The luxury goods industry has a long-standing reputation for creating extravagant items and expressing art through craftmanship, but where major brands have fallen short in the past, is where sustainability is considered.
Today’s luxury brands are waking up to the need to change this. The earth shouldn’t suffer because these items exist, and it’s refreshing to see industry players responding by slowly transforming and championing sustainable innovation.
The luxury industry deals with richer margins that can afford to innovate and disrupt, with the potential to pave the way for new technologies that can be scalable and provide solutions for the fast fashion industry – which represents 8-10 percent of global emissions.
Driving improved transparency, accountability, standards and collaboration within the industry is not without challenge. Thankfully, there are organisations supporting the industry on these fronts. Positive Luxury is one of them, certifying organisations with the Butterfly Mark for adapting to the new climate economy and meeting the highest standard of sustainability best practices across ESG+ (Environmental, Social, Governance and Innovation), and working with businesses to champion improvement and innovative practices.
This year, I was honoured to join its judging panel at the Positive Luxury Awards 2023, one of luxury’s leading awards celebrating innovation in sustainability, showcasing businesses that are leading, disrupting and newly emerging, embedding sustainability within their core business model.
Who are the newly founded movers and shakers in the sustainable luxury fashion space?
Nominees were companies with a clear purpose beyond profit and leading the drive for sustainable innovation in luxury. They had exceptionally high credentials and demonstrated how they are providing solutions in line with consumer demands and the need for industry transformation.
I was inspired by the high calibre of the three Positive Luxury-certified nominees in the Breakthrough Business of the Year category, all of whom are innovating to achieve the highest impact to do good. The panel looked for clear and measurable examples of tangible commitment and impact.
1. Saywood Studio
The winner of the category was Saywood Studio, an inspiring London-based fashion house that demonstrates a unique circular business model.
The company, which launched in 2020, is run by just one person, Harriet Saywood-Bellisario, who collaborates with purpose-led freelance designers to collectively pause the button on fast fashion and produce small collections of quality garments while considering the planet and the people throughout the process.
Harriet’s vision of a successful business is to keep the brand small and unique while ensuring timeless and functional garments are produced sustainably.
She works with local ethical factories that pay well above the living wage with a shared ambition for zero waste, using natural fibres, responsible cellulose, recycled materials and deadstock fabrics wherever possible, with no new cloth produced to reduce water and energy usage.
Saywood focuses on storytelling techniques to strengthen ESG credentials, enabling consumers to feel more connected to the suppliers’ backgrounds and the clothing they purchase.
Harriet also connects with local communities to ensure people have knowledge of and access to sustainable fashion to boost equality and inclusivity in the industry. She also runs workshops to upskill in mending, repairing and utilising waste.
Saywood for Good donates a portion of revenue to three chosen charities, non-profit organisations or NGOs at the end of each year, to shape Saywood’s sustainability goals for people, the planet and the future.
Future plans include reaching farm level with Saywood cotton for a closer connection and implementing a take-back service to recycle and regenerate end-of-life products.
Winning the award was a big turning point for the firm and while it was very proud to receive such an accolade, Saywood isn’t getting complacent. The business continues to strive to fully integrate sustainability throughout all operations, driving better engagement and community-making from its suppliers down to farmer level, right the way through to its consumers.
2. Cult Mia
A recently established independent fashion platform that vets thousands of global designers to unearth indie brands placing sustainability at the heart of their operations, Cult Mia veers away from promoting fast, disposable fashion.
It was refreshing to see a platform like this working with its chosen brands to reach the targets set by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and laying out standards in style, ethics, and stories for artisanal designers to adhere to.
The platform’s ultimate goal is to open the doors to unique fashion worldwide from designers and brands that align with the same sustainability values as its consumers.
To achieve this, it has launched Cult Causes to curate and support the brands that share the company’s key values, while still remaining exclusive and high quality.
The four Cult Causes are: Cult Eco (supporting brands committed to the cause), Cult Conscious (supporting crafters, such as social Lebanese enterprise Sarah's Bag, which employs more than 100 female ex-prisoners for hand-beading purposes), Cult Local (honouring local craftsmen and their heritage) and Cult Power (supporting minority-owned businesses and minority-led fashion labels).
A strategic focus has enabled Cult Mia to carve a sustainable path for the company and its brands via sustainable sourcing and waste management strategies. Positive Luxury helped Cult Mia embed a sustainability rating method and a made-to-measure initiative (to avoid dead stock, waste and returns).
Cult Mia is striving for 100 percent plastic-free packaging, a reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50 percent and to halve its website’s total GHG emissions.
3.Thread & Tonic
Thread & Tonic was created by brother-sister duo Nakul and Sonal Malhotra. The business focuses on zero-plastic, innovative technology and material sciences in the fashion industry, while bolstering the community by giving back to local people who will benefit directly from purchases.
The pioneering brand – one of the world’s first carbon-neutral accessories brands – reduces environmental impacts and helps transform the industry through its responsible actions. These actions include ensuring the materials are either recycled or biodegradable and the custom-developed leather recipe doesn’t contain hazardous chemicals.
All items have a lifetime guarantee and champion longevity, waste reduction and sustainable production practices. Each Thread & Tonic creation is handmade in the world’s first leather goods factory powered by 100 percent solar energy and is supported by a local supply chain for lower emissions.
Partnering with Positive Luxury has boosted the brand’s performance by benchmarking its highest standards through measuring and monitoring methods for full transparency.
Thread & Tonic is also a member of 1% For The Planet, and its initiative the Thread & Tonic Foundation gives back to people and the planet through profit reinvestment – supporting various social enterprise projects from reforestation to safe water access.
It will launch its repair and re-sale platform this year to prolong products and by 2025 the company aims to reuse, recycle, or recover 95 percent of the waste it generates, and ensure none of its wastewater is harmful.
The panel was impressed by Thread & Tonic’s material science approach, and desire to share best practices and collaborate with other businesses across technology and sustainability, to collectively address the industry’s biggest challenges, and pave the way for impactful, scalable solutions.
How can we support these brands dedicated to doing good?
There is a place in the industry for all three of these organisations and it is encouraging to see a strong presence of incredible and inspiring brands deserving both the spotlight and investment to bring them to scale. Acre has demonstrable experience in supporting small, growing sustainable brands by placing both dark green and light green experts to embed sustainability and purpose within their functions to enable long-term growth of revenue and impact.
If you are a small, innovative brand supporting the industry’s transformation and would like to introduce yourselves to us, I would love to hear from you. We can discuss how Acre can help bring your business to scale, through our 20-year experience as a purpose-led sustainability recruitment and advisory partner.
Liam is Head of Consumer Goods & Retail – Sustainable Business, Acre UK. He heads up Acre’s consumer goods and retail practice in the UK. Since 2016, he's been partnering on senior sustainability mandates and building teams for companies across consumer goods and retail, with a particular focus on the fashion and luxury goods industry. Liam also heavily contributes to Acre’s internal sustainability and charitable initiatives through the Acre Foundation, including B-Corp, net-zero, employee engagement and charitable work with aligned social and environmental causes. Liam is also an independent advisor to the environmental NGO Ocean Generation on corporate partnership development.