country’s top department stores and use only organic cotton, which is grown without the use of harsh pesticides and fertilizers.

Clothes in Britain often follow standards by Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS); the Soil Association, the U.K.’s certification body; or Oeko-Tex, which checks processes for harmful chemicals to ensure the fabric has come from approved sources.

And then there is the human factor—sourcing increasingly is coming under scrutiny in the U.K., with many major brands launching campaigns against modern slavery, raising awareness and posting links on their websites. Birdsong is a British label whose clothing is made by women’s organizations, including knitwear garments made by migrant seamstresses at a factory in London. Their clothes are traceable: The name of the woman who made the garment is on the label.

While all of this is undoubtedly beneficial for the environment—which, arguably, is the most pressing concern of our time—and for garment workers, it is unlikely to catch on across the U.K. until it makes commercial sense. In early 2018, 73 percent of U.K. millennials said they would spend more on sustainable products—and yet statistics show price and convenience are still more persuasive. However, that is arguably due to the lack of affordable, fashion-conscious sustainable brands on the market. A survey by Mintel showed 44 percent of younger millennials—the 17-26 age—said they would like to see more eco-friendly fabrics used in clothes, compared to 34 percent of Generation X and 30 percent of baby boomers.

Equally compelling is the background of sustainable brands. And as it becomes more fashionable to tell the story behind our clothes on social media, the brands with an eco-conscious provenance finally will move into the spotlight.