We speak to three fledgling sustainable labels to find out the truth about sustainability in fashion today.

If you’ve paid any attention to fashion these past few years, you’ll have noticed sustainability being the newest buzzword for large brands. H&M releases sustainability reports, although you could argue that H&M’s business model is the antithesis of sustainability. Stefano Pilati recently created a fall collection that combined recycled yarns with Zegna’s usual fine fabrics, creating a high-end take on eco-friendliness. Kering released an Environmental Profit & Loss report, outlining its plans for sustainability. And while these are all positive steps, what’s it really like to build a sustainable brand?

We spoke to three brands, Fanmail, Geoffrey B Small and Le Gramme, on this matter. Fanmail creates pieces that are the cornerstone of a grown-up wardrobe; simple items that you need to offset the more standout items you have. Geoffrey B Small is a fashion stalwart, having launched his eponymous label back in 1993. Le Gramme is a jewelry brand of Adrien Messié and Erwan Le Louër, who founded it back in 2012. These labels each design vastly different genres of clothing and accessories, but the one thing connecting them is their commitment to sustainability. We spoke to these companies about the realities of running a sustainable fashion brand today — from the standpoints of marketing, sourcing, competition and much more.

Marketing & Branding

Sustainability used to be a relatively hard sell; either you got with the brand’s message or you were actively hurting the planet — no If’s, But’s or Maybe’s. For instance, Le Gramme’s co-founder, Adrien Messié, didn’t even want to communicate the eco side of the brand at the start. “We launched with eco silver because [my co-founder] used to have a brand named Jewellery Ethically Minded (JEM). So we said, ‘If we can use silver, why not eco silver?’” says Messié. “But it was not the point. The point was the design. If we could add the cherry on the top in terms of eco responsibility, then it’d be great.”

Fanmail’s Charlie Morris has a similar train of thought. “If you focus on creating a perfect t-shirt that happens to be made with integrity and sustainable materials, there’s a way in which customers feel something a little extra every time they wear it. The bond has to start with the garment and then that deepens with the story of what it was made from and how it got to you.”

Geoffrey B Small, who sells his clothes exclusively at Hostem, says that “99% of what you might call ‘consumers’ are clueless about what is going on around them and what is being done to them.” He goes on to say that consumers reject the idea of being part of the problem, although noting that his main concern is to “to build a real working [business] model that can succeed and provide direction to others.”

Sourcing Materials & Manufacturers

Le Gramme ran up against problems that made the founders  decide against using certain materials. “Eco silver has limitations,” says Adrien Messié. “The brand is built around being very sleek and minimal, and the results of the silver treatment wasn’t what we wanted. We were forced to say that, if eco silver doesn’t work, then we won’t use it.” For Fanmail, the issues were different. “I think [my challenges] are  pretty similar to the challenges any new brand faces, sustainable or not. One is finding high-quality sustainable textiles at reasonable prices and low minimums. Another is communicating effectively with suppliers about specifications that may be different from more conventional apparel manufacturers.”

Another challenge is finding out the best factories to source sustainable fabrics. Morris notes that “There aren’t really any showrooms or brick-and-mortar places that I’m aware of, but increasingly there are websites like Le Souk developing supplier databases for sustainable materials.” He recently joined the Brooklyn Fashion & Design Accelerator, an ethical fashion and design business incubator working with the Pratt Institute. Small says that “If you want to create the best clothes in the world today, Italy is the only place to be. Over time, that can be changed. But, for now, that is the reality of the state of the art.”

Small says, “The long-term goal is zero kilometers (distance between factory and store). Decentralizing and localization of all facets of the creation and delivery process is possible. There are competent artists, tailors, weavers, spinners and dyers in every community at the local level worldwide. But it requires an immense revolution in education and development of human skills and knowledge as well as a communication and teaching system that can efficiently and effectively distribute the know-how to a large worldwide network of practitioners. This is the way humanity clothed itself for millennia, but the industrial revolution has led us away from this sustainable self-reliant process.”

Competing with Big Players

While there’s no shortage of reasons to start a sustainable brand, there’re bound to be challenges. Small notes that the biggest challenge is “living in a completely unsustainable system of behavior [with standard manufacturing practices] in a world now dominated by a small group of people with unprecedented control over resources. [They] keep the majority of their fellow human beings completely in the dark about what they are up to and where it is leading them.”

There’s also a bigger challenge, one every independent brand faces, and that’s competing with fast fashion and informing the consumer. Fast fashion brands have got on board with sustainability, but do these designers see their actions as just lip service? “Companies like H&M have the potential to greatly influence how people consume products or perceive ideas in the marketplace. By their sheer purchasing power they can also push an entire industry of suppliers to change” says Morris. “At the same time, though, fast fashion clothing has such a short timeframe of use before its planned obsolescence kicks in.” Small is even more forthright on the issue. “Lip service is an understatement. They are outright, blatant, lies. The fundamental business model and concept of fast fashion is an antithesis to ecological sustainability, and human health and safety, on a vast scale.” In his opinion, for fast fashion brands to actually become sustainable, they’d need to “end their operations and completely reinvent their core business missions and organisations.”

Growth

The most important question for any brand is growth. Just about everyone you see receiving awards with cash prizes, venture capital backers or investors, is being offered [them] because of their potential for growth. So, is sustainability scaleable? “Let’s hope so,” says Morris. “I think it’s important to treat what you’re doing like any other type of business, while also making sure that you don’t compromise core philosophies. We’re pacing ourselves – it’s about the long game for Fanmail.”

Small concurs “Absolutely. We have been so doing (growing) every day for at least the past decade and our dramatic results are being recognized all over the world by management school programs. In a truly free market capitalist system with free and fair competition mechanisms — as Adam Smith would define it — sustainability approaches are actually more efficient than non-sustainable ones.” Small goes on to note that the form of capitalism that exists now is essentially one that’s been “rigged by leaders of the global financial industry” and that they’re allowed to change the rules to support themselves.

But, perhaps this existing infrastructure of unsustainable production is precisely what gives small sustainable brands room to grow. Morris agrees: “The timing felt right. It seemed strange to me that there wasn’t a men’s wardrobe essentials brand with a core commitment to transparent manufacturing and sustainable materials, especially given an increasing interest in a similar mentality with the farm-to-table movement in cuisine.”

Conclusion

A slightly cynical point that pops up in regards to sustainable clothing is the idea that having a brand of any kind involves some use of the earth’s resources. Will there always be some kind of concession to the ways of the world? Morris says “Making new things inherently creates more waste and has a greater footprint than, say, reworking vintage or not buying anything at all. Fanmail is mindful of that, which is why, in addition to considering the impact of our products, we also try to make the best choices we can in regards to packaging materials or shipping practices.”

While there are universal and unique challenges when it comes to creating and running a sustainable brand, Fanmail, Geoffrey B Small and Le Gramme show that it is possible to run a successful sustainable business today. As Small says, “sustainability is fundamentally efficient. And it is fundamentally profitable. It is the actions taken by the existing system that create the impression that it is not possible to be efficient and sustainable at the same time.”

Words by Jason Dike
Editor-at-large
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