The Highsnobiety Better Earth Manual is a guide for style enthusiasts in the age of ecological crisis — a crisis caused in part by the fashion itself. Here, you’ll find a growing set of resources about conscious consumption and the pioneers who are making change in our industry.
Fashion’s supply chain is a maze of smoke and mirrors. It’s the result of decades of outsourcing, where the dirty work of making clothes is done by suppliers and manufacturers who have very little connection to the actual brands designing it all. It’s a mess, and it makes it almost impossible to measure the industry’s real environmental impact, deter the rampant greenwashing, or stop the seemingly never-ending human rights abuses in the supply chain.
For the activists, journalists, and campaigners focusing on sustainability, it’s not easy to look on the bright side — that’ll happen when your professional life is focused on the never-ending ways we abuse the planet and each other for the sake of cool new stuff. Bar a few notable exceptions, so much of the industry is happy to look at sustainability as a topic for their marketing teams (ones that gladly shout about a new “eco-conscious” capsule and “earth-positive” commitments, whatever they're supposed to mean) rather than an existential crisis for fashion itself.
One of those notable exceptions is RÆBURN, the London label founded by Christopher Raeburn, who was turning unused life rafts into fashion years before upcycling was even a thing. His brand has been working on the periphery of the industry for over a decade, practicing a way of working that’s less concerned about endless growth, but instead dedicated to kick-starting broader change.
Brands the size of RÆBURN might not have much leverage over the way fashion works, but they can use their underdog influence and agility to drive the conversation forward and raise awareness for the important issues in the industry. For RÆBURN, that means giving guided tours around its Hackney studio, showing the public how it makes its upcycled creations, then donating the money raised to local charities. The brand recently opened a fabric shop and sells unused fabric to local designers at cost price. On Black Friday last year, it opened up its studio to offer free repairs and alterations for garments of any brand, and did the same during 2019’s climate protests, giving out free refreshments and phone-charging stations to anyone fighting for climate justice. It also loaned sewing machines to anyone who wanted one during London’s first lockdown and helped to raise over £1 million for British charities as part of a fundraising initiative selling face masks.
But Raeburn is also the creative director of Timberland, a corporate giant that turns billions in revenue, has an enormous environmental impact, and equally massive resources to use in impact reduction. His job at Timberland gives him access to technologies and innovations that smaller brands could only dream of, and perhaps because of this, he’s more positive about the future of the industry, pointing to the next 10 years as pivotal because new technologies and ways of working will reach tipping point.
I caught up with Christopher over a few Zoom calls, to get his thoughts on the future of the industry, and what other independent brands could learn from his decade of pushing boundaries in the industry.
So, first things first. What are you guys up to on Earth Day?
If I take a step back to a year ago, during the first lockdown here in the UK, we used Earth Day to take some time out, just looking at how we were going to plan for a more positive future for our own business.
Obviously, we're a small, independent business. We've done, hopefully, quite a lot of good things over the last 11 years. But we're very aware that we could be doing more. Earth Day was that rare moment where we all had a bit of time to take some time off. We built a manifesto for change, for how we were going to look at the business going forward, and how we could start to move things in a more positive way. We called it RÆSTART. And it's a completely transparent way for us now to speak to our community about what we have done and what we are doing, and for folks to challenge us. We're reporting back quarterly on how we're getting on, what we have done and what's next.
Now that we're one year after the launch of your manifesto, what do you have to report to us?
It’s been a challenging year for us as a business. But we're really proud that, within the last year, we've made a fair amount of progress, in terms of being a partner of 1% For The Planet; in terms of working with talented local designers, as our initiatives to support young talent coming through. We've then been doing a lot internally around the team's wellbeing. And then the bigger, ongoing challenge for us is that we're going through B Corp certification. And again, as a small business that doesn't have a dedicated team on that, it's been quite a big undertaking.
There's so much virtue signaling out there when it comes to sustainability. What does meaningful action look like to you?
For us as a business, it's about action over words. It’s getting on with things, trying things out, testing, sometimes making mistakes. It’s also about alignment with companies like 1% For The Planet or B Corp, who are challenging and auditing a business. It's really key to do those things in tandem because it's very, very easy, in any business to procrastinate when things are challenging. It's human nature.
Can you explain what B Corp certification actually does for your company?
In simple terms, B Corp is about looking across the work that you’re doing, through the lens of how it can be the most positive for people and planet. So that goes internally within the RÆBURN team, and all the way through our supply chain, asking at every stage how we can make improvements in that process. It's not an exam where you're right or wrong. It's an open thing of saying: Here are some areas to improve and work towards them.
It essentially builds values into the business model.
Absolutely. Then that's a measurable thing for you to improve as your business grows and B Corp grows with you as well, which is definitely something that we're looking forward to. Certainly, if you want an easy life, don't do what we're doing at Raeburn. Don’t do what we've been doing for the last 12 years.
You guys have a lot of projects that the public can clearly see. What people tend to not know, though, is that the fashion industry’s supply chain is really, really complicated. For a lot of companies, it's actually impossible, or very, very difficult to measure their impact. Are you guys able to quantifiably measure the impact of the RÆBURN business?
Measuring the entire impact of any product all the way through the supply chain is incredibly challenging. It's not something that we have the resources to do at RÆBURN, in all honesty. But then that’s also part of the future, what we’re planning in the manifesto. There are areas of improvement that we know we want to be taking on as we go forward.
We have three facets to what we do [currently]: There’s the remade (RÆMADE) aspect, which we're really well-known for, where we remake pieces in our own studio in East London — e.g. taking something that already exists, and then making it into something wearable and contemporary, something that someone will want to love again. It's good news for the planet, because the materials already exist.
[Then] we have a fully recycled (RÆCYCLE) program, particularly [for] outerwear and accessories, which is made in Asia. That has its own supply chain. Our thinking is always, let's make the highest possible quality product in the right place to make it — those technical recycled fabrics tend to be in Asia already, the manufacturing tends to be there already. The third facet is what we call reduce (RÆDUCE), and that's a focus on waste reduction, local manufacturing where possible, but particularly jersey and knitwear. We focus a lot on monofiber materials for those things.
In terms of percentages, you're looking at 10-15 percent of the business being the remade pieces, and the real scale for our business comes through the other elements. I just want to make sure that's super clear, and to answer your original question, that makes it even more difficult to measure the impact of our business, for the reasons that you outlined.
This complexity is why so much of what you see in sustainability is focused on one-off projects. Because the inside of the production process is a very difficult thing to navigate.
Yeah, the whole industry is incredibly complex. You have a raw material going through the supply chain, made into a spun material or a roll of fabric, then to a factory, then all the way through to a store where it’s eventually sold to an individual. So once that's extrapolated globally, it's incredibly complex.
I was just reading through Business Of Fashion’s Sustainability Index report. What really blew me away was just how little information is out there and how piecemeal it all is.
Yeah. 100 percent, I completely agree.
Is there a tension between what you're doing at RAEBURN, where you have this very nimble brand with a small impact, and your work at Timberland, where you have this huge company that has a massive impact on the planet?
I don't know if tension is the right word. I think if anything, it's more the opportunity to make change at a truly global company that’s very aware of its impact on the planet. The opportunity to make really significant change has a great deal more impact when you put a two billion-dollar company against a small, independent company like RAEBURN. And then you can either approach it in a cynical way and think the big brands want to sell more stuff, and it's as simple as that, or you can look at it like we're all aware that we can't carry on doing what we're doing, so let's find a much more positive way and let's all learn from each other to move it forward. And I'm certainly in that in the second camp.
Another thing that consumers often don't realize is that truly reducing your impact in the supply chain is an enormous undertaking, the sort of thing that might be completely out of reach for a tiny brand like RÆBURN. Maybe it’s not up to you to be helping factories transition to renewable energy, for example, because you just don't have the money for it.
What I would say is a tiny brand like RÆBURN shouldn't be [reducing its supply chain impact], but a lot of tiny brands like RÆBURN will [have an effect]. That's been the real seismic change. Even when I think about fabric fairs 10 years ago, where there was a tiny rail — a section of a rail — with 15 fabrics, and it’s like "Oh, that's the recycled." And it was all just flat recycled polyester that all looked the same, and that was it.
A tiny brand like RÆBURN by itself won't make a difference, but what is good about the way the landscape's changing is that there aren't just one or two RÆBURNs anymore. You're seeing this emergence of a lot of companies who think differently: Hiut Denim, Bethany Williams, Finisterre. There are lots of companies that we look to who are trying to do something different. And it should benefit your business as well because it simplifies everything.
What advice would you give to brands that want to get started down this road of operating more responsibly?
If you start simple, if you start with monofiber materials, and you start transparently, you're already in a good place. And the other thing, the advice I always have for younger designers, is do one thing to begin with, and to do it well. We only did outerwear for five years. There's always pressure and an assumption that people will want more. But I think doing things in the right way is so key to starting slow.
It also means you can create a product that's just really, really good, which is such an important part of it as well because people are going to keep using it. All the impact reduction in the world doesn't really mean anything if something just gets thrown away after a few weeks.
If we go back to the upcycling element of what you guys do, is there a risk that you'll at one point run out of stuff to work?
I get asked that all the time, but you have no idea that the amount of stuff that’s out there. We tend to work with functional utility military items, and with the military, they have to overproduce, they can't have too little of something. And most of this stuff never even gets used, it never gets worn. I [was] offered 70,000 Gore-Tex jackets once because the military changed the camouflage color. If I wanted to tomorrow, I'd have access to anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 parachutes. And that’s just here in the UK. When you then think globally, you are talking about billions, billions, billions of things out there. So I have no concern that for RÆBURN, specifically, that there'll be an issue around resources like that.
When we talk about the industry as a whole, where do you see the role of what you're doing at RÆBURN?
I think our place within the industry is provocation. In the beginning, our work was considered very conceptual, e.g. taking something that already existed and remaking it into something else. But it was definitely pretty radical to begin with. Now, it's kind of the norm. [Within] the last five years, the vocabulary for most people has changed and the issue has become a lot more understandable. Today, I see RÆBURN's place as a position of authority to a certain degree, of which I'm very grateful, because of the legacy of the work that we've done.
If anything, I want to be more of a disrupter, more of an innovator, more inspiring for the next generations as well.
I first saw your work when I was writing for Highsnobiety, probably around 2014 or so. I think it was the sharks made out of lifeboat material. But because our general awareness about the fashion industry's environmental impact at the time was so low, my initial impression was, "Oh, that's really technically impressive, how you can make something new out of old things.” I never put two and two together between this technically impressive way of deconstructing something and its reduced environmental impact. It’s like night and day now, with how much awareness there is around the impact of fashion on the planet.
But at the same time, very little seems to have changed in the industry itself. A lot of people, me included, are really, really frustrated with how slow progress is — if it’s happening at all. What do you say about that? Why is change so slow?
Certainly, starting the business back in 2009, there were a few advocates, people like Orsola De Castro, who were real pioneers in that way of thinking. And if I jump forward to 2015, then the narrative started to really change.
But unfortunately, the industry is massive, it's complex, and it takes a long time to change anything on scale. But I also think that a lot of the work that’s happened in the last five years, particularly around recycled materials and circularity, and which is now is starting to happen around natural materials with things like regenerative agriculture, all of this gives me a lot of hope that the foundations are there for a much more positive future, along with this awakening that's happened for the wider population.
All of a sudden, you've actually got a lot of people, particularly the younger generation, saying, "Hang on, this isn't good enough," demanding more, and they should. Brands are actually in a position where they can provide a better product. But for sure, I don't think it's happening quick enough.
I think in the next 10 years for us as an industry, you're going to see a seismic shift. That's the way that I look at it.
What would you say to the people that are more cynical about the future of fashion?
I'd say the reality is we're in the world that we're all in right now. We can approach this with positivity, collaboration, and openness. I mean that from an individual reading this, all the way through to brands. But the thing is, we have to challenge each other. We have to ask questions, we have to make mistakes. We have to improve the status quo that we're all in at the moment. There's no benefit in doing nothing because what we're doing at the moment isn't working.
What sort of changes do you think we’re going to see in the next 10 years?
I think it will be a combination of global localization, e.g. these older models of making all of the stuff as I mentioned in one place, shipping it to these physical spaces, et cetera, that doesn't stack up. So we're all looking for more agility.
That's a really interesting point that I think we should talk about, because fundamentally what we do as an industry at the moment is bonkers. We make all of this stuff, billions of garments, and we fix them in physical spaces all around the world, and we assume someone is going to walk in, and we're going to have the right size shoes in the right style and color that they want. The level of risk attached to that is phenomenal. And so there's no way that it can ever be right.
How important is it that you guys make what you do a part of the company culture?
It’s absolutely critical for any small business to have a clear and understandable position on things, and invariably within small businesses [that are] formed by the founder. When I look across the businesses that I still look up to, you have people that are doing things in a different way. We try to make sure that’s embedded in the way that we work. Something that's always given me great pride is that we attract incredibly talented and passionate people who get what we're all about. And they know that it's not a traditional fashion model at all.
I've got in my notes that you guys have a cycle-to-work initiative and a bunch of other internal programs for your team.
Yeah. Before Covid, we were doing maker days, where the whole company actually stopped, and then anyone from a seamstress to the operations director would physically get hands-on and make stuff. It was an incredibly good team-building activity, which has become more challenging with lockdowns and everything else. Dave, who does our PR, has designed everything from wallets to dog leads, and made them himself.
The other thing is basic: have a suggestions box at work, and tell people, "Hey, if you've got ideas, put them in the box, and let's review them."
What do you think the fashion industry could learn from what you're doing at RÆBURN?
I don't necessarily think that it's about what the industry can learn from RÆBURN. I think it's about what we need to change together. We all just need to make the most of each other's skillsets a little bit. Because we for one, we're great at remaking stuff, but we're not good at fabric innovation, for example.
You're reluctant to blow your own trumpet, aren't you?
[Laughs] Yeah. But what I would say is that our whole approach for the last 12 years has been to collaborate, to learn, and to teach others.