It’s never been more important (or on topic!) to advocate sustainability in fashion than it is today. Given the number of global issues caused by the clothing industry — from pollution to human rights infringement — creating a label which makes less of a social and environmental impact is crucial. But what techniques are involved in making an eco-friendly fashion label, and how can you make your business stand out from the crowd?
Whether you’re someone who wants to study fashion, are an entrepreneur keen to start up a conscious fashion brand or are an existing designer who wants to produce more responsibly, this one is for you! Keep reading for a comprehensive guide on how to set up a sustainable fashion label, and hear from existing designers and experts in PR, marketing and branding about how you can set your label up for success.
1. Know what you stand for
For any sustainable fashion label, it’s important to know your ‘why.’ What’s your mission? What ethical values do you want to champion? So do some soul searching and pick an area within the conscious fashion space that you’re most passionate about. However, be clear about the type of impact you want to make from the start. You will, therefore, be able to set strong foundations for the rest of your business.
Also, as well-intentioned as you might be, know that it can be hard to perfect every aspect of your supply chain at the start unless you have a lot of cash and exceptional contacts (if so, lucky you!) For many brand owners, incorporating sustainability happens in stages, perhaps due to budget constraints, or simply because of the time it takes to find the right partners.
Designer Alicia Tsi, the founder of conscious label Esse, was inspired to focus on sustainable fabrics because she had become tired of buying into poor quality fast fashion brands that fell apart too quickly. “With so many retailers churning out generic, homogenous looks in poor quality materials, I decided that this was the path I needed to take,” she explains. Over the last year, she has dedicated time and resources to improve the processes at every stage of her supply chain, in order to make the best and most transparent final product possible.
Whatever path you choose, know what your priorities are and stick to them. Moreover, there will always be opportunities to improve down the line as your business grows. Be transparent with your customers about any pitfalls, and take them on your sustainability journey with you. Honesty is key, and they’ll be drawn to your label all the more for it!
2. Define your target market
Building a sustainable fashion label means knowing who you want your customer to be. What’s their age, location, interests and income level? Where does your brand sit in terms of price point and style? All these are questions you’ll need to analyse and answer. Avoid assumptions and research, research, research! This information will form the building blocks of your brand strategy.
“Brands are positioned by giving customers a specific value,” says Anisa Johnny, a senior lecturer at Raffles College of Higher Education, Singapore. “Imagine your customers already have one of everything they need. Look at what your competition offer, what they are lacking and how you can fill a gap.”
There are a few different steps you can take to define your target audience. You could organise and run a focus group, create a survey online and broadcast it to your networks on social media, or run an MVP and test it among friends. Use multiple testing methods and gather as much information as you can. It will help you to refine your audience and concept until it’s just right.
Know who you want your customer to be. What’s their age, location and income level? Where does your brand sit in terms of price point and style?
3. Sourcing eco-friendly materials
The million-dollar question for new sustainable fashion designers? How to go about sourcing eco-friendly fabrics. First things first: be resourceful and explore your options online. The internet is a gold mine of information and an ideal place to start your hunt for reputable suppliers.
Try looking up options through organisations like Ethical Fashion Forum. You may even find luck on platforms like Alibaba. “I’ve used Alibaba on occasion and have posted a very specific product request, and quite a few eco suppliers have reached out to me first,” says Danielle Champagne, founder of sustainable fashion label Zhai.
Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to people already in the industry and ask (nicely) for advice. It may seem daunting at first, but the likelihood is you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how happy people are to help.
“Finding suppliers online or through word of mouth is great, but I’ve found that other individuals in the sustainable fashion industry are usually very helpful and open to sharing resources or pointing you in the right direction of reliable suppliers. We all share the same ethical goals; it’s about collaboration, not a competition,” says Danielle.
Don’t forget, whether online or offline, always make sure to request for certifications, and details of previous and current customers. Unfortunately, as it stands, there is no one organisation that certifies fabric and fibre composition as sustainable or not. GOTS certification (for organic cotton) or B Corp certifications are a more affordable option for some companies and are ones you should look out for.
4. Developing your design concept
Once you’ve defined your ethics, settled on your target market and found the right fabrics, it’s time to get creative and develop your design concept and collection ideas!
Start by creating a mood board to make sense of your vision. Make collages of pictures and photographs, write down keywords and decide on a brand message that inspires your label’s concept.
Make sure to keep your customer in mind when developing your brand identity. “I always tell my students, unless you’re the next Alexander McQueen, you will need to consider commerciality” says Anisa. “Who is your customer? What are their expectations? What can they not find in the market? How can you design for their lifestyle? What’s missing from your competitor’s offerings? After you have considered these issues, then you can bring in your sense of style and design accordingly.”
The next step is translating your vision board into the real thing. But how do you go from an idea to final product? Fashion design is a technical skill and involves understanding construction, how different fabrics work, and to know about seams and stitching. So if you’re not formally trained, invest in a course to deepen your knowledge. Such as learning how to create technical illustrations to pattern making and doing up specification sheets. It will help communicate crucial construction details to the factory or seamstress you’ll be using. Even if you end up hiring someone to help you with aspects of design production, you’ll still have a good foundational knowledge to build on. In Singapore, institutions like NAFA or TAFTC hold great short and part-time courses.
You may find that a lot of design decisions you make are based on the fabrics you choose to use. After that, you’ll need to go through a few rounds of creating, testing and tweaking to make sure you get the right fit. Once you’re happy with your final samples, you’re ready to find the right production partner. Which leads us on to…
5. Knowing your supply chain
Transparency is everything in the sustainable fashion world. So your customers need to trust what you’re delivering. To truly know that your product is what it says on the tin, you’ll have to be clear about all the steps involved in your supply chain.
If it’s practical, make the effort to visit and get to know the factory or production unit you’re using. A good working relationship with your suppliers can certainly make all the difference.
“I used to arrive unannounced to see the production facilities I worked with and how they carried out everyday operations,” says Anisa. “If you’re kept in an office or your supplier tries to distract you, they probably have something they don’t want to disclose.”
If for whatever reason, you can’t visit your suppliers personally, the safer option is to only do business with those who can act as a bridge. For instance, there are internationally recognised fabric certifications such as GOTS, FLO or OEKO-TEX. They will reassure you (and your customer!) that your brand complies with a long list of ethical labour and environmental standards.
Transparency is everything in the sustainable fashion world. So your customers need to trust what you’re delivering.
6. Branding 101
From your website to your social media, you should be telling a compelling visual story. Above all, this helps to make your label stand out from the crowd.
At the most basic level, invest time and budget, if necessary, into your branding. Any symbols, typography or colours that you use in your logo should give your customer a feel of what you offer before they even see your product. If you’re not savvy with Photoshop or InDesign, enlist the help of a good freelance graphic designer to help you achieve your goals.
When working on your branding, aim to design something that stands out. Founder of branding, web design and social media agency Delilah Creative, Hester Aba, always ensures not to follow competitors. “In our design projects, we love adding little unexpected touches like patterns, surprising colour combinations or unique image styles to make sure brands look distinctive.”
Don’t forget, consistency is king! In other words, make sure your brand looks and feels the same across all of your touchpoints. “Whether it’s the tone of your emails, the look of your invoices, or your website and social media. Everything should feel like part of the same family,” says Hester.
7. Promoting your label launch
Soon you’ll want to start thinking about how to promote your brand and launch. But how do you cut through the noise as a small business with little to no budget for publicity?
It may seem like the struggle is real (we’ve been there!), but there are sure-fire ways to get yourself noticed by local media. As a small business owner, reaching out to publications yourself with your story and visuals gives a personal touch and adds a sense of authenticity to your story. Remember: while the business may be about you and your ideas, make sure to focus on your USP.
In her work with indie brands, Ng Lay Peng, founder of Bask Communications, always insists on ensuring founders focus on what makes them stand out from the crowd. “Media are interested to know how you are shaking up the scene, creating something new and making a difference,” she says. “So your USP, be it your product range, shopping experience or sourcing will serve as key selling points to the media to get your brand out there.”
“Media are interested to know how you are shaking up the scene, creating something new and making a difference.”
Finally, don’t forget you have a completely free tool at your disposal: social media! Leverage on sharing your product, campaign photography and behind the scenes clips on platforms like Instagram and Facebook. Make sure you use the right hashtags to position your brand and build a following. On top of that, take advantage of the fact that now, thanks to the digital world, you’re able to reach out to top influencers and key opinion leaders to help spread the word about your business, or even seed your products to.
Did you find this article useful? Got any more tips on setting up a sustainable fashion label? Leave a comment below and continue the conversation! Want to read more articles about sustainable fashion? Browse below!