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Sustainability begins small

Whilst large businesses and corporations struggle to really crack the issues around their Sustainability policies, small independent brands are showing them the way it should be done.

Over the past few months I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to talk to a wide variety of brand owners and designers across India and the Middle East about how they are incorporating Sustainability into their products and services. And it’s been a real eye-opener!

Many of the smaller brands have already adopted some fabulous sustainable initiatives into their ways of working. Not because an investor requires that in order to fund their business – most are self-funded anyway – and not because they have to develop a formal ESG report (yet). But because they know and feel that it is just the right thing to do. For them, there was no other choice that had to be made, it is their passion, and this fundamental belief cascades through every element of their business. Their ‘ESG’ reporting is in everything that they do, not just in what they say they will do.

For example, Kettro, an independent luxury chocolate brand in Mumbai, supports partially sighted and blind students to find work within the retail sector, and have even recently launched new packaging that includes braille to help them – and of course their visually impaired consumers appreciate it too.

I talked to another designer entrepreneur last week who had developed a system of creating fashion samples using technology that was 80% approved on first sample – that’s a huge reduction on the highly wasteful process used by many brands. But the real disappointment was that when he left that company they reverted to the old way of doing things highlighting the need to embed best practice and sustainability within a business, not just leave it to a passionate individual.

And I’ve been inspired by many other designers who are regularly using scraps and offcuts of fabrics, or recycling old traditional clothing, because it has a creative challenge that is exciting, as well as avoiding waste of perfectly good materials and items going to landfill. As a result, they are creating strong international presence by delivering interesting clothing with a sustainable heart and interesting back story. A good example of that is Advani London which has a growing celebrity customer base who are looking for something different that also meets their own values. Well worth a look!

So it seems that Sustainability is being driven by small businesses, not the larger groups.

If we examine the flip side, the larger brands and retailers I’ve talked to are sadly lagging behind. They are afraid or simply unwilling to make a change. It is too difficult, too complex, too costly, and too disruptive. They are waiting for the consumer to tell them that they will not buy unless they incorporate greater sustainability.

And they are happy to use a PR driven approach that captures the headlines briefly, and allows them to carry on unchanged with many other unsustainable practices. This is called ‘Greenlighting’ and is a very common form of greenwashing, particularly in the Luxury sector that I closely watch. Think about the single bag using mushroom derived leather, or a pair or sneakers using ocean plastic. I’m sure you can think of even more examples – list them in the comments below.

So, it seems that Sustainability will be driven by the independent and niche brands for a few years yet. Just as one of my contributors said, it’s like veganism. That was a small movement until the consumers decided they wanted more of it. Then the large companies discovered that they needed to get in on the act’ or risk missing out on a rapidly growing market, and now we have multiple offerings of vegan-friendly products.

At some point, the bigger brands will wake up to the fact that Sustainability isn’t just the right thing to do, but is a source of greater profits and market share that has a direct and positive impact on their bottom line.

Until then, independent brands around the world – keep doing the amazing things you are doing!

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