Are you a student, designer or employee of a brand who finds ‘sustainability’ confusing? Individuals in their daily roles as consumers, citizens, educators, aspiring entrepreneurs, community members, decision-makers, or activists find themselves eager to get started with developing more sustainable lifestyles and societies. At the same time, they are a little bit confused. For many decades, sustainability has been the focus in numerous sector-specific researches and movements by scientists, environmentalists, lawyers and economists. Rapidly, the concept turned into a catch-all term used to describe current issues. Consequently, to different people, it means so many different things. Therefore, some people even say that the term is overused, misleading, or confusing.
Debbie Luffman is the Product Director at Finisterre with over 16 years broad industry experience in fashion and textiles, spanning design, buying, sourcing and range building, to current role as Product Director at pioneering, sustainable outdoor clothing brand, Finisterre. Since 2008 Debbie has shaped the product and customer experience at Finisterre. She has led ambitious initiatives to reduce the brand’s environmental impact and re-imagine a new and positive future for retail. Drawing on her experiences at Finisterre, Debbie has founded ThinkCircular, to work within business, education & policy as a change agent and circular activist, to inspire the transition towards circularity.
Debbie, over to you tell us a bit about sustainability…
You quickly realise there is so much rubbish in the world of sustainability. Whatever those words mean. A lot of the information around ‘sustainability’ is misinformation. It’s insane. People call it green washing. But I don’t think it is greenwashing, I know that it is well intentioned. “For me it’s about cutting to the core of what is actually going on and working to evolve and improve on business as usual, working across teams, industry and consumers to enrich understanding, engaging and raising the bar.”
What does sustainability look like for brands in the next two decades?
It’s the same for all brands to a certain degree. It’s way easier for start-ups. If I was to start a business today I would know exactly what my toolkit would need to be to start a sustainable brand. It’s actually much harder if you have a supply chain and a product in place because you are constantly back tracking. These key components are measuring…
Gone are the days where in order to be a sustainable brand you need to make everything out of organic cotton. Now it’s really about measuring impact and balancing impact. All textiles and shipping is bad. Everything has an impact. Nature doesn’t need us to make stuff. In order to be sustainable its about maintaining and managing impacts. Consultants are having the time of their lives right now, everybody is carbon footprinting, everybody is doing their life cycle analysis, everybody is doing a materiality assessment, including Finisterre, because that’s what you’ve got to do. You can’t improve unless you know where you are at.
How do you measure sustainability?
I would question if numbers are the right approach to measuring sustainability in business. In order to report to the business people like to love data. Data is king at the moment. If you can show that x is twice as bad as z then people know what to do with that. So in order to do that there are lots of ways to do it. You need to decide what are the things that matter to the business in terms of sustainability.
Clothing is quite complex. For the sake of understanding the problem from a simpler point of view, if you are in the burger business, you produce beef burgers so your footprint will be agriculture and transport. You will know what those impact factors are so you are looking at transportation networks so you’ll get CO2 data and you’ll get agricultural methane data. Most businesses get data but the most important part is what can you do as a result of the data. That burger brand will have collated the facts from the data but they don’t say ‘this is what we’re going to do about it’, which is where suitability comes in. It sounds obvious but so many people do it. They spend their time reporting data when actually they need to change their product, for example linking back to the burger brand, they may decide that selling vegan burgers is the best thing for the business. Don’t get so stuck on the data.
Does Finisterre feed education about sustainability into their products?
I definitely don’t like the word education. I think it’s about engagement. Preaching to people doesn’t work. In order for somebody to be interested in knowing you need to engage with them by telling a story through pictures, film, or a chat in a retail store. Our retail stores are fantastic at doing this. That human approach instead of the digital is what’s needed. Education is the wrong word. Whereas engagement is interactive, it’s a two-way street and you get feedback. We’ve just done a campaign called ‘Ko hope’ which is about really saying it’s not all doom and gloom, climate change is such an oppressive and depressing prospect, whereas let’s instead talk about some signs of life. So for me the education process is there but you are doing it through chat, through stories and content.
How do you take language that surrounds the technology of sustainability and soften it for the consumer?
We have just released a Yulex wetsuit. Yulex is a natural rubber and it is better than neoprene. Now that requires some level of understanding. So, this is all about good and bad in peoples heads. But actually, there is no such thing as bad, it is only ever better or worse. Going back to the point of nature doesn’t need us, nature would be much happier without us. Let’s be honest. So in terms of engagement it’s not enough to say ‘here’s a Yulex wetsuit’, you have to do the piece of ‘and this is interesting because Yulex is….’ I think where greenwashing falls down is where people try desperately to make things digestible. Brands try to say ‘we have made an effort to make something better…’ but then shoot themselves in the foot because they confuse everybody. We don’t actually know anymore because we keep being told that something is ethical or sustainable or green or eco. None of those things mean anything, they don’t help engagement about anything. It’s just a bland word. How does Finisterre do this? Recently we have collaborated with the Natural History Museum. We try to bring nature into people’s lives at a time when a lot of people have been stuck indoors. Engage with nature through content and through stories and bring to life the natural world. You are much more likely to be inspired and to protect it. If you have a relationship with the natural world you won’t throw a crisp packet in the sea, very simplistically. Creating a connection between the environment and people instead of throwing statistics and sustainability chatter always works.
What does Finisterre do with dead stock or stock that doesn’t sell?
We have a cycle. If stock doesn’t sell, we have a clearance event and a mark down sale. Then we take it off the shop floor and send it to outlets. We have an outlet in Hawksfield and Exeter. This is where our previous season stock goes.
The great thing at Finisterre is because we are not a fashion brand and we are not ‘trends’ it’s not that it’s going to look crazily out of date. It’s just that the colour might not be to everyone’s cup of tea, or the print wasn’t as easy to wear as another one. We don’t follow trends. So usually, we find it sells in our outlets with a price reduction. We don’t have a huge dead stock issue. However, we have more of an issue if we have faulty stock or returned stock from a customer and it’s got makeup on it. The dead stock pot also known as the end of life pot traditionally we have always given to charity. We have a couple of different places we give it to. We give a lot of our base layers and insulation to Waves for Change in South Africa, it’s a lot colder in the Winter than you think. My husband is the warehouse manager and he is Peruvian, he has connections and he obviously cares about his homeland.
However we have a new plan, because we are growing and so is our dead and faulty stock, so we’re launching a re-commerce sight this year, which is really exciting. It’s a separate website and it’s run by a secondary third party. That will be a platform where Finisterre customers can trade in their own Finisterre products and buy others. We’ll also sell our dead stock on here as well. If it’s truly dead, lets say the zip is broken and it’s not worth repairing, we’ve got an up-cycling part, where we might be able to make a bag out of a jacket, or a wallet out of a pair of jeans so that’s part of the same programme. Eventually, recycling is the final port of call, which is also linked to our London based partner who does all of our end of life solutions.
Is the aim to recycle products, so you end up with fibres or compounds closest to their natural state which you can reuse through an innovation department to make new products?
That’s the sustainability unicorn we are all waiting for. If you’ve made a nylon elastane product, it will be a nightmare to recycle, particularly active wear brands. It’s almost impossible to recycle this, so you are more likely to down cycle it, which has a purpose. You can fill bean bags and punch bags and stuff with it. It’s not very sexy but there is an end of life for that kind of product. Fibre to fibre recycling which is the unicorn is happening. There is a huge amount of investment going into innovation across the whole industry. I would say in three years we will be there. We are at the concept stage at the moment. Wetsuits from wetsuits are part of it. At the moment we produce recycled products and we have products that we send to recycling but we haven’t connected the dots yet, nobody has. People talk about close-loop but it’s not quite there. The end-of-life products are in Europe and the initial feedstock is in Asia, so you’re not going to send that product back to Asia to recycle it, there is no value in it. Close loop is an abstract term at the moment but not to poor water on it. There is no reason why ‘close the loop’ won’t become a reality in the short term. It will happen and it won’t take more than 3-5 years. At the moment everyone is waiting for it.
Does that require policy change?
No. It would help. Nobody in business really waits for policy. It requires collaboration at whatever level that is needed. So if you need funding you might need a little bit of policy but generally across industry, brand collaboration is required and it is happening. Government is miles away. Stuff that they were talking about ten years ago, they are still talking about it. Business makes it work faster. It would help, policy is vital to support, promote and fund change, but it can also slow it down.
This articles features in the November issue. View the issue HERE
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