Welcome back to Easy Being Green? Lessons in Sustainable Business. This is episode seven and I am chatting to Esther Knight, who is the co-founder of the sustainable fashion house, Fanfare Label.
This was such a great conversation – again! I feel like I say that at the intro of every podcast, but it is just one of the reasons I love doing this podcast, because I get to talk to incredible people who are doing incredible things and have so much knowledge on their subject matter. And Esther is one of those people.
She is so knowledgable about the fashion industry, about sustainable fashion, about sustainability, ethics, treating people well – all of those really good things.
We chatted a lot in this episode about the mainstream fashion industry and where its been going wrong, and why Esther – who used to work in the mainstream fashion industry, decided to leave it behind to first work with Vivienne Westwood, and eventually go on to cofound Fanfare Label.
Fanfare Label’s business values are in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, so we chatted a bit about why Esther used those and how she embedded them into her business strategy.
We talked about the involvement the fashion industry has on modern slavery, and the importance of ensuring the wellbeing of workers, and how Fanfare Label does that.
We also lightened it up a little bit, and I used the opportunity to ask someone who knows about fashion, the best way to buy clothes sustainably, and what to look for to make sure your items of clothing in your wardrobe could be in there for the next 20 years.
We also talked about Esther’s predictions are for the fashion industry in the next 5, 10, 20 years.
And of course, we asked Esther what gets her out of bed in the morning, and the question we ask all our guests – is there such a thing as a truly sustainable business, yet?
This is a really awesome conversation and I hope you enjoy listening to it, as much as I enjoyed having it!
Episode 7: Unpicking The Seams – A Focus On The Fashion Industry With Esther Knight, Co-founder & CEO, Fanfare Label
Charli: Hi, Esther, and welcome to Easy Being Green.
Esther: Hi. Thank you so much for having me. It’s such a privilege to be here today.
Charli: Wonderful. Thank you. So you were in the fashion industry for twelve years before you co-founded Fanfare Label, which for anybody who doesn’t know, is an ethical women’s wear brand that has a focus on sustainability through repurposing, reusing and recycling materials and clothing.
I would love to start off our conversation today by hearing more about your journey so far, what got you to where you are today? And – two part question – what problem or problems are you hoping to solve with Fanfare Label?
Esther: Yeah, of course, it’s been quite a long journey to get here, but it really all started for me with my first job within the fashion industry. So I graduated and got a role within the buying department. I worked for many high street brands, working as buying assistant and working my way up various companies. And it was really there that I saw firsthand the unethical practices within the fashion industry. And I started researching about sustainable fashion. We’re talking ten years ago now that I started this journey in sustainable fashion. And I thought, well, there must be a better way to do business, because I was seeing that no one was being accountable for their actions at all.
Actually, the whole premise of being a buyer is to hit margin targets. And those margin targets come at the expense of people in the environment. There’s no consideration on cost and how much we’re paying for our garments. And that really leads to drastic problems such as corner cutting within supply chains, no health and safety with workers. Workers aren’t protected.
So, it was very much the social side of the industry that I was witnessing. I was on the phone to suppliers and they were still at work at 03:00 in the morning. It was just crazy, the amount of pressure we were just putting on these suppliers to produce more product, reach the deadline, reduce the cost, and if it was a day late, they’d be penalised. It would cut into their margins. And every single time, we would just hammer on cost.
It wouldn’t affect us much as a brand at all. It probably wouldn’t affect the supplier, but the ultimate impact is on the workers.
I really started to witness that we weren’t treating people well. And what comes as empowerment for one person is at the expense of exploitation to another. Actually, we shouldn’t be producing clothing that causes the kind of disastrous impacts in supply chains. So we’ve got human trafficking, we’ve got slavery, child labour, working from dawn until dusk, no breaks, and just really horrific practices going on that actually if we knew more about, we wouldn’t be supporting.
There was just this lack of ownership, really, lack of responsibility. We don’t talk about that. Let’s just carry on business as usual. And so I was getting really fed up of actually seeing that kind of toxic culture accelerate and from working in industry as well, when you’re trying to challenge it – it wasn’t just the supplier side, but it was actually how the working culture in UK fashion brands and “Devil Wears Prada” is real time x 100.
The way people are treated is just so unnecessary. I’ve seen young graduates full of potential, just stripped of all their self-confidence because they’re treated so poorly. And it’s kind of the culture of, well, that’s the nature of fashion and that’s the nature of buying. And if you can’t handle it, go.
But actually, what if the nature of fashion was to bring positive impact or to empower people or take responsibility or go a step further? And the fashion industry is one of the biggest industries, it’s one of the most labour intensive industries, so it shows how many people it impacts through the supply chain and through head offices and things like that, that actually, we could use it as a positive impact, where we could use it to actually pay fair wages and it could solve a lot of the poverty and environmental issues globally if we did things right.
So I started to witness all of these things and was fed up as the phrases that’s the nature of fashion, that’s the nature of buying. So I moved to actually Vivian Westwood to learn more about sustainable fashion and she’s a massive environmental advocate. And that, for me, is when I started learning about the environmental side as well. So before it was very much social, then I started to know about the issues on climate change, the consumption problems that we’re in, and the landfill crisis that we’re in as well. And so it really was kind of cherry on top for me that actually something needs to be done about this.
I wanted to create a brand that was set up on the right values and the right morals. This was before sustainable fashion became one of those words that is just thrown around and actually, people are jumping on the sustainable bandwagon, which is brilliant because it needs to happen.
But this wasn’t set up because I saw an opportunity. This was set up because of the need for doing business the right way.
And so I started Fanfare Label and I really thought that there wasn’t many brands offering cool, contemporary clothing that was sustainably focused. And so this is where Fanfare Label comes in. We still want to look good, we still want to wear cool clothing, even though we care about our ethics, so let’s do that in the right way and that’s where Fanfare Label was born.
Charli: That’s amazing. When you were talking about the culture in the fashion industry and people saying, well, it’s always been this way, that’s just the way it is. Why is that a good thing? In that mindset, the most Unprogressive statement is, well, we’ve always done it this way. Change is so important in every aspect of life, including in industry. So it’s absolutely fascinating to hear that.
Esther: Yeah, definitely. And also, it’s just not wise. I always get the most out of my assistants and people that I worked within industry and who I work with now at Fanfare Label, when you’re empowering them and you’re encouraging them. So why make people feel bad for no reason? You’re not going to get the best out of that person. And it’s just this toxic culture of just pushing each other down to get to the top.
It wasn’t just that we have social and environmental problems, we have cultural problems within fashion organisations that need to change. We need to start treating people better, and we just need to take responsibility. There’s just no need for it.
Charli: Excellent. So looking at your website, I know that Fanfare Label’s business values are in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs; and anybody who’s listening who’s not aware of what those are, they’re at the heart of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted by all UN member States in 2015. And they work as an urgent call for action by all countries to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They include things like poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.
I was really interested to see that you have purposefully aligned your values with those SDGs. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you’ve embedded those into your business strategy and why that was important for you?
Esther: Yeah, of course. So I think that the UN Sustainable Development Goals are really – they cover everything from gender equality to poverty to environmental problems. And it really fitted well with us on what we want to change within the industry. We want fairness and equality for all. We want good business practices, we want to empower people, we want to ensure economic development. And it just seemed that everything that they were saying, we also wanted to try and do through our business. So our values were very much aligned anyway. But I think that using them to form our business plan just always keeps us in check. We’re constantly working on our business plan and updating how we’re going to grow as a company. And when they’re set on something as secure as those goals, it always – you keep going back to the table and it’s a way to continuously improve and look at how we can use business to solve external issues like various poverty and social impact initiatives.
It’s a really good premise to form business decisions on, because it’s often hard. The Fashion Revolution has the mantra of ensuring that profit, creativity, the environment all come in equal measure. And actually from running a business, sometimes you have to put social first, but then it does come at a detriment to profit. And actually, by using these UN Sustainable Development Goals as a foundation, it always keeps you on track and inline as a company. And so they’re in everything we do.
Obviously, some of them don’t relate to fashion and things, but the ones that do are the tackling wastage we ensure that – couldn’t start off a sustainable brand without accounting for the sheer amount of clothing that’s already out there going to landfill and being wasted. So we ensure that we’re reducing other fashion brands wastage by intercepting it before it ends up in landfill and repurposing and reusing where necessary. And then there’s various social goals as well that we apply our business practices to.
Charli: Fantastic. (Sorry if you just heard, I think my Slack just went off. I was just quitting it. It was making a little knocking!).
That’s a really good segue actually, into my next question, which is around specific SDGs and number one, eight, ten and twelve, address poverty, working conditions, reduced inequalities and responsible consumption and production. I think you mentioned there slavery, and it is estimated that there is currently 30 million people living in modern slavery today. I think that’s one of the statistics out there, which is shocking. And of course, it’s probably more than that because it’s a really difficult figure to fact check because so much of it is hidden. Women and girls are disproportionately affected in slavery, accounting for nearly three quarters or modern slavery.
What involvement in that does the fashion industry have (in modern slavery) from what you’ve seen or what you’ve learned? And what does Fanfare Label do to ensure the wellbeing of its workers?
Esther: So one of the main reasons I set up Fanfare Label was around this slavery problem. So I used to volunteer for the A21 campaign, which is an anti-human trafficking charity going in and rescuing girls. And I was working in there – alongside working in fashion – volunteering there, working in fashion. And actually, then I found out that fashion was a contributor of human trafficking. So I thought, well, it’s so contradictory. I’m working in the fashion industry and I’m trying to stop trafficking, where one is causing the other. And so for me, that really was the decider point. I don’t want my impact – I only want my impact to be positive and I want to bring change to this industry and actually use my experience and my knowledge to bring positive change.
That’s really one of the main reasons I set up the company. So from day one, we’ve actually been supporting various human trafficking charities along the way. So we work with International Justice Mission and around Anti Slavery Day, they have a big raise and we always contribute to the raise, and we always raise awareness through our events. We’ve run a few events with them as well, alongside, just to raise money and raise awareness for this charity, because they’re brilliant at actually tackling slavery within fashion supply chains, and then the whole idea is that using business to support wider charity initiatives.
Actually, I’ve already, as a business, managed to support these charities more than I would as an individual. And by hooking our business up to a charity, we can just do so much good work through those methods.
That’s really how we work with charities. The more we grow, the more we can support them. We haven’t got something in place at the moment where we’ve got a percentage of every sale, but whereas we support them on certain days through the year, but eventually we want to get that get to that. When we’ve grown, we’re still in startup phase, but slowly we will be increasing our charity impact to eradicate slavery from fashion supply chains.
I would check out the figures on the A21 website, actually, because it goes into detail on how much is labour slavery and how much is sex trafficking, and it goes into detail about the different industries. But like I said before, fashion is one of the largest, most labour intensive industry, even above agriculture. So there is a lot of problems that we don’t know about with regards to slavery and fashion supply chains.
And I think for us, this is why we want to get everything made locally, because we can ensure – a lot of it does happen quite far away, where you’ve got less control over your supply chain and this is where a lot of outsourcing happens and you think you’re dealing with one factory and actually you’re dealing with three more, and those are the problems out there because factories do outsource. However, keeping things closer to home means that you can monitor them more effectively.
That’s really something that I’ve found running a small business. We don’t have the huge resources of other organisations to implement supply chain tracking and all of these things. But actually by getting things made local, building relationships with our suppliers, working closely with them, going into the factories and visiting them on a regular basis, this is how we can internally audit to make sure that they’re doing the right thing.
So at the moment, everything is produced in the UK and we’re looking at potentially looking into Europe. And when you start to go overseas with production, it’s really important that you’re getting those certified factories that come with the certifications that are government monitored so that, you know, all the practices are legit.
But I think it’s just communication and making sure we’ve got a really good relationship with our suppliers, a really strong ethical code and just trying to build up that relationship fantastic.
Charli: There’s ever such a lot to think about, isn’t there? It shouldn’t be this difficult to do things right and look after people and the planet. It really shouldn’t be that hard. But we’re dealing with decades and decades of industrial revolution and price crunching and making things cheaper and cheaper and buy one, get one free, and sales and all this stuff that’s got us to this point. So it’s like you’re, to use a clothing analogy, unpicking a seam.
Esther: Yeah, we’re constantly jumping through hoops and trying to do things the right way. And yeah, it is really hard and it takes a lot of time and a lot of resource. And from a small brand perspective, that’s a lot. But these are the principles that we’ve been set up up on. So it’s really important.
Charli: Absolutely. And it will be absolutely worth it in the end. And thank heavens there are people like you and businesses like yours that are doing it.
We got really heavy there really quickly. So I thought we’d lighten up a little bit. Now, I rarely buy new clothes, and I’m not joking when I say I have items of clothing in my wardrobe that I’ve had for like 20 years. However, when I do shop for something new, I try to invest in pieces that are really quality, that are built to last, that I’m going to wear all the time that are really comfortable. And hopefully, if I’ve done my research right, they’re produced with as little impact on people and the planet as possible.
So I’m going to ask you – that you’re the expert. I’m definitely not a fashion expert.
What should I be looking for in terms of fabrics and even perhaps in terms of trends that are going to have longevity and go the distance, so that I can keep wearing them in 20 years time?
Esther: Yeah, no, great question. I think that this is everything, again, what we stand for as a company is about longevity. It’s about seasonless. It’s buying better and buying better quality so that you can wear items more and they last and stand the test of time. The items in my wardrobe that I value the most are the ones that I’ve had to save up for, or the ones that have been passed down to me, from my grandparents. And actually, you really cherish those ones that you haven’t just been able to buy with one click of a button that you’ve managed to research and save up for.
Sustainable fashion is more expensive. But if you think about it, actually, if you buy that one piece that’s better made, fairly made and better quality, it’s going to last a heck of a lot more time than buying those fast fashion pieces and having to buy multiple ones.
So it’s all about investing in that one piece, that one piece that you’re going to cherish and you’re going to love and you’re going to really value in your wardrobe. And that’s, again, Vivian Westwood’s motto of “buy to last”. So buy things that will last that are high quality, buy better. Consider things that you’re buying, making sure that you’re supporting small, sustainable brands, and just making sure that you’re being very conscious about what kind of things that you buy that will stand the test of time that you can style up and also just style your clothing, so you can make your clothing last by being able to pair it with multiple different outfits.
When it comes to what should I invest in, I’d always say go for those staple pieces that you can make look different with various different outfits as well. So it’s not about chasing micro trends that come in and out of fashion really quickly, but more about the macro and the bigger picture.
We design clothing that is going to stand the test of time. And being a good designer means that you’re able to predict trends in three, four, five years time. So we need to make clothes that last that long. Your pieces that you can style up – blazers, jeans, all of these things. And you can wear multiple different ways, I think is the key there.
And I’m just really assessing, do I need this item? How many times can I wear this item and what can I wear with this item to style it up multiple different ways. So we have jumpers that you can turn around, wear inside out, and things like that because it reduces that kind of boredom element of clothing and actually gives you a new lease of life.
We also offer this service where you can send in your jeans and we decorate them for you, for customers. So if you bought us some old jeans in your wardrobe, why not send them in and get them completely redecorated by our design team?
It’s just finding these little things to make us interested in the product in our wardrobe again.
And then I would say, in terms of buying better – fabric is really important. So I would say, just try and shop small, shop small and sustainable, because you’re supporting people that have the right values and that have been set up on the right principles. And this will really avoid green washing, because
…although some of the high street brands or bigger brands are jumping on this sustainability movement, is it with the right intentions or is it just with their customers? Because to me, they’ve had their chance. They’ve proved that without it being a movement, a sustainability movement, they’ve chosen to do things the wrong way. So try and find companies that have chosen to do things the right way.
Always look at the fabrics, because fabrics have a key environmental impact and synthetic fibres don’t biodegrade. I think it takes 200 years for a polyester item to actually biodegrade. And if we all threw out a polyester item, you can imagine why we’re in a landfill crisis as it is.
So, I would say always shop natural fabrics. Obviously, ones that are certified are better. We use GOTS certified organic cotton, which means that it isn’t just organic cotton. It means it’s certified by a governing body so that people and the environment are protected all the way through that supply chain. There’s zero chemicals, no harm to workers in the process. Whereas a lot of fabrics have really strong dyes and hazardous chemicals in and particularly synthetic fibres. I would just avoid at all costs and also, have a look at fabric mixes. So a lot of the brands out there at the moment say in their sustainable – the things that they call a sustainable collection, obviously, that word is thrown around when it’s not correctly used – you have, like, 40% organic cotton, 60% polyester, and name it as a “sustainable item”. Well, actually, that’s not sustainable because the organic cotton isn’t certified, for one. And the second thing is it’s mixed with polyester, which automatically discounts all of its credibility. And it means that it can’t be recycled at the end of life.
So when you’re looking at labels that are 100% something, 100% cotton, 100% organic cotton, 100% linen, they can biodegrade at end of life because they are a natural fibre. It’s very important to check your labels.
Charli: Thank you for that. That’s really interesting. The other part, I guess, of polyester is the washing, isn’t it? What comes out in the wash? And we’ve just discovered microplastics in people’s lungs for the first time, which is absolutely – my husband is a paramedic clinician, and he’s like, I just don’t even want to think about what that is doing to our internal organs – so choosing natural fabrics, I assume when you wash them, you’re negating the chance of putting micro plastics into the oceans and into our food systems.
Esther: Yeah, definitely another massive problem. It’s so hard to cover them all.
Charli: It’s so true. Okay, so staying on the topic of fashion and longevity, what are your predictions? You said you’re looking at the next five years for trends to make sure that your pieces have longevity.
What do you think the fashion industry will look like in the next 5,10, 20 years?
Are we going to see more sustainability. And what I’d love is that if more brands and more small businesses like yours pop up, eventually the cost that you mentioned of sustainable fashion will actually start coming down as it becomes the thing that just everybody does.
Esther: Yeah, I think this is it. There isn’t a lot of infrastructure within fashion supply chains at the moment. So I’ve just mentioned a few things of how difficult it is for us to do things right, even with the best intentions and the amount of hoops that we have to jump through. And actually designing a collection within sustainability is really hard compared to in high street.
For example, in high street, you would design a collection, design some garments, and find a fabric to fit. Well, in sustainable fashion, you can’t do that because quite often you can’t find the fabric to fit. So it’s like you’ve got to find the fabric fit and then design around that. And so it just means everything takes longer, there’s a lot more thought that goes into everything. It is the term slow fashion because we’re considering every aspect of the supply chain.
And with that comes a cost because we’ve got high minimums to reach, because there isn’t the infrastructure in the sustainable supply chains. We’re wanting to ensure that we’re looking after our workers. Getting everything made locally is expensive as well. And so actually the cost for your brand is really high. So the more that brands grow, the more infrastructure and resources they have to reduce the cost. And because we’re very small scale at the moment, yeah, exactly, a sustainable fashion item is more expensive. But then that’s why we try and offer our jeans, for example, that we upcycle at a cheaper price point, because we’re saving those from going to landfill and trying to upcycle them at the same time rather than creating newness all the time.
So I would say that sustainable fashion is just on the cusp. We’re going to see a lot more of it. It’s a growing market and customers are demanding. So we’re going to see a lot more change within that space. And yes, hopefully as brands grow, as we grow, our intention is to make sustainable fashion more accessible to the mass market.
And then I would say there’s a massive trend about this Metaverse. I’m not the one to talk about this at all, but we’ve just had a Metaverse Fashion Week, and the pandemic has caused a big shift on digital fashion and online fashion. So I think that that’s really going to play a role in the near future, to be honest. But I don’t know too much about that at the moment, and that’s something that I need to research personally. So I would say digital innovation and sustainability are two of the main topics within fashion in the next five to ten years.
Charli: That’s so interesting. I had no idea there was a Metaverse Fashion Week. I’m going to definitely look into that. Excellent. So coming back to you, Esther, what drives you?
What gets you up out of bed in the morning to do all your meetings? And with all these challenges, what is it that drives you and gets you doing that?
Esther: I think it’s the impact. So a bit like what I’ve said before, no business is perfect. No business is 100% sustainable. But knowing that I’m doing the best that I can is really fuel, and actually that I’m using my experience and my knowledge to bring positive change and hopefully change this industry for the better.
I think as long as I remind myself of all of our achievements, it really does help with the pressures of being a founder and running your own business.
I think that what I look at is how much I’ve managed to achieve. Like what I said with the charity, if I was just an individual trying to change, I’ve done so much more through my business and actually, that is really encouraging. And now we’ve got a few members of staff. It’s just great to be there for them and see how excited they are about the brand growing.
But also our customers, our customers are key to this. We wouldn’t be anywhere without the support from our customers and our community.
And actually, every single customer that orders something or sends a nice message or does a five star review, that’s acknowledged by everyone on the team. And this shows the importance of supporting small, because every purchase is noticed, every review is noticed. And this is what really we’re here for.
And this is where we owe all of our things is our customers and their support. So yeah.
Charli: Oh, gosh. Supporting a small business. It’s so true. When you buy something from a small business, like you say, it’s noticed. I used to work for an online ecommerce, sustainable ecommerce brand, and every time the Shopify went “Ding!”, everybody used to celebrate like, yeah, we’ve got another purchase and it’s just completely different from those big conglomerates.
I can imagine for you. It’s so refreshing having your members of staff and being able to treat them the way that you probably wish you were treated when you started out and when you were working for somebody else. So that must be really nice. Really nice feeling.
Esther: Yeah, definitely. And actually just making sure that they’re given the opportunities that I had to fight for and work for and actually, which should be just normal practice. But yeah, now it’s really good.
Charli: Brilliant. Our final question for today is the one that we asked all our guests on this podcast and that is:
Do you think there is such a thing as a truly sustainable business, yet?
Esther: I don’t. I think everyone, every business has an impact at some kind of level. All I can say is that you do the best that you can and consider every area. So we consider our environmental impact by getting everything made local, but just by producing you have an impact on the environment. And so it’s just about how you can really try and reduce that as much as you can offset it or do good in other ways, like your charity, push things into charity as well.
There’s no such thing as 100% sustainable. Everyone has an impact at a certain level, but it’s just about reviewing where you can reduce that impact. And every time you’re going over your business practices, Just reviewing that and making continuous improvements.
Charli: Brilliant. That’s a lovely place to end our conversation today. Thank you so much for joining me today, Esther. I really enjoyed chatting to you and best of luck for your business. I’ll be following your journey closely.
Esther: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been great chatting.