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Building a Sustainable Founder-Led Fashion Brand: A Guide to Ethical Success

Updated: Oct 22, 2023

As a consultant, I work with businesses of all sizes from start-ups to multinational global businesses. The fashion industry has long been criticised for its unsustainable practices, from fast fashion's rapid production cycles to the exploitation of labour and excessive waste. In response, many consumers are now seeking out sustainable fashion brands that prioritise ethical and eco-friendly practices.

In 2020 I was approached by Fashion Designer Jo Heath to help her consolidate her sustainable brand vision, values, promise and message, I worked with Jo to support her in clarifying her brand story. Jo's bags and accessories offer an ethical, high-quality alternative to designer fashion brands

Jo has a long and successful heritage in fashion design, designing for top global brands.

Jo's expert eye was focused on accessories, shoes, and bags, across her 20-year global career she has seen the discussion regarding sustainable fashion explode and as a passionate environmentalist and someone who deeply cares about animals and the planet she decided to take the plunge and do something to create a new brand that offers ethical luxury style.

Jo’s passion for sustainability and nature started in her childhood when she grew up surrounded by wildlife in England. At home, Jo had a family of badgers who lived in the hedgerow, a barn owl who nested in the stables and swallows who returned every year to raise their young. Often, neighbours would bring injured animals to the house and Jo would help her mum to nurse them back to full health. This passion to help wildlife is what drives the Jo Heath brand.

As a founder, Jo saw the unique opportunity to build a sustainable fashion brand that not only reflected her love of wildlife and her personal values but also addressed the growing demand for ethical luxury fashion.

You can see Jo's range of ethical bags and accessories here

1. Define Your Promise, Vision and Values

The foundation of any successful fashion brand is a clear promise, vision and a set of core values. It can be really tricky for founder-led brands to simplify their thoughts into meaningful market-ready statements. With so much to say it can really take time to define what you want your customers to experience when they use your product and also to distil what sustainability means to you as a brand founder and how it aligns with the brand you will take to market. Think Collectiv worked with Jo focused on distilling her personal goals checking these against the market and considering trends to align language and distil the brand promise.

To ensure your vision and values are meaningful, different and salient we suggest considering every aspect of your offering across eco-friendliness, ethical labour practices, CSR commitments, transparency in the supply chain, and also more aesthetic values around product functionality, product form, design, finish and how you want your products to make someone feel and what design aspects you want to deliver. Setting these foundations across your promise, vision and values will guide every decision you make along the way.

2. Research and Education

To build a sustainable fashion brand, you must understand the environmental and ethical issues within the industry and issues that consumers are worried about. As an experienced designer in the fashion industry with hands-on knowledge of the production process Jo advises that you conduct through research to learn about sustainable materials, production processes, and ethical sourcing. Stay informed about certifications like Fair Trade, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), and others that can validate your brand's commitment to sustainability. Jo suggests that sustainability is an ongoing journey, and that you must continuously seek ways to improve your brand's environmental and ethical practices and listen to feedback from customers and the industry to ensure you adapt and evolve over time. As part of the brand promise Jo wanted to do more than be sustainable and she put CSR at the heart of the brand by giving to a seal sanctuary in the Netherlands and planting trees when a purchase is made - in this way she feels she is not only ensuring her products are produced sutainabily but her sales are actively giving back to nature in the form of additional charity support.

3. Choose Sustainable Materials

A big investment in time and resources was needed by Jo to source the right materials. Jo's luxury accessories are leather, but she wanted to reduce the damage caused by conventional leather manufacturing and so Jo Heath uses alternative practices, including sourcing all of its calf and fish leather from by-products of the food industry, and ensuring all skins used are regulated and can be traced back to their origins and the lands the animals graze. One of the most significant steps you can take toward sustainability is selecting the right eco-friendly materials and taking time to find the right supplier of these. Jo advises that you should consider the full process of manufacture and production, look at the dying process and opt for sustainable treatment processes, and considering organic, recycled, or upcycled fabrics that have a lower environmental impact. Avoid materials like conventional cotton, which often involves harmful pesticides and excessive water usage and high chemical processes.

4. Ethical Production Practices and Transparency of Supply Chain

Ensure that your production processes align with your ethical values. Choosing a manufacturer and supplier that adhered to fair labour practices and prioritise worker well-being was essential to Jo Heath. Visiting your production facilities and building strong relationships with your partners is essential says Jo, and it can help maintain transparency and accountability. Transparency is key to building trust with your customers. Provide information about your supply chain, from sourcing materials to production and distribution. Consider using technology like blockchain to trace the journey of your products, so customers can verify your ethical and sustainable claims.

5. Quality Design for Longevity

Jo designed an evocative swallow for her brand icon, you can hear about her inspiration for this decision here, the swallow for Jo represents the freedom, elegance and natural beauty that she wants her products and designs to deliver to her customers.

Jo designs with longevity in mind, and encourages customers to buy less and is anti-fast fashion, her products are meticulously made and beautiful to wear, and one of her pieces is an investment in timeless quality. Her designs draw on timeless classics and by doing so she creates timeless, durable designs that will stand the test of time. Jo advises to avoid trends that quickly go out of style, and instead look to styles that deliver aesthetics that live beyond fabs or trends, as these can lead to overproduction and waste. Jo's brand promotes a culture of sustainability by designing pieces that can be worn for years, not just a season.

6. Sustainable Packaging

As a sustainable brand, the focus on sustainability does not stop at the product itself, with head offices in Amsterdam Jo ships her designs globally and was keen to use sustainable packaging and ethical delivery companies. As a sustainable brand extending your commitment to sustainability to your packaging goes a long way to proving your brand's commitment to sustainability and proving that you are not just greenwashing. Using eco-friendly materials, such as recycled cardboard or biodegradable options is a must as an ethical brand and minimising packaging waste by adopting minimalist packaging designs is a good step to improving the sustainability of packaging.

7. Marketing, Collaboration and Storytelling

Tell the story of your brand's commitment to sustainability. Use your website, social media, and marketing materials to educate your customers about the positive impact of choosing sustainable fashion. Share behind-the-scenes glimpses of your production process and the people who make your products. Collaborate with other sustainable brands, non-profit organisations, and influencers who share your values. Building a network within the sustainable fashion community can help you learn, grow, and raise awareness about the importance of ethical fashion.

Parting thoughts

Building a sustainable founder-led fashion brand is not only about creating beautiful clothing but also about making a positive impact on the world. By staying true to your promise, vision, values, and commitment to sustainability, you can inspire change in the fashion industry and contribute to a more ethical and eco-friendly future.

Remember that every small step you take toward sustainability matters and can make a significant difference in the long run.

If you are a sustainable brand founder and want support with getting your promise, vision, mission and brand story aligned with the market opportunity get in touch today -

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