LONDON — Small British businesses are setting the bar high in the fields of sustainability, environmental and social governance, but they need more recognition — and government support, according to a new report.
Some of the U.K.’s biggest fashion and sustainability enterprises — from the London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion, to Open University and Middlesex University — have researched sustainable development in the fashion sector over the last three years.
They’ve published a white paper based on their research, “Fashion as Sustainability in Action,” and are asking the British government to help those small, innovative businesses tap into new opportunities and contribute to the industry’s race to net-zero emissions.
The research, led by Professor Dilys Williams, surveyed more than 300 micro and small fashion enterprises with the aim of highlighting their contribution to “social, economic and environmental prosperity” and the circular economy.
The role of those businesses in sustainability is often forgotten as most of the discourse is centered around large-scale industry, yet 99.3 percent of U.K. fashion and textile businesses are micro, or small-scale.
Williams’ research groups are calling for the U.K. Industrial Strategy, which backs businesses and job creation, to recognize and support the role of fashion design MSEs, or micro and small enterprises, with formal representation, the creation of shared workspaces, and new certification systems that will help them enrich and extend their sustainability practices.
The research groups also flagged the importance of recognizing the contribution of skilled garment workers to the industry, and of rethinking taxation policies in order to benefit small, sustainable business. One example would be the removal of VAT, or value added tax, for garment repair services.
Financing is also an area that’s ripe for change, according to the report.
Some suggestions include the need to employ “new holistic measures of success” beyond financial profit; more and better access to innovation grants for sustainably minded fashion businesses; inclusion of sustainability criteria in the grants and incubator programs available, and the funding of more peer-to-peer collaborations that could benefit smaller enterprises, versus top-down initiatives.
“There is a moral imperative for the U.K. government to act boldly on clear evidence of the capacity of the U.K. sustainable fashion MSEs to thrive, by committing to restorative models and practices,” said the report.
The research also aimed to highlight new ways of measuring success, in order for the whole fashion sector to change and become better aligned with “sustainable prosperity.”
There’s an important attitude shift that needs to happen, according to the report.
Specifically, the profit-over-everything mind-set needs to be replaced with a more long-term definition of prosperity and understanding that “economic prosperity on its own is an insufficient metric for human well-being.”
New metrics could include “cultural prosperity,” which means allowing personal values to shape beliefs and recognize craft and heritage.
Fashion brands that fall into this category engage with people from diverse backgrounds, explore new production solutions and supplement their product offer with social and environmental action.
According to the report, the challenge lies in learning to include such brands in grant, government schemes.
“It’s hard being in between a lot of worlds. We’re in between business and charity so we can fall in between funding gaps sometimes,” said Birdsong founder Sophie Slater, the London-based label known for its sustainable staples and for campaigning against causes such as the gender pay gap.
Ready-to-wear designer Phoebe English also spoke of having to work against the industry’s “bigger is better” attitude.
“There’s always been this overarching push to expand and get bigger and get better and have more money. Everyone has always been like: ‘You should be making it in Portugal or Turkey so you can make profit.’ It’s been very hard to just be a Made in England brand,” said English.
“What we’re trying to do is use design as a vehicle to amend or alleviate some of the problems the systems within the industry have put into place,” she added.
According to the report, another factor to consider as a measure of a successful, modern-day fashion business is social prosperity, which entails local, regional and national collaboration; non-hierarchical company structures; community building, and a move away from the designer as the single talent.
“Every person we work with is obviously named, or their face is shown in some way, whether that’s through Instagram or on videos on the website,” said Birdsong’s Slater.
But in order for socially responsible brands to thrive, there is a need for wider industry and government support. Key stakeholders need to step in and offer networking opportunities; affordable working spaces, and support in mediating relationships between the brands and manufacturers, the report says.
Considering environmental and economic factors is another focus.
When it comes to the environment, the report’s findings show that small businesses are leading the way by showing understanding of fashion’s sustainability issues and employing long-term strategies to manage waste streams by reducing the amount of virgin materials they use or exploring regenerative practices.
The industry as a whole needs to understand better its reliance on nature and offer more support to those brands that are less about scale and more about minimizing their environmental impact.
“It’s not just how brands work, it’s how factories work, too. There’s a huge amount of focus on sustainable materials, which is great, but it shouldn’t be the sole focus,” said Unmade, the British label focused on on-demand production.
“It’s easy to continue to make too much stuff and make it from more sustainable materials without changing your business model. The real change is making less — but that means making less money for brands, so no one is willing to engage with that.”
It’s high time the industry engaged with new definitions of economic success, the report said, adding that there needs to “a long-term balance between the resources used and the resources created.”
This also means that business’ economic practices need to guarantee quality of life for all, and not compromise other cultural, social and environmental success factors. Business models need to be purpose-led.
Once again, smaller-scale enterprises are leading the way by “inverting the economic system,” following a “mind-set of sufficiency” that’s more focused on fulfilling the business’ costs rather than profit, and creating alternative revenue streams, said the report.
“We issued a manifesto [in response to COVID-19] around the idea of resetting the business, dropping bad habits and inefficiencies and looking at new ways and new business models, new ways of creating. We want to be far more nimble, produce closer to market and closer to demand,” said Christopher Raeburn.
This isn’t utopia but a realistic shift, said the report, with small fashion businesses leading the way. They just “need to be better organized and receive greater investment.”
The report added that many fashion designers are tuned into what the world needs, “yet they are less recognized and supported than many of those who follow [outmoded] conventional practices. When we start to recognize these new markers of success, we will shift the sector, change perceptions and critically, change the possibilities of what fashion can be.”