Sustainable Fashion Brands Crafting the UK Circular Economy

a blue fabric trainer with a thick white sole. The word Explore is visible behind the shoe.

The fashion industry is often a place of extremes. On the one hand “fast fashion” sees a brand release up to 52 collections each year. On the other hand, some manufacturers are collecting scraps from the factory floor to make into saleable goods.

You’ll have heard the term “throwaway culture”, but did you know this also applies to trashing brand new products before they’re even used? Shockingly, “finished goods destruction” (also known as product destruction) remains a common practice in the fashion industry today.

Intense competition for profit sees product destruction alive in well in 2024. Many high-end brands destroy their unsold goods to ensure their remaining stock holds value. Fashion retailers today are under intense pressure from changeable consumer demands and the rising cost of doing business. It isn’t always profitable to consider environmental impact – or so it seems.

The ‘take-make-destroy’ logic associated with product destruction is highly problematic from a sustainability standpoint… It becomes clear that product destruction is a major barrier to establishing a resource-efficient and just economy…

Hedda Roberts et al.

``Product destruction`` Sustainable Production and Consumption. Volume 35, January 2023, Pages 300-312

Arguably, a poor environmental record breeds consumer mistrust and reputational damage. A considerable 71% of female shoppers aged 16 to 19 said sustainability is important to them when making a fashion purchase (Mintel, 2023). Statistics like that highlight the risk of alienating an increasingly eco-conscious customer base.

We spoke with one of many business leaders combating fast fashion today, working to reduce the industry’s impact on the planet. We’ll hear from innovative fashion brands further down. But first let’s explore the issues at play.

Coach Takes the Heat for Finished Goods Destruction

Many luxury fashion brands have faced criticism for wasteful business practices. Burberry was smoked after burning $36.5m worth of stock in 2017.

But when a viral TikTok video from waste campaigner Anna Sacks accused Coach of destroying its unsold handbags, the backlash hit Coach’s business reputation hard. Social media users quickly commented that they wouldn’t buy its products any more.

A still from a TikTok video showing a red-haired woman holding up a slashed handbag. thetrashwalker Anna Sacks / @thetrashwalker 2021-10-8 #coach #donatedontdump #retailmademe #dumpsterdiving #shopping #climatechange #haul #free #eco #recycle
Anna Sacks' video collected over a million likes.

In the immediate aftermath of the October 2021 incident, Global head of digital and sustainability Joon Silverstein told Vogue: “Finished goods destruction is a very common industry practice, though of course that does not make it right.”

Within weeks, Coach announced on Instagram that it would no longer destroy in-store returns of damaged and unsalable goods. The brand continues to claim it’s working hard to promote the circular economy and manage commercial waste responsibly.

What is circular economy?

Reusing existing materials to create new products. The circular economy focuses on recycling resources to reduce waste and minimize environmental damage.

How small businesses are rising to the challenge of sustainable fashion

While major players gain market share through mass production, smaller businesses are often agile enough to develop breakthrough sustainable business practices.

The Arts and Humanities Council recently funded a three-year study into micro businesses innovating in sustainable fashion in a collaborative project led by the Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF) at the London College of Fashion (part of the University of Arts London). The project, named “Fostering Sustainable Practices” ran between 2018 and 2021, and shed light on a hopeful culture where entrepreneurs “avoid overproduction, encourage sufficiency and contribute to social justice and inclusion, achieved through the way they work as well as by what is made.”

Among the small businesses highlighted is Nuw, an app where users can swap and borrow pre-loved clothing. The more you lend out, the more clothing you can borrow from others. Another project, a software platform called Unmade, enables producers to visualise and sell garments which are then manufactured to order. That allows fashionistas to test concepts and create smaller product runs with far less waste than traditional mass production.

We spoke to one entrepreneur who was not part of this study, but started his business while it was taking place. London-born Stuart Davis co-founded a footwear brand that focuses on eco friendly materials and extending the lifetime of children’s shoes.

Before we hear from Davis, let’s first explore what it means for a fashion brand to go beyond sustainable packaging and track down green resources for its entire production cycle.

What is sustainable fashion?

The practice of producing, retailing, and re-using fashion goods in an environmentally-conscious way. Sustainable fashion focuses on reducing the fashion sector’s greenhouse gas emissions, managing waste responsibly, and treating employees, customers, and ecology as a whole, fairly.

Finding planet-friendly materials

“Sourcing sustainable materials is a fundamental step in building an eco-friendly supply chain,” shares supply chain expert Marcos Clowes. This is the first step in the “circular economy” theory of sustainable production. The idea is to re-use existing material scraps and recycle them into new garments. Resources circulate in a closed loop, rather than ending up in landfill.

Although it seems common sense not to waste good quality materials, it’s a relatively recent concept in British manufacturing. British textile producers of the 19th Century known as the Luddites originally proposed recycling textiles using machinery. While the group is famously remembered as opposing new factory machinery, it is less often credited for its philosophy of efficient resource management.

During the early 20th Century, Brits would repair and reuse clothing as new garments were rationed. Yet the wartime attitude of “make do and mend” is a long-forgotten concept for most today, as the ease of buying new clothing far outweighs the time and effort needed to repair it. Indeed, more than 300,000 tonnes of used clothing made its way into UK household residual waste in 2017 (the latest figures available).

What should modern businesses do? “The concept of a circular economy is pivotal here,” Clowes states. A responsible business leader ought to “encourage product return and [use of] recycling programs to give garments a second life.”

It sounds like good advice, if a little idealistic. Recent research cites a lack of reuse networks and the significant costs of handling returns (known as “reverse logistics”) as roadblocks for businesses. Yet there’s evidence that Brits are still interested in donating used clothing and visiting charity shops.

Recycling is a viable path for diverting used textiles from landfill. Shredded fibres are commonly recycled into acoustic underlay in cars and spring covers in mattresses.

Consider partnering with organizations that specialize in recycling textiles. Also, explore initiatives that upcycle or repurpose old garments into new products, reducing waste while maintaining value.

Marcos Clowes Chief Executive Officer at EORI UK

60 Seconds with… Sustainable fashion leader Stuart Davis

Stuart Davis is the Co-Founder of Dubs Universe, a sustainable children’s footwear brand. When his job in advertising was culled during the first lockdown, he found himself spending more time with his young daughter. Frustrated that his child’s shoes would get minimal wear before becoming too small, Davis began to design a shoe that fits into the circular economy.

Why did you start to design shoes?

I always liked repairing things, and I love designer trainers. As a family we’re very mindful of what we did and how it impacts the environment. But as a new-ish dad, the thing that was killing me was buying shoes for my daughter for her only to wear them twice. Especially in lockdown when we couldn’t go anywhere. And then her feet would be too big [to wear them again].

When I lost my job, I finally found myself with a bit more time to be able to look into this sort of passion project. I used to turn old shoes into flower pots for her, or put wheels on and turn them into little cars.

I couldn’t find a shoe brand that I liked the style of and was sustainable from the core. While my daughter was napping, I’d jump on a Zoom call with my best mate – who’s a graphic designer – and chat about making the immortal sneaker.

a blue fabric trainer with a thick white sole. The word Explore is visible behind the shoe.
Dubs shoes are made of recycled plastic bottles and sugar cane.

What did you learn about sustainable materials?

Our core belief is reusing a material and doing whatever we can to make a shoe last longer. A professor of sustainability at London South Bank University told me, “The most sustainable thing you could do is make a product that lasts forever.”

Of course the problem with that is [it won’t break down in] landfill. And even a fully sustainable shoe will still decompose and let off carbon, and [other greenhouse gases]. So the materials we use have to either already exist or at least [be] more planet-friendly than those of traditional shoe-making.

We want to try to make a real difference. That’s how we started off making shoes out of recycled plastic bottles and sugar cane for the sole.

What challenges has your business faced?

I’ll put my hand up and say the sugar cane is from Brazil, and the shoes are sold in Europe. If I could make sugarcane in Croydon where I’m from, that would be awesome.

The cost of living is shocking, and sadly, sustainable materials are really expensive. I could quite easily make an off-the-shelf shoe for $4. Our shoes retail for £40 at the moment, which is always going to be a challenge when you could pay £5 from Primark.

What future do you see for your shoes?

We’ve got some really cool styles for next year coming out, made from recycled leather – which is literally what Coach has decided to do now!

I’m working with the Manufacturing Technology Centre to recall the product, refurbish them, and resell them. What that does is give a shoe multiple lives. I can then do a story about it where the shoe is the hero: if this shoe could talk, imagine what it could say about all of its adventures.

I hope that as soon as a kid gets a pair of our shoes they actually love them. I’d love to make it a badge of honour to wear a pair of shoes that has had four owners.

How do your business operations promote sustainable fashion?

[Refurbishing and reselling the shoes] will reduce my manufacturing footprint because I’m not making more shoes. And then I can sell those at a lower price point, too, which might open it up for those who can’t afford a £40 pair of shoes.

The way that we design them is that they can last a bit longer. They’re very durable – the sole’s really thick. You can pass a brilliant pair of shoes onto your mate, so they don’t have to buy it. And that’s good. Or to a charity, which is even better.

Are the shoes endlessly reusable?

No. That’s what we’re working on at the moment because the sole cushioning will get to a point where it’s not as good as it should be. I’d love to be able to grind that down and turn that into something else. But we need money for that sort of future product development.

Some brands do this well, they take the sole and turn it into pellets use it in kids’ playgrounds. So that’s really cool. I like that because it’s going back into the kids’ world. I’d like to make lunchboxes. I’m inspired by my daughter and all her mates. I’m just learning as I go.

Coach sweeps up its scraps

As for Coach? Silverstein is now in charge of “Coachtopia”, a new line of goods made of waste fabric scraps leftover from the brand’s main production line. Coach already has a program like this, “(Re)Loved”, launched in the US in 2021, which rewards customers with a credit voucher when they swap in an old Coach bag.

The UK edition of (Re)Loved saw Coach’s Spitalfields store rebranding as “Tomorrow’s Vintage” in October 2022. It was styled as an upmarket repair shop, where customers could attend workshops on engraving their handbags. The shop has since morphed into a Coachtopia flagship, championing the brand’s recycled product range.

But are these sub brand launches a distraction from the ecological issues at the core of big fashion’s business operations? Both the virtually identical (Re)Loved and Coachtopia brands launched on Earth Day (April 22). Yet the fashion house continues to materially impact the planet.

According to its 2022 CR report, Coach’s total municipal waste consumption across fulfillment centres and offices in North America increased by 59% compared with 2018. The report states this is due to refinement in data collection methods, and the business is working towards a 25% reduction from 2018 levels by 2025.

Waste and recycling. Waste management and reduction is a critical part of decreasing the footprint of our direct operations and our supply chain. We are innovating and rethinking historical fashion industry norms by reusing, recycling and repurposing, which ultimately results in less waste to landfill. These efforts extend the life of our products and contribute to a more circular economy. OPERATIONAL WASTE In FY2022, our total municipal waste consumption across our fulfillment centers and offices in North America was 6,292.63 tons. This represented a 59% increase from our 2018 baseline, driven by a refinement in our data collection methods at a number of our sites and facilities. In addition, we diverted 73% of waste from landfills.
Extract from Coach's Corporate Responsibility Report FY2022.

Regarding product destruction, specifically, a Coach spokesperson told Expert Market: “While our first goal is to sell all product through retail, after exhausting all sellable options including repairs and Coach (Re)Loved, we work with donation partners to find the best end-of-life solutions for our products.

“We use our foundation’s missions to guide our allocation strategy and prioritize providing product to support the highest need individuals, families, and communities.”

Written by:
Sabrina Dougall
Sabrina is a business journalist whose career began in news reporting. She has a master's in Investigative Journalism from City University London, and her work has appeared in The Times, The Daily Express, Money Saving Expert, Camden New Journal, Global Trade Review, and Computer Business Review. She specializes in writing about SEO (search engine optimization). Having run her own small business, Sabrina knows first-hand how critical digital marketing is to building a client base and local reputation.