Members of the Boodle Hatfield Luxury Assets team recently sat down with Katie Walsh, founder of THE RE-PETE PROJECT to discuss environmental practices in the fashion industry and the increased scrutiny of brands who claim to be sustainable.
One of the fastest growing trends in the last decade has been the growth of the 'green' or 'eco-friendly' company. This is clearly great news if the company is true to its claims and genuinely driven by environmental concerns, but many companies provide false or misleading information about how their products are environmentally friendly.
The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is turning their attention to this problem, and has published draft guidance on deceptive environmental claims.
The final guidance is expected to be published in September 2021, and will set out guidelines for businesses to follow.
THE RE-PETE PROJECT creates anoraks with 29 recycled bottles per coat. Each coat is 100% recycled and 100% recyclable. As the founder of a truly environmentally conscious brand, we were interested to hear Katie's views on the guidance, and the changes she has seen in the industry over the course of her career.
How did you develop an interest in a career in the fashion industry?
As a kid I always loved art and dressing up. As soon as I found out that you could have a career as a fashion designer that's what I wanted to do. I went to university in London at Kingston University and got a placement with Alexander McQueen. Being there taught me how hard you need to work to run a fashion label, the organisational skills you need working with teams of creatives, it developed my pattern cutting skills and knowing the techniques to finishing garments to the highest quality was really useful.
What were you doing at McQueen?
Pattern cutting, embellishment design, show piece construction and managing studio interns. I was there for fittings, working alongside Lee McQueen, and being a part of a huge team. I always wanted to set up my own label but I was very pleased I did McQueen beforehand. I have worked for myself pretty much ever since.
We saw in the press that Kate Moss wore your designs after you launched your own label
Yes – it was very exciting. It just took off. We were just designing and making these small collections in the dining room of a house we shared and by the second season we were in Vogue with these amazing women wearing our clothes and liking what we were doing.
What's the biggest difference in the industry's approach between then and now?
There have been huge changes. There is no way you could have launched a label with just one piece back then. Our collections were seasonal; they would include at least 20 looks and up to 100 pieces.
What was it that made you want to focus on sustainability?
I always thought I was environmentally conscientious, using natural fabrics and visiting the factories that I used that were small and family run. You thought that was enough at the time, but the more I looked into it the more shocked I was that that wasn’t the case. Even using organic cotton, there is a huge amount of water used. And I used to use rayon, but the chemicals that are used to break down the wood to make it are so toxic to rivers and wildlife.
I wanted to do something that had a positive impact on the environment and I wasn't sure what that would look like. I looked at what was out there, and at the time I remember seeing posters that said "by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish" and I thought "is there something I can do about that?"
I researched more and found out about the circular economy. It felt like a real answer. It's fine to say "I won't buy new clothes" - but is that feasible? People need things, and the thought that you can design out of waste instead of it going into landfill (or our oceans - with plastic), I thought that was amazing.
The process took a long time. I had meetings with suppliers to make sure we were on the same page. You need to ask questions: where is it made, where do they source their materials from (in my case recycled bottles), have they tested how much microplastics are released in washes, are their staff paid properly, how much CO2 does the company release, what do they do to offset it…? I don’t use swing tags, labels etc on my anoraks to keep waste to a minimum but I did research into the little packaging I do use too. You would think degradable plastic with 'eco-friendly' labelling would be good, but it leaves toxins in the soil so you need to dig deeper and find non-toxic biodegradable packaging.
You need to dig deep at every level, really, and step around the process and product. It is possible! It just takes time, but you can create a product that has a positive impact.
There are plenty of supplier options half way across the world, but it is also important to me that everything is local to reduce carbon admissions. My anoraks are only available locally to the UK and EU so they won't be flown half way across the world. Yes it decreases my customer base, but the reason why I’ve created THE RE-PETE PROJECT is to preserve the planet not to monopolise on it. It’s about the bigger picture.
That must be very rewarding?
Yes - and this may be a slow burner but I am ok with that. This is my starting point. Different people have skill sets in different things; you can put those into action. My skill set is fashion design so I just thought, "what can I do with that?"
Its eco not ego. Before it was all about your creation, whereas now there is a bigger picture about how best you can preserve the planet.
There are people using recycled plastic fabrics which are made from virgin bottles. For me, my company was built around sustainability from the start. It is great if companies want to make changes, but often it is just putting a bandage on rather than making real progress.
What do you think about the CMA's consultation on greenwashing? Do you think it will shake up parts of the industry?
Definitely, I think it will worry fast fashion brands and there may be some pushback, but it's a great initiative and it needs to happen. Hopefully the guidance will be stringent enough to make a difference, rather than a slap on the wrist.
I do think that prices will rise as a result of improvements in working conditions and environmental practice; proper pay and practice isn’t cheap! It's inevitable and it's also necessary.
When I was a student, the industry worked at a slower pace and that's something that needs to come back. Initially there were two collections a year, then there were pre-collections, cruise collections - the focus is on output not on creativity. Right now it's out of control and nobody benefits.
I see a movement towards consumers spending more on a piece that lasts them for years, rather than a bag of clothes that they throw away after a year. That's always been a part of my ethos. When I was a student I would save money at Christmas to spend on one designer piece in the sales. I remember one year saving to buy a Comme des Garçons jacket, for example, that I still have and wear 18 years later.
It's clear from your work at the RE-PETE PROJECT that you are engaging with every stage of your supply chain (designers, mills, factories). Do you think other brands can do more supply chain due diligence nowadays?
Yes and, hopefully, with the CMA guidelines there will be more of an onus on them to do that.
In the past, a lot of products were made in Bangladesh and some companies, like Zara, don’t actually produce anything; they just buy it in. I hope that in the future it will be compulsory for companies to engage with best practice in their supply chains. It's important to visit factories, look into the impact of your fabrics and consider whether they are sustainable or environmentally friendly.
Again, action is needed from the top and a slap on the wrist alone isn’t going to do anything to change the industry.
Do you see a future in bricks and mortar for fashion businesses and do you have any plans to sell 'offline'?
Yes definitely and it would be great to have my own store. Right now, with my fabric costs, it wouldn’t be sustainable economically to set up a bricks and mortar shop. It would mean charging a lot more for my products to cover rent and overheads.
Down the line, it would be nice to have a space where I could showcase my designs and those of other environmentally friendly designers and brands too. I do think that with recycled, sustainable garments it can be important for people to see the products in person to understand that they aren't giving up the high quality they expect just because something is produced from plastic.
The draft CMA Guidance can be found here. The final guidance is set to be published by the end of September 2021.
You can read more about ethical sourcing in luxury goods here.