Members of the Boodle Hatfield Luxury Assets team recently sat down with Katie Walsh, founder of THE RE-PETE PROJECT, to discuss environmental practices in the fashion industry and the increased scrutiny of brands claiming to be sustainable.
One of the fastest growing trends over the past decade has been the growth of âgreenâ or âgreenâ business. This is clearly great news if the company is true to its claims and genuinely driven by environmental concerns, but many companies are providing false or misleading information about how their products are environmentally friendly.
The UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is paying attention to this issue and has published draft guidelines on misleading environmental claims.
The final guidance is expected to be released in September 2021 and will set out the guidelines for companies to follow.
THE RE-PETE PROJECT creates anoraks with 29 recycled bottles per layer. Each coat is 100% recycled and 100% recyclable. As the founder of a truly eco-conscious brand, we were interested in hearing Katie’s take on the advice and changes she’s seen in the industry over her career.
How did you develop an interest in a career in the fashion industry?
As a child, I have always loved art and dressing. As soon as I knew you could have a career in fashion, that’s what I wanted to do. I went to University of London at Kingston University and got an internship with Alexander McQueen. Being there taught me how hard you have to work to run a fashion brand, the organizational skills you need to work with creative teams, it developed my pattern cutting skills and knowing the highest quality clothing finishing techniques were really helpful.
What were you doing at McQueen?
Cutting patterns, designing embellishments, building exhibition pieces and managing trainees in the studio. I was there for the fittings, I was working alongside Lee McQueen and I was part of a huge team. I always wanted to create my own label but I was very happy to have done McQueen before. I’ve worked for myself pretty much since then.
We saw in the press that Kate Moss wears your designs after you started your own label.
Yes, it was very exciting. He just took off. We were designing and making these little collections in the dining room of a house we shared and in the second season we were in Vogue with these amazing women wearing our clothes and loving what we were doing.
What is the biggest difference in approach to the industry between then and now?
There have been huge changes. You could never have launched a label with one piece back then. Our collections were seasonal; they would include at least 20 looks and up to 100 pieces.
What made you want to focus on sustainability?
I always thought I was environmentally conscious, used natural fabrics, and visited the factories I used which were small and family-owned. You thought that was enough at the time, but the more I thought about it, the more shocked I was that it wasn’t. Even when using organic cotton, there is a huge amount of water used. And I used to use rayon, but the chemicals that are used to break down the wood to make it are so toxic to rivers and wildlife.
I wanted to do something that had a positive impact on the environment and I wasn’t sure what that would look like. I looked at what was there, and at the time I remember seeing posters that said “by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish” and I thought to myself “can I do something about this?”
I searched more and discovered the circular economy. It was like a real answer. It’s okay to say “I won’t buy new clothes” – but is it doable? People need things, and the idea that you could design from garbage instead of dumping it in landfill (or in our oceans – with plastic), I thought was amazing.
The process took a long time. I had meetings with suppliers to make sure we were on the same page. You have to ask yourself questions: where is it made, where do their materials come from (in my case recycled bottles), have they tested the amount of microplastics released in the washes, are their staff properly paid , how much CO2 does the company release, what are they doing to compensate for itâ¦? I don’t use swings, tags, etc. on my anoraks to minimize waste, but I also researched the small packaging I use. You’d think degradable plastic with ‘green’ labeling would be nice, but it leaves toxins in the ground, so you need to dig deeper and find non-toxic biodegradable packaging.
You have to really dig in all the way and go through the process and the product. It’s possible! It just takes time, but you can create a product that has a positive impact.
There are many supplier options halfway around the world, but it’s also important to me that everything is local to reduce carbon admissions. My anoraks are only available locally in UK and EU so they will not be shipped halfway around the world. Yes it decreases my clientele, but the reason why I created THE RE-PETE PROJECT is to preserve the planet so as not to take it over. This is the big picture.
It must be very rewarding?
Yes – and it can be a slow burner but I’m okay with that. This is my starting point. Different people have skills in different things; you can put them into action. My skill set is fashion design, so I was like ‘what can I do with this? “
Its eco not ego. It used to be your creation, whereas today there is a broader vision of how best to preserve the planet.
There are people who use recycled plastic fabrics which are made from virgin bottles. For me, my business was built around sustainability from the start. It’s good if companies want to make changes, but often it’s just a matter of putting a band-aid on rather than making real progress.
What do you think of the AMC consultation on greenwashing? Do you think this will upset parts of the industry?
Definitely, I think this is going to worry the fast fashion brands and that there may be some setback, but this is a great initiative and it has to happen. Hopefully the guidelines will be tough enough to make a difference, rather than a slap on the wrist.
I think prices will go up due to improved working conditions and environmental practices; proper salary and practice don’t come cheap! It is inevitable and it is also necessary.
When I was a student the industry was operating at a slower pace and this is something that has to come back. Initially there were two collections a year, then there were pre-collections, cruise collections – the emphasis is on production, not creativity. Right now it’s out of control and no one is taking advantage of it.
I see a movement towards consumers spending more on a piece that lasts them for years, rather than a bag of clothes they throw away after a year. It has always been part of my philosophy. When I was a student, I would save money over Christmas to buy a designer piece on sale. I remember saving a year to buy a Comme des GarÃ§ons jacket for example, which I still have and which I wear 18 years later.
It is clear from your work at RE-PETE PROJECT that you are involved at every stage of your supply chain (designers, factories, factories). Do you think other brands can do more due diligence in the supply chain these days?
Yes and hopefully with the CMA guidelines it will be more incumbent on them to do so.
In the past, a lot of products were made in Bangladesh and some companies, like Zara, actually don’t produce anything; they just buy it. I hope that in the future it will be mandatory for companies to adopt best practices in their supply chains. It is important to visit factories, study the impact of your fabrics and determine whether they are sustainable or environmentally friendly.
Again, action from above is needed and a simple slap on the wrist will do nothing to change the industry.
Do you see a bricks-and-mortar future for fashion companies and do you plan to sell âofflineâ?
Yes certainly and it would be great to have my own store. Right now, with my fabric costs, it wouldn’t be economically viable to set up a brick and mortar store. That would mean charging a lot more for my products to cover rent and overhead.
In the end, it would be nice to have a space where I could showcase my designs and those of other eco-friendly designers and brands. I think with recycled and sustainable clothing it can be important for people to see the products in person to understand that they are not giving up on the high quality that they expect just because something is made from it. plastic.
The draft CMA guide can be viewed here. The final guidelines are expected to be published by the end of September 2021.
You can read more about ethical sourcing in luxury goods here.
âThere are people who use recycled plastic fabrics that are made from virgin bottles. For me, my business was built around sustainability from the start. It’s good if companies want to make changes, but a lot of times it’s just a band-aid rather than real progress. “