The complete guide to starting a sustainable fashion brand
Hoping to make waves (and money) in eco-fashion? Read this complete guide to starting a sustainable fashion brand by Jennifer Walderdorff.
Embarking on the journey of establishing a sustainable fashion brand goes far beyond the realms of entrepreneurship; it’s a bold stride toward reshaping an entire industry. Not only does it hold the promise of a thriving business venture, but it stands as a beacon of change, offering an opportunity to champion environmental conservation and societal betterment.
In this ever-evolving landscape of fashion, our guide serves as a compass, navigating you through essential pathways and strategies to kickstart your sustainable fashion dream.
Delve into the intricate yet rewarding world of sustainable fashion with us as we unlock the fundamental keys and insights necessary to carve your unique niche while leaving a positive footprint on the planet and within the hearts of conscious consumers.
But before you do, some factors should be taken into account in advance, which both provide strong advantages and risks creating in this space.
The advantages of a sustainable fashion brand
Here are three key advantages of starting a sustainable fashion brand.
1) Positive brand image and consumer appeal
Consumers are increasingly seeking environmentally and socially responsible brands. A sustainable fashion brand can attract and retain customers who align with these values. Having a strong sustainable ethos can create a positive brand image, leading to increased customer loyalty and trust.
2) Reduced environmental impact
Sustainable fashion brands contribute to minimizing the environmental impact of the industry. Using eco-friendly materials, reducing waste, and implementing ethical production practices can lower the carbon footprint and ecological damage associated with traditional fashion manufacturing.
3) Adaptability to market trends and regulations
As sustainability becomes a more significant concern globally, many countries and regulatory bodies are emphasizing environmental standards. A sustainable fashion brand is better positioned to adapt to changing market trends and regulations, potentially providing a competitive advantage in the long term.
The risks of a sustainable fashion brand
And here are three risks of starting a sustainable fashion brand.
1) Higher production costs
Initially, producing sustainable fashion might be more expensive due to the higher costs associated with eco-friendly materials and ethical manufacturing processes. This can lead to higher product prices, potentially limiting the brand’s accessibility to certain market segments.
2) Market perceptions
Despite efforts, some consumers may misunderstand or doubt the authenticity of sustainability claims. Greenwashing, where a brand presents a false impression of sustainability, can damage the brand’s reputation.
Consumers might be skeptical or critical if they perceive inconsistencies between the brand’s values and its actual practices. It is important to be clear and transparent with the steps taken on the sustainable production journey.
3) The availability of sustainable materials and technology
Access to sustainable materials and innovative eco-friendly technologies might be limited or underdeveloped, leading to potential constraints in product variety, design, or scalability. Relying on specific sustainable materials or technologies could pose challenges if the supply chain experiences disruptions or limitations.
A complete, nine-step guide to starting a sustainable fashion brand
So with all that in mind, and you still have the gumption to go down the road of sustainable fashion, here is my specifically curated nine-step guide on how to start a sustainable fashion brand today.
Chapter 1: Define your brand and mission
Establish your brand identity
- Define your brand’s unique style, aesthetics, and target audience.
- Determine what makes your brand stand out in the fashion industry.
In a market where fashion trends constantly evolve, establishing authenticity is pivotal for a brand’s success. Beyond merely defining your brand’s style and target audience, it’s essential to unearth the unique essence that forms the soul of your brand.
Authenticity stems from a genuine connection with your brand’s values, story, and the narrative you convey. Delve into what ignites your passion, resonates with your ethos, and distinguishes your brand. Ask yourself what narrative you’re weaving into the fabric of your creations, what purpose fuels your designs, and what stories you’re telling through your pieces.
Authenticity lies not just in what you create but in how you communicate the ‘why’ behind your creations, allowing people to identify with a brand that speaks to their values, aspirations, and beliefs, creating a genuine connection beyond the garment itself.
It’s important to know unique selling points, to attract the target audience. Using preloved pioneers Preworn as an example, they are building community – which they project in all their imagery, incentivised free membership, and pricing strategies.
Create a sustainable mission
- Develop a clear mission statement that outlines your commitment to sustainability.
- Decide on the specific sustainability goals and values that will guide your brand.
If you are unfamiliar with creating a purpose statement, here is a framework you can follow:
- Reflect on core values: Consider the fundamental values that drive your endeavors. What beliefs and principles underpin your work? Identify the core elements that are central to your mission.
- Define the impact: Clarify the impact you aim to make. How do you want to change or improve the world, your industry, or the lives of your customers? Articulate the change you seek to create.
- Be specific and concise: Craft a statement that is clear, succinct, and direct. Avoid overly complex or vague language. Your purpose statement should be easily understandable and memorable.
- Connect emotionally: Engage emotions by expressing passion and commitment. Connect with your audience on a deeper level by highlighting the emotional aspect of your purpose.
- Consider your long-term goals: Ensure that the purpose statement is forward-thinking and aligns with your long-term vision. It should stand the test of time and continue to guide your actions in the future. Here’s an example: Start with “To…” followed by a verb that encapsulates action or impact. For instance, “To inspire creativity and empower individuals through sustainable fashion innovation.”
- Refine and iterate: Draft several versions, refining and revising them until you find a statement that best encapsulates the essence of your purpose.
- Seek feedback: Once you have a draft, seek feedback from mentors, colleagues, or people you trust. Their insights can help fine-tune the statement.
Here are the purpose and vision statements of the sustainably conscious brand ARMEDANGELS:
- Purpose: We are not here to make fashion. We are here to make change.
- Vision: Create a planet we are proud to pass on to future generations.
Chapter 2: Research and education
Study sustainable fashion
- Familiarize yourself with sustainable fashion practices, materials, and industry trends.
- Stay updated on sustainable innovations and technologies.
Understanding the cost efficiency of sustainable decisions is an integral aspect that harmonizes with your overarching vision. While immersing yourself in sustainable fashion practices, materials, and industry trends, it’s crucial to evaluate the economic implications of each choice.
Aligning decisions with your vision involves not only embracing eco-friendly materials or practices but also assessing their long-term cost-effectiveness. This demands a careful analysis of the initial investments, production expenses, and the potential savings or advantages derived over time.
Balancing the financial aspects with sustainability aids in making strategic choices that are not only environmentally responsible but also financially prudent. It ensures that the decisions made today contribute to the longevity and success of your brand, aligning with your broader vision for sustainability without compromising economic viability.
It’s about recognizing that sustainable initiatives, while sometimes initially more expensive, can often yield significant benefits and savings in the long run, further reinforcing your commitment to both sustainability and financial prudence.
Ethical and sustainable sourcing
- This speaks for itself, do adequate research and choose suppliers and manufacturers who adhere to ethical and eco-friendly practices.
- Understand the environmental and social impact of materials, processes, and logistics.
Chapter 3: Design and production
- If a brand of new clothing is the intention, it would be beneficial for the article lifecycle to focus on timeless and versatile designs that do not directly adhere to trend behaviour.
- Use sustainable design principles like minimalism and modularity.
Quiet luxury is a burgeoning trend that seamlessly integrates into the concept of a core basic capsule wardrobe, emphasizing elegance, quality, and timelessness. This aesthetic embraces a refined, understated style that exudes opulence through its simplicity. It revolves around investing in high-quality, enduring pieces that stand the test of time, embodying sophistication without overt extravagance.
The core basic capsule wardrobe, characterized by its minimal yet versatile pieces, aligns perfectly with the quiet luxury trend, offering a framework of essential, well-made garments that effortlessly elevate one’s appearance. This amalgamation creates an aesthetic with an extended article lifecycle, focusing on quality over quantity.
- Choose sustainable materials like organic cotton, Tencel, hemp, or recycled fabrics.
- Explore innovative materials such as mushroom leather which is both durable and soft, and also cruelty-free. Eco-friendly materials should largely be defined by being biodegradable – which mushroom leather is, making it even more environmentally friendly than synthetics, especially for accessories and footwear as well as clothing.
This material has been adopted by international brand adidas, where they have incorporated it into their Stan Smith Mylo™ since 2021, taking a more eco-conscious stand on one of their core footwear lines.
- Ensure ethical labor practices and safe working conditions for your production team.
- Minimize waste during the production process.
Chapter 4: Eco-friendly packaging and distribution
- Opt for eco-friendly packaging materials, such as recycled cardboard and biodegradable bags.
- Minimize unnecessary packaging and use minimalistic designs.
In 2023, France bans single-use packaging from fast-food restaurants. This is a game-changing piece of legislation that will have a major impact on other countries and industries around the world. Take the lead and opt for sustainable options if packaging is required for your brand.
- Implement eco-friendly shipping practices, like carbon-neutral shipping.
- Explore local and regional distribution to reduce transportation emissions.
Local distribution, sourcing, and manufacturing in the fashion industry offer several key benefits. Firstly, local sourcing supports the regional economy by creating job opportunities and fostering community growth. It aids in reducing the carbon footprint associated with transportation and logistics, contributing to a more sustainable environment.
Moreover, local production often ensures better oversight and quality control, facilitating closer relationships between designers and manufacturers, leading to improved communication and faster problem-solving. This proximity results in quicker turnaround times and increased flexibility in adapting to market demands or trends.
Embracing local distribution and manufacturing in the fashion industry not only supports ethical practices and sustainability but also nurtures a sense of craftsmanship, fosters creativity, and helps preserve cultural heritage within a region.
Chapter 5: Marketing and branding
- Share your brand’s sustainable journey with your audience.
- Educate customers on the importance of sustainable fashion.
Effective marketing for sustainable brands involves storytelling that authentically showcases the brand’s values and commitment to sustainability without being preachy. It’s about subtly weaving the narrative of sustainability into the brand’s story, focusing on the positive impact and the emotional connection with the audience.
The emphasis is on engaging and educating customers by highlighting the benefits and value that the brand’s sustainable practices bring to their lives and the environment. The storytelling aims to inspire, inform, and invite the audience into a shared journey, allowing them to connect with the brand on a deeper level, and fostering genuine interest and support for the brand’s sustainability efforts.
This approach creates an inclusive and inviting narrative, encouraging customers to be part of a movement without feeling pressured or lectured to.
Social media and online presence
- Use digital platforms to reach a wider audience and share your message.
- Engage in transparent and authentic communication with your customers.
Chapter 6: Certifications and collaboration
- Seek relevant certifications like Fair Trade, GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), or B Corp certification.
- Display these certifications prominently to build trust with customers.
- Collaborate with other sustainable brands, organizations, or influencers to increase brand visibility.
- Partner with eco-conscious events and initiatives.
Collaboration and certifications stand as integral components for expanding reach and forging partnerships with like-minded companies in the pursuit of shared values and goals.
Collaborating with other businesses, especially those with aligned sustainability objectives, broadens your brand’s exposure and impact. It enables the sharing of resources, expertise, and audiences, fostering a collective effort toward a more sustainable future. Moreover, certifications serve as a testament to a brand’s commitment to ethical and sustainable practices, building trust and credibility with consumers, partners, and stakeholders.
Being certified validates your brand’s adherence to recognized standards, attracting partnerships with companies that prioritize similar values. This collaboration and certification process, underpinned by shared values, not only amplifies the reach of sustainable messages but also establishes a network of support and influence, propelling the collective vision of a more sustainable industry forward.
Patagonia, a renowned outdoor clothing company, has been a trailblazer in the realm of sustainability. They have actively collaborated with various environmental organizations, fashion brands, and industry groups to drive sustainable initiatives.
For instance, their partnership with 1% for the Planet, a global movement encouraging companies to donate at least 1% of their annual sales to environmental causes, demonstrates their commitment to collective action and collaboration for a shared cause.
Moreover, Patagonia has obtained multiple certifications and endorsements to validate its dedication to sustainable practices. They are a certified B Corporation, meeting rigorous social and environmental standards. Their products often feature certifications like bluesign® and Fair Trade Certified, ensuring environmentally responsible and ethically produced items.
Chapter 7: Financial sustainability
- Create a detailed business plan that includes budgets and financial projections.
- Seek funding sources, such as grants, investors, or low-interest business loans.
- Calculate fair prices that cover production costs while remaining competitive.
- Highlight the added value of sustainability in your pricing.
Chapter 8: Sustainable regulation
- Familiarize yourself with local, national, and international regulations governing sustainability in the fashion industry. Regulations may cover areas like fair labour practices, material sourcing, waste disposal, and more.
- Stay updated on evolving policies and compliance standards to ensure your brand meets or exceeds these requirements.
- Implement transparency in your supply chain and operations, providing clear information about your sourcing, manufacturing processes, and adherence to sustainable practices.
- Utilize certifications and compliance frameworks to build trust with consumers and demonstrate your commitment to responsible and sustainable fashion.
Acknowledging the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in business infrastructure
- Integrating the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into your business infrastructure ensures alignment with global sustainability initiatives. Consider how your brand’s practices and initiatives correspond to these goals for a comprehensive approach to sustainability.
- Seeking guidance from sustainable business consultants like JvW Consulting can offer valuable insights and expertise. Consultants can assist in setting up and maintaining sustainable practices, aligning your business with SDGs, and ensuring compliance with best practices even before legislation mandates specific requirements.
- Collaborating with experts familiar with sustainable business practices allows for the implementation of proactive measures, ensuring that your brand not only adheres to current regulations but also leads by example in embracing future sustainability standards.
Chapter 9: The benefits of starting small
Testing the waters
- Starting small allows for experimentation and learning without significant financial risk. Begin with a limited range of products or a niche market to test your concepts, refine processes, and gather feedback.
Using Tomorrow In A Year clothing brand as an example, it launched with one product type (the baseball t-shirt) as its hero piece. Providing alternative colorways and sleeve lengths to jump-start their eco-conscious brand.
Agility and adaptability
- A smaller-scale operation offers agility, enabling you to pivot, innovate, and respond more quickly to market trends and consumer demands.
- This approach facilitates easier adjustments, fostering the ability to fine-tune your brand identity, production methods, and marketing strategies before scaling up.
Building a solid foundation
- Launching small helps in building a strong foundation for growth. It allows you to establish a loyal customer base, refine your brand’s identity, and solidify your commitment to sustainability before expanding operations.
- The gradual, organic growth path provides a stable footing for later expansion, ensuring that your brand’s sustainable ethos remains at its core even as you grow.
So, starting a sustainable fashion brand is a rewarding endeavor that combines creativity with a positive impact on the planet.
By following these steps, you can create a brand that not only stands out in the fashion industry but also contributes to a more sustainable and ethical future. Stay committed to your mission and adapt to changing market dynamics to ensure long-term success.
Jennifer Walderdorff is a sustainable fashion expert and analyst and author of Look @ the Labels.
Photo by Karina Tess