"We're just two school dropouts on a mission to do better," explains Soulland CEO and co-founder Jacob Kampp Berliner. Last week, the Danish label launched "Logic," a collection of colorful basics that have been produced in accordance with Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) specifications.
With the planet's environmental crisis ever-present in the headlines, sustainability has become a hot topic in the fashion industry, as brands scramble to overhaul their supply chains in the face of growing demand for responsibly made clothing. While the world's biggest manufacturers have entire teams dedicated to the issue, it's another story for a small, independently owned brand such as Soulland, which has 150 wholesale accounts and a team of 10 at its headquarters in Copenhagen.
"Whenever we looked into it, it became such an overwhelming issue," says creative director and co-founder Silas Adler. "Every time we had a meeting on it, our ideas would be killed by logistics." Kampp Berliner and Adler were unable to hit the minimum production runs at many eco-friendly manufacturers, and the label was also reluctant to move suppliers, many of whom they'd been working with for the best part of a decade.
Instead of overhauling its entire supply chain, Soulland took baby steps. It focused first on jersey fabric, a large part of the brand's business but one that's relatively straightforward to produce. Existing manufacturers were supplied with GOTS-certified cotton, which is made without pesticides and with reduced water consumption. GOTS cotton's more benign chemistry also means pieces are easier to recycle later on.
The "Logic" collection, which consists of tees, hoodies, and crewnecks, is the first step in Soulland's sustainability program, and from Spring 2019, all of the brand's jersey and fleece will be made in accordance with GOTS certification. From there, the brand will move on to recycled polyester beanies and swimwear, while new recycled packaging will arrive later in the year. The brand is also experimenting with incorporating recycled fibers into its jacquard wovens.
Kampp Berliner explains that, after 12 months, Soulland has made significant progress on 50-to-60 percent of its collection, but stresses that as that number increases, progress becomes increasingly difficult. Overhauling things like zippers and print techniques simply isn't possible for a brand of Soulland's size.
Adler and Kampp Berliner were insistent that any changes shouldn't harm the quality of Soulland's products nor increase prices. "Design can't suffer from the focus on sustainability," Adler explains. The higher price of the "Logic" collection's organic fabrics wasn't passed on to consumers, with the brand absorbing the extra cost itself.
For brands looking to clean up their supply chains and manufacturing, the sustainability paradox is exacerbated by how hard it is to even agree on what "ethical production" actually means in practice. Do we need to clean up water supplies? Reduce carbon emissions? Improve worker safety? Minimize waste?
"If you choose organic cotton, there'll be people criticizing you for using too much water," Kampp Berliner says. "If we were to choose recycled polyester, there's the whole discussion about micro-plastics. No matter what your decision is, there'll always be another, and in some people's eyes, better, alternative."
Beyond the efforts of a few brands — namely 1017 ALYX 9SM and Noah — there has been very little willingness from the streetwear community to acknowledge its environmental impact. That's partly down to a fear of accusations of greenwashing or virtue-signaling. Brands are understandably reluctant to use conscious production as a marketing tool, but also because designers want to be known for their product above all else.
But given how street culture has grown from an insular community to the dominant force in global fashion, there's a huge opportunity for leading brands to educate consumers and push for change. Soulland hopes its willingness to open up will not only educate and inspire its customers, but also encourage peers to follow suit.
"People are afraid of actually taking a stand," Adler explains. "Me and Jacob were feeling the same for a while, but at some point we realized if you're not talking about it, then you're not creating a focus for your consumer. You're not pushing the boundaries of how people think about clothing.
"Changing the way we produce will not make a difference to the bigger picture, but there is a chance we'll inspire people to think differently. The world isn't only changed by politicians and legislators. Are we gonna wait for some old skeptical idiot to do it because they're afraid of losing votes, or should we just do it ourselves?”
For more on sustainability, here’s how production expert Dio Kurazawa is cleaning up the fashion industry.