Cambridge Judge alumni talk about challenges and opportunities in creating fashion that is sustainable and environmentally friendly.
With Fashion Week events in full swing in the US and Europe this month, some may find it difficult to resist the temptation of buying new apparel. The fashion industry is constantly reminding us to purchase and consume more, but as a result of this more and more clothes end up in the landfill. According to a recent report, the textile, clothing, leather and footwear sector is among the most polluting industries in the world, as it requires huge resources of water and land.
But as consumers become more conscious, fashion companies are now trying to accommodate their needs by introducing more ethical and sustainable initiatives. We caught up with few Cambridge Judge Business School alumni working in sustainable fashion.
Lara Miller, a Cambridge MBA alumna (MBA 2014), co-founded AmaElla in 2016. The venture designs and produces beautiful lingerie made from certified Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) materials, such as cotton and bamboo, which are ethically manufactured.
Lara has experience in digital marketing and fast moving consumer goods. The idea for the social venture came up when brainstorming for a L’Oreal competition during her studies in Madrid. With co-founder Julie Kervadec, they were discussing ideas and realised they shared similar values and decided to start a social business together.
“Our social venture is a response to the growing demand for less abusive practices and a more sustainable and socially responsible fashion industry,” Lara says. In 2016 Lara came back to Cambridge Judge and joined the Cambridge Social Ventures programme run by the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation.
What are the challenges in ethical lingerie business today?
Lara: “I think the two main challenges are brand awareness and sourcing. As a fashion startup, competing against big brand labels with large marketing budgets to make yourself known is not easy. We focus a lot on digital media and influencers, who genuinely believe in our beliefs to increase our brand awareness.
“Additionally, given our high sustainable and ethical standards the sourcing process is more complex. Access to suppliers is limited, and complying with minimum order quantities is a challenge. Although we don’t produce big volumes, we are building a long-term relationship with our manufacturer.”
Karine Assaf, alumna of the Postgraduate Diploma in Entrepreneurship (PGDE 2016) at the Cambridge Judge Entrepreneurship Centre, creates luxury accessories such as scarves and bow ties. With a background in engineering and management consultancy, Karine says she’s an artist by passion and has been drawing since she was five years old. While working on an organic waste optimisation project during her PGDE studies, Karine came up with an idea to create paint from a combination of wasted fruits and vegetables and organic earth pigments. She says her inspiration comes from numerous travels and backpacking trips, and her main artistic influences are a combination of Japanese modern art (manga) with historical painting techniques used by ancient masters such as Da Vinci and Botticelli.
Why it’s important to have ethical fashion ventures today?
“Clothing is a vital human need, and fashion is the expression of a lifestyle. Although we can see that throwaway low-cost fast fashion is still dominating, consumers’ trends for the next five years are showing an important increase in search of value, long-lasting products, a rise of social responsibility, and a chemical backlash.
“I think ethical fashion ventures are important because of: the rising cost of diminishing resources; a rising concern for the planet; a growing middle market searching for value; a lack of ‘desirability’ in eco-fashion; and increasing prices in the most sustainable alternative market – high luxury.
Cambridge Executive MBA alumna Rina Einy (EMBA 2014) recently launched a new outerwear fashion venture for women. Culthread offers coats that are free from any animal-derived products such as fur, wool, silk or leather. Rina says the coats are made by hand from materials like British waxed fabric, printed lining and faux fur. Culthread’s coats have padding made from 100 per cent recycled plastic, and each item includes zip-down sleeves and buckle-up collars.
“My background in professional sport, investment banking and managing a family business has meant that I’ve experienced several challenging workplace cultures and environments for women,” Rina says. “I decided to shape a brand whose very concept is to empower women – one that is created, owned and run by women, for women.”
What needs to happen so people would have sustainable fashion as their first choice?
Rina’s advice is that when buying anything new, we should ask: “‘Do I really need this? Will I wear it more than 30 times?’ If not, don’t buy it!”
Oliver Adkins (PGDE 2015) co-founded Churchill Gowns in 2017, as he wanted to offer an affordable alternative to existing academic dress suppliers and, at the same time, focus on the core principles of ethical manufacturing, environmental sustainability and social responsibility.
Churchill Gowns provides eco-friendly, high-quality graduation regalia directly to UK students. He says the gowns are up to 80 per cent cheaper than traditional suppliers, and are made out of recycled plastic. “We aim to create something practical out of waste which would otherwise have ended up in landfill or polluting the ocean. The plastic waste is broken down, woven into a soft polyester and made into gowns which are indistinguishable from those sold by other suppliers.”
Oliver says the venture donates 10 per cent of profits to environmental and educational causes. In 2018, the startup was supported by the Cambridge Social Ventures programme, run by the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation.
Do you think ventures like Churchill Gowns will help to reduce plastic waste?
Oliver: “So far we have repurposed the equivalent of 53,000 plastic bottles by turning them into gowns. And this is just one example of what can be done with recycled plastics. It is our hope that, by making people more cognisant of plastic waste, we will have a long-term impact on their decision making and they will be more aware of purchasing sustainable products. Also, being part of a movement of more sustainable startup businesses, we hope to encourage larger corporates to reassess their environmental impact and make more ethical choices.”