Being a sustainable / ethical / environmentally friendly brand is a HUGE topic. There are many aspects involved so when asked for advice on how to start a sustainable brand I start by running through the below to try and understand which aspects of sustainability clients would like to work on first . Each topic is quite broad so I always recommend focusing on one at at time. For example it may be a case of starting with one topic, planning for two, and being mindful of all three for example.
One of the easiest ways to start adding sustainable aspects to your brand is to use environmentally friendly fabrics. There are ample options nowadays with new breakthroughs being released all the time. You can look at using a synthetic fabric which has already been fully or partly recycled - for example usually a recycled polyester / nylon mixed with elastane for stretch if needed. Alternatively, there are so many natural fibre fabrics available now you don’t always have to consider synthetics at all. Think bamboo, modal, linen, hemp or even faux leather from pineapples! These options avoid the use of plastic all together, which is favoured by some brands. See this link here for a great overview of sustainable fabrics. You can also look at sustainable trims, labels & packaging too - the options are endless! Think recycled plastic buttons and zip, cotton woven labels and plantable swing tags for example.
Another way you can think about sustainability is to consider your designs lifecycle as a whole. This is something that can seem and endless task, so again start small and focus on one aspect at a time! The sustainability of a products life cycle is when you consider the whole process from how your product was made (for example what materials were used, what was wastage in the manufacturing?), through to how long you expect it last, and what to do with it when it’s finished. The Higg Index by The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is where this idea originated in a physical, accountable form. There’s lots of information available (even if it can all be a little overwhelming) but you can get on their website and see as an overview the impact fabrics & processes may have compared to one another. They have many examples, from the impact of raising Sheep for merino wool, to sourcing the raw wood pulp used in Viscose/Rayon fabrics! Their “Materials Sustainability Index” can be found here. For some lighter reading, large brands use The Higgs Index to evaluate the impact their current & future styles may have, see here from Brooks on how they used it to review their footwear. For start-ups and small brands, there are many other ways you can implement great product lifecycle initiatives without spending $$$. This includes things such as clearly directing customers how they can reuse / recycle your products at the end of their lifecycle, or by offering a recycling scheme where they can return used goods for a discount on future purchases leaving you to responsibly dispose of all items.
This is the most common expectation when consumers talk about a brand being sustainable. A brands ethical and social values encompasses everything to do with the relationships between the brand & its’ suppliers, the factories you use & their staff , then your customer and yourself. Things are much better than they used to be, but improvements can always be made! Luckily nowadays, if you have any concerns there are many resources available to you. Be confident and ask your suppliers directly about their business ethics - they may provide some reassurance or alternatively confirm your worries that you need to find someone new. The Ethical Trade Initiative have lots of information and resources to help in these difficult conversations, see this poster for the basic things you should expect suppliers to have implemented. Personally I like to bear in mind that any suppliers you work with are humans too, so when you are having conversations especially in the early days, please be patient and try your best to work with them as much as possible. Gone are the days of suppliers having to bend over backwards for the all powerful buyer - expect a much more collaborative approach where everyone works out solutions together (including you coming to them with solutions!).