Business Topical

How can individuals & small companies compete in the fashion sustainability marketplace?

Sustainable Solopreneurs: Why Our Voice Matters in the Fight for Industry Equality

Glasgow is hosting the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) during 31 October – 12 November 2021.

Something yet to be covered at the conference is sustainable fashion. When asked, people usually will say that they would rather buy sustainable fashion than so-called “fast fashion”. But when faced with choice on price, the fast fashion wins. Lora Nikolaeva of Lora GENE explores what needs to be done to help the sector.

Ethics vs economics

We have all been there, that moment where you see two products in the supermarket or on the website you’re scrolling through, that on the surface, look more or less the same, but one is marketed as “environmentally friendly” or “ethically sourced”. The other simply boasts amazing product benefits, and what’s more, it’s easier on the price. It’s a split-second decision with a generational consequence. From the perspective of the consumer when they see a company selling sustainability as a cost-benefit, you might find it confusing, or as though a higher cost to consumers means a higher profit margin.

Is it economically sustainable?

The reality is, that if you ask a sustainable business if being genuinely sustainable really boosts sales or profits, you’ll be told in no uncertain terms that the answer is, no.

There may be some variation from this unfortunate truth between businesses; depending, on the strategy of the small-medium business model and how a business owner chooses to embed sustainability into their company’s core values. But something that all small sustainable businesses will attest to, is the financial implication that comes with flying the flag of shopping responsibly. The results can be crippling for smaller businesses.

paisley shirt

Time to level the playing field

So what can we do to level the playing field and invite big corporations to fight fair? There seems to be a much higher price to pay if we want to operate a sustainable business against global giants, but with 96% of private businesses in the UK considered an “SME”, it’s time to amplify our voices and take the lead, and I’m making the case for change.

There is so much confusion and conversation around the concept of sustainability. Consumers, rightly, may find themselves lost in knowing their organic from their eco-friendly in a retail market that is overshadowed by big corporations with the means to green-wash their way past small-business opposition.

The fight for awareness

The reality is that as a small business and sustainable fashion brand, we’re fighting to be understood in the first place! Many consumers baulk at the price tags of sustainable clothing, with little understanding of the costs sustainable brands have to contend with. That said, it must be clear. Sustainable brands face more costs across every link in the supply chain; from materials to equitable labour. The reality is that it costs much more to make garments that last. The proof is in the product. But, shifting our modern-day mindset away from the immediacy of global delivery and fast, on-demand fashion is difficult to achieve.

Capitalism and the dominance of individualistic culture have embedded a moral deficit within us, that leads us to believe we should have everything we want, when we want it.

Add to the dilemma that “fast fashion” is unquestionably still on the rise, and it doesn’t look like it will ever drop and you find the culprit of one of the biggest environmental crises of our time.

Fast fashion – an environmental blight

The fast fashion industry currently produces over 92 million tons of waste per year. The environmental impacts are colossal; the industry is responsible for 10% of the global carbon emissions with that number set to almost triple to 26% by 2050. We face a bleak reality and even with glass-half-full optimism, these problems won’t be reversed in our lifetime, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason to take action now. We surely need to switch perspectives and think of practical solutions rather than continuing with the narrative that “fast fashion is evil”. It’s falling on deaf ears.

The industry is profitable and employs hundreds of thousands of people and there is no simple solution for all this. This gargantuan machine for disposable clothing won’t go away anytime soon.

different shirts and colours on hanging rail

Funding sustainable alternatives

In light of these figures, isn’t it about time we introduced some sensible propositions for subsidies and policies that incentivise companies towards sustainable practices? Why aren’t we rewarding those that champion sustainability? Its arguable whether it’s a free market, because it definitely isn’t, there are rules, and they have been created to regulate the market.. but apparently in the ‘’liberalised free market’’ regulations on big fast fashion companies are not really possible (that’s what they tell us).

However, subsidies have been used by governments for over a century, with fossil fuels heavily subsidised. If we are going to achieve the decarbonisation goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change, there needs to be economic and social transformation. In the UK, the revenue of the fashion industry is £62.2 billion for 2021, with global sales of apparel and footwear set to exceed £2.4 trillion by 2030. If small businesses turned their efforts toward collectively pushing national policy changes that incentivise sustainable business practices, instead of banging the drum for imposing regulations on global corporations that disregard tax bills and penalties, we could push the needle on the issues and level the playing field.

Social media needs to help

Humans are creatures of habit and the welcoming of globalisation has brought with it an unchartered digital connection that consumes the western world daily. There are currently 53 million active social media users in the UK every, single day, and if small brands were genuinely supported by the likes of Instagram and TikTok, there would be so much advantage to gain from the free visibility of these platforms.

Social media platforms could do so much more to facilitate greater exposure of brands and businesses that are prioritising ethical trading and environmental action- instead, we see the endorsements and benefits rolling in for global giants with advertising budgets that could bring the poverty pandemic to a halt- but that’s a different story. As an example, account verification that automatically contributes to a brands authenticity should not depend on the number of followers you have. Brands need to be truly tested if they are claiming to do work that will impact social and environmental inequalities.

Be the change you want to see

As small brands, the onus is always on us to be the change we want to see. I truly believe that we have to be working towards the same change if we are going to see any transformation in the fashion industry. Sustainable has become a buzzword, especially in the clothing sector, but the interesting thing is that it carries two different definitions. The first talks of being able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.

Yes, in terms of our products, a sustainable product is something that stands the test of time, we want to be able to say the same about our business too. The second concept of what sustainable means is something that can be upheld or defended. We have certainly got a fight on our hands, to make the case on why sustainable businesses matter. So what are we going to do?

It’s time to stand up and be counted.

About the author

Lora Gene sitting down

Lora Nikolaeva started Lora GENE, as she yearned to truly create change. As the owner of one of the leading ethical clothing companies in the world, she feels it’s important to leverage their influence and align economic development with environmental care. Supporting all women is the unwavering vision of Lora GENE, with tremendous investment in social action initiatives taking place behind the scenes.

Lora GENE is B Corp certified, meaning that it has high standards of transparency, accountability, and performance. It was a labour of love to achieve the certification but we are incredibly proud of achieving it and despite that its not ideal, as every other certificate out there, it’s probably the highest standard and the only one that looks at the business operation as a whole. It is visible proof that we are constantly doing the work required to be the best in the business.

Related posts from The Complaining Cow

Is a penny on a garment enough to tackle environmental issues? In February 2019 MPs called for there to be a penny added to every item of clothing to fund a £35m annual recycling scheme. Nothing happened.

Build your brand with Trust, Ethics & Sustainability  The 09 October 2020 saw the last day of Customer Service Week which is run by the Institute of Customer Service. That day’s theme was Trust, Ethics & Sustainability: Building brand reputation through your actions.

Christmas shopping in a lockdown – how to avoid the unethical online giants this is a guest post by Emma Oddie at Ethical Consumer who shares tips and ideas on being more ethical at Christmas.

Fast and Cheap Fashion – Who pays the Price? Guest post by Simon Birch from Ethical Consumer discusses the unethical clothing suppliers were breaking lockdown rules.

Vote with your feet does boycotting work? Article discussing boycotting companies when you don’t agree with their ethics.