Sustainability is fashion’s current greatest challenge and in recent years it’s even become fashionable to be eco- countless brands have jumped on the bandwagon of consciousness and I’ve lost count of the amount of press releases I’ve received from certain online retailers that are widely known to both engage in unethical practices and encourage a throwaway culture of fashion, yet are still trying to attach themselves to the cause.
So it’s refreshing to hear that one of Britain’s most loved high street brands, M&S is taking a much more considered and honest approach. In fact, inspired by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth movie, since 2007 it has been working on its sustainability strategy. “At the time climate change was in the news almost everyday,” says Carmel McQuaid, Head of Sustainable Business at M&S. “So that really sparked us to consider everything we were doing around eco and ethical issues.”
Having carried out a comprehensive review, M&S discovered that cotton was the most popular fabric it used, featuring in everything from clothing to bedding. Made aware of the damage that unsustainable cotton production causes, from water pollution to devastating soil damage, M&S decided to make cotton its focus.
Partnering with both the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) McQuaid says at first the process was extremely challenging. “We’re not a massive retailer [in global terms] so we can’t dominate the supply chain but at the same time we’re not a start-up. Every penny counts so that’s why we’re interested in tiny solutions that work at scale.”
McQuaid also explains that the process involved educating and persuading smallholder farmers that the practices they’ve been carrying out for decades needed to be changed. “We’ve taken quite a hands on approach with our technical expertise and have been encouraging and helping get other retailers and brands on board as it’s important that farmers see demand in the marketplace.” To date, M&S has trained almost 16,000 farmers in India to improve their sustainable farming methods. McQuaid explains not only this does this educate and upskill them, but in turn it also empowers them to improve their livelihoods.
12 years later, this season M&S now sources 100 per cent of its cotton- used to create everything from boxy t-shirts to floral printed dresses and cropped trousers- from farms and suppliers which meet the Better Cotton Initiative standard. “We can basically say to our customers, you don’t have to worry too much about sustainable cotton because 100 per cent of our clothing is sourced from it,” says McQuaid.
Buoyed by their success, McQuaid says they now want to continue to build on the current interest in sustainable fashion. Viscose is next on their hit list. Derived from tree pulp, she notes that whilst this sounds great in practice many forests aren’t protected. She’s also keen to focus on M&S’s “Shwopping Scheme.”
© Anna Gowthorpe/PA Images via Getty Images A general view of a Marks and Spencer store in York, North Yorkshire. (Photo by Anna Gowthorpe/PA Images via Getty Images)
“A customer can bring any item of clothing, it doesn’t matter if it’s ripped or even from another retailer, we will take it and send it to our Oxfam recycling facility in Yorkshire.”
Most refreshingly of all is the fact that M&S are keen to share their findings and techniques with other retail giants. “What is encouraging is lots of companies within the fashion sector are taking a sector approach in driving systemic change. We’re putting a lot of change into a global movement.”