In Conversation With
Natalie binns: Sustainability Consultant
by Natalie Smith
Natalie is an expert in fashion retail & sustainable sourcing, and helps fashion brands launch and grow with sustainability at the forefront.
What are the top three factors a new brand that is aspiring to be responsible should consider when starting up?
The first thing would be finding an ethical manufacturer to partner with because no product can be considered responsible that isn’t made by well remunerated people working in safe conditions.
Then I think it’s important for responsible brands to find their purpose. Why does this brand need to exist – beyond being a money maker? Working ethically and sustainably can be challenging and there are so many shortcuts that are cheaper or faster. Knowing the brand’s purpose, makes decision making easier and keeps the brand focused on its core values. Having a strong sense of purpose and values also helps customers connect to the brand.
Finally, I’d say forget about the word sustainable and focus on the brand's impact. Think about every stage of the product lifecycle from design to production to selling to use to disposal. Focus on making the least negative impact on people and the planet at every stage. This will look different for every type of business and product which is why the word “sustainable” doesn’t really work. What’s sustainable for one type of product might not be for another but everyone can subscribe to being ‘low impact’.
Why did you leave buying?
I grew disillusioned being a small cog in a large industry and not being able to change the way things were done. Buyers have so much responsibility but ultimately, we are still answerable to boards and shareholders who are driven by profit. It was the beginning of the end for me when I was being asked to make the same products more cheaply and quickly which essentially meant asking the supplier to reduce the cost price and work harder with no upside for them. I wasn’t comfortable with the balance of power.
How did you get into sustainable consultancy?
I was made redundant when the brand I was working for closed their UK office. I couldn’t face going into another buying cycle which consisted of travelling, buying samples, developing collections, and then pushing suppliers on price and delivery. I was doing this cycle up to 6 times a year.
I took 3 months out and then found a freelance job launching a sustainable brand which led me to starting my consultancy to help other independent businesses.
Which brand are you most proud to have helped shape?
Recently I worked with an ethical factory in India to help them to launch their own brand. The brand is called Unmoda Label and I developed the brand direction and strategy for them as well as designing the first collection and directing the photo shoot for their first look book.
It’s exciting for me as this means the factory has a stream of income that goes directly to them whereas previously, they only made clothing for other brands that would often let them down by reducing or cancelling orders.
Your top piece of shopping advice?
Start with what you already own, do a good audit of your wardrobe at least twice a year. We all have loads of things we don’t wear enough! If you need to buy something, then try shopping second-hand or if it’s for a special occasion try renting or borrowing from a friend. If all else fails and you need to buy something new, try to buy from brands with a more responsible ethos, but above all, love what you own and cherish it for as long as possible.
Are there any sustainable trends you can see on the horizon for 2023?
I don’t like to think about sustainability as a trend, as it’s something we should keep doing whether it’s on trend or not, but I’m expecting to see a lot more about circularity in 2023. Brands are starting to realise that they need to think about the end of life of their products. Brands were quick to jump on resale but I’m expecting to see a lot more messaging around repair and longevity next year.
What keeps you hopeful?
I think what’s most exciting to me is seeing sustainability becoming business as usual. I was in Central London last week and there were several sustainable shopping pop-ups all within easy walking distance of Oxford Street. Selfridges also had prime retail space dedicated to resale and repair. I love that sustainability is becoming less niche and I’m looking forward to seeing more mainstream sustainability initiatives in 2023.
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