Interview with Rachel Fortune, founder of the Sustainable Lifestyle Awards

Rachel Fortune is a fashion stylist and founder of the Sustainable Lifestyle Awards – the first award of its kind that recognises conscientious creators, brands and businesses who are dedicated to making beautiful products and services with a positive social and environmental impact.

Empowered by their craftmanship and dedication to do things better, the SLAs recognise the critical role these pioneers play in influencing and driving positive change within their industries. 

What’s your career background?

I studied Classical Studies at university, but I’ve always been interested in fashion. However, my pathway into the sector – of which I have been a part of now for over 15 years – wasn’t completely straightforward.

I actually started off as a runner on Top of the Pops Saturday before I got my first job working in fashion for Nichole Farhi, largely doing small administrative tasks before I was hit by this epiphany, while I was walking her dog

That epiphany was that I really needed to do something that challenged my capabilities. 

I took the initiative immediately after that dog walk to ask for a change in career direction within the brand, and was promptly offered a visual merchandising role in the London stores. I loved the creativity involved in VM and the new job reaffirmed my passion for working in fashion.

I went on to become a personal in-house stylist at Top Shop, working for the brand’s Oxford Circus flagship store as well as manning the Top Shop To Go service, offering personal styling and shopping advice to all kinds of customers. Less than a year later, I started my own personal styling business where I assisted on fashion shoots for titles like SHE magazine and Vogue.  

I had always been interested in fashion brands that promoted sustainability, but it was only while watching “The True Cost” – an eye-opening documentary about the impact our voracious appetite for fast, convenient yet disposable fashion was having not only on the environment but the disadvantaged workers producing the goods – did I then consider being a part of the solution to the problem.

I knew something had to change. Why couldn’t I, in some way, be a part of that I thought. My venture, Style The Sustainable, signalled this intention to influence others into a more mindful and conscientious type of consumption.

The truth is, the majority of people buy into products first because they like the design; the fact that something might also be eco, ethical and sustainable is seen as an added bonus but not necessarily an influencing factor in the overall purchasing decision.

Style The Sustainable was therefore set up as a means of illustrating a point: that there is a middle ground – that fashion could indeed be affordable, cool and ethical. 

A natural evolution of this was setting up the Sustainable Lifestyle Awards, which launched only this summer. 

How did your career change after having children?

It’s a cliché but mixing career with children is a balancing act. Sometimes I feel like I live two separate lives: one with a young family and the other running my own business.  

There are days when I feel like I am juggling too many balls but I wouldn’t change things for the world. I am motivated and inspired on a daily basis. I’m quite a positive person and believe that not knowing exactly what’s around the corner is an adventure!

Where did the idea for the Sustainable Lifestyle Awards come from?

The genesis of the Sustainable Design Awards began when I had been in contact with Katie Hawkshaw, founder of Sage and Stars, which produces sustainably made beautiful silk nightwear.

Katie had spent considerable time researching relevant and prominent awards in which to nominate her products so that they had some kind of ‘stamp of approval’; a verification that her goods were ethically and sustainably made.

It transpired that no such system really existed. And that was our eureka moment. Due to circumstances, Katie was unable to continue working on the awards with me, but I remain forever grateful that she opened my eyes to this opportunity.

I did learn a few additional things too. There are lots of misconceptions about ‘eco’, ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ products; a belief that quality and aesthetics are somehow compromised for the sake of being ‘virtuous’. Yes, sustainable products have suffered an image problem – on the one hand, wrongly maligned as the sole preserve of the clean living, tree hugging socks-and-sandals wearer; on the other, incorrectly regarded as prohibitively expensive in the way organic groceries can be. 

With the government declaring a climate crisis and the UN announcing that we have 11 years left to limit climate change catastrophe, the awards aim to help inform shopping decisions, which in turn help to reduce plastic waste, limit landfill and cut toxic manufacturing processes.

My ambition for the awards is to give the sustainability movement a positive voice, as well as to catalyse change in the way consumers spend. In a sense we all need to take accountability for the impact of our actions and understand that we collude in the destruction of earth’s resources and the exploitation of the disadvantaged working within the supply chain, through our own apathy.

We need to ‘vote’ with our money. Only then will industry behemoths see true currency in operating ethically and sustainably in order to revolutionise their practices. 

We cannot take for granted that consumers have the time or the inclination to research and isolate the best of such brands. Therefore, some sort of one-stop hub; a resource or directory citing the best of such eco, ethical and sustainable brands needed to be constructed so that ethical shopping decisions could be made in one fell swoop.

And of course, there needed to be a verification process of sorts where sustainable and ethical brands would be given that certified stamp of approval in recognition for the contribution they make to this important movement.

With eco products often maligned or prejudged as being unattractive, I saw how vital it was that the aesthetics of the brands and products become a part of the stringent judgement process too. 

How did you move from idea to actual business?

By not delaying the idea. I’m quite impulsive and when I want to do something, I generally find a way of doing it.

The last 12 months have been a whirlwind of building this platform, and although there have been occasions of high stress and the odd ‘what am I doing?!’ moment, it has been a phenomenal journey; one in which I have learnt so much and remain inspired on a daily basis. 

Building the website and growing the judging panel were the initial tasks. It didn’t take much to get buy in from the fashion industry’s biggest voices on sustainable and eco design.

There is a general understanding that more needs to be done to promote sustainable production and consumption practices in order to have a tangible positive impact. Networking and harnessing the clout of industry influencers is an important part of working towards this mission. 

What’s your USP?

The Sustainable Lifestyle Awards are the first awards of its kind to verify and celebrate brands that hold both style and substance in equal measure, genuinely helping consumers to live a more sustainable lifestyle and shining a spotlight on the conscientious creators who are dedicated to making beautiful products with a positive social and environmental impact. Its very existence is to champion daily change.

There are 21 categories – from Innovation of the Year and Person of the Year, to Best Homeware Brand and Best Vegan Brand – we want to recognise and promote great and innovative concepts, services, experiences and product ideas.  

I know that in order for consumerism to be made more conscientious, the customer journey and experience needs to be easier and more streamlined. I also know that there needs to be a valid adjudicator that can stringently vet for truly sustainable and ethical brands against a tough checklist, separating them from other brands who merely ‘green wash’.

In fact, discovering how many of our favourite high street brands green wash with flimsy initiatives in order to qualify themselves for having share of voice in the eco and sustainability discussion is, to me, incredibly worrisome. Scratch beneath the surface and you realise that it’s all PR puff and a type of false advertisement that sees no tangible change to their practices. 

We have a rigorous system in place to vet the right brands against stringent criterion. To earn a Sustainable Lifestyle Award is to get the official stamp of approval that your brand is the best in class for eco, ethics and sustainability. 

Who’s your target audience?

Ordinary consumers who are interested in shopping more responsibly; people who love beautiful design, and industry influencers who can take our mission and voice further to invoke meaningful change to production practices on a large scale. 

How do you spread the word about what you do?

With a great PR team! Also, the sustainable community is incredibly supportive and inclusive.  We work on a shared goal. A united voice can be very powerful. 

Social platforms have been a really important part of this process. We are an unique awards programme in that we are awarding brands as much for how they look as for the story behind their products, so having an aesthetically pleasing Instagram channel, for example, is a great way of showcasing our brand and mission.

My fantastic judging panel – which include senior figures from Anthropologie, Harvey Nichols, FeelUnique and TRAID –  have also worked incredibly hard spreading the word about the Sustainable Lifestyle Awards in amongst their communities. With their expertise and sustainability knowledge they remain both an inspiration and aspiration to me. 

What’s been your most successful marketing strategy?

Networking and getting in front of people and influencers who can amplify our mission. Successful businesses are built on strong and trusting relationships. Making the time to meet people face to face has a far greater and lasting impact than interactions via email or phone.  

The sustainability space thrives and grows on a sense of community, collaboration and a shared responsibility.  

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

Having to constantly manage expectations – particularly my own! (Rome wasn’t built in a day!). Also working with such a dynamic judging panel, who are all incredibly busy working on their own projects, I have learnt to be mindful of their needs and expectations.

And your proudest moment so far?

There are several: bringing together an amazing judging panel, turning my dream into reality by launching the SLAs, and now seeing the entries from really inspiring and exciting companies come in.

I am passionate about helping others and, in turn, I feel honoured that there is considerable faith in me to do this.

Why is work so important to you?

It crystallises your sense of purpose, working on something that is bigger than you. In terms of maintaining it, it’s all about balance. I grew up with an entrepreneurial father – in fact three out of his four children run their own businesses so there’s definitely something in the blood!

I not only want to be proud of myself but I want my children to see that when you put your mind to something, regardless of the ups and downs, you can achieve it.

Who inspires you?

Aside from my mother who raised the 4 of us after my father died when we were young, professionally I would say Kanya King, founder of the MOBO awards. She became a single mother aged just 16 and dropped out of school.

A careers advisor had more or less written her off, saying that she might make manager at a local Sainsbury’s one day. But her work has seen her play a huge part in popularising black music. She wanted to make a change in the world, and now look at her! Her story is so inspiring.

How do you balance your work with your family?

It’s comparable to boiling pans on a stove!  At any one time there can only be one pan boiling away and the rest need to be simmering in the background.  

I use this analogy to remind myself to stay present on the job and for the people in front of me.  I do get it wrong sometimes; work emails or school timetables require last minute attention, so it is about trying to be flexible.

What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

See ‘failure’ as the biggest gift – you can only learn from your mistakes.

Learn to take criticism – hopefully it will be constructive criticism as most people want to help.

And finally, do something with your career that’s a blend of purpose and passion. Although the entrepreneurial journey can be a labour of love, you’ll always feel that you’re working on something that is meaningful. That kind of energy can galvanise you to stick it out even through those moments of doubt.  

Find out more about the Sustainable Lifestyle Awards on their website.