A Beginners Guide on How to Start a Sustainable Clothing Brand
Updated: Jul 13, 2022
As the owner of sustainable fashion sourcing company Lyfcycle, it's been so encouraging to see just how many entrepreneurs are launching sustainable fashion brands in 2021. We're constantly faced with requests from aspiring eco-friendly brands who are looking to launch their first collection, but lack the know-how and expertise to get it done.
There are plenty of 'how-to' guides out there but most lack real depth and practical guidance for newcomers to the industry. So we've decided to write a beginners guide on how to create a sustainable clothing line that we hope will help those of you looking to make a positive difference in the industry.
This guide will focus on the practical aspects of creating sustainable clothing, from product development to selecting a manufacturer. These are the top tips that our clients find most useful.
What you'll find in this guide
What is a 'sustainable' clothing collection?
Firstly, let's just say that there's no such thing as a completely sustainable product. Every material and process has a cost, so the best we can do is to minimise the impact of our products by making informed choices throughout the design & development phase. Sustainability in fashion isn't just about using better raw materials, it's also inextricably linked to ethics. We need to be aware of how our actions impact those throughout the supply chain. If we truly want to champion a sustainable future for fashion, we need ensure that our actions are a force for positive change.
There are several things you need to consider when planning your sustainable clothing collection.
1) Bespoke Production or Off-The-Shelf Solution?
Before you read any further, one of the most common challenges i face when speaking to start-up brands is a disconnect between the expectation of what bespoke products cost to manufacture at small quantities versus reality. We're so used to seeing cheap high street prices that it's easy to understand why this misconception exists. The truth is, that manufacturing bespoke sustainable garments in small quantities isn't as cheap as most people expect.
If your initial collection is simple and involves basic styles, like t-shirts, hoodies, or sweaters, you should consider buying blank eco-friendly products and finishing them locally with print or embroidery. Since the blank clothing supplier buys these items in larger quantities, you can benefit from their economies of scale! This route can give you more flexibility on quantities and colours and will likely be the cheaper alternative.
So many of the customers we speak to have this dilemma, which is why we decided to launch our own eco-friendly blank clothing range, Lyfcycle Customs. Our products are made from a blend of Recycled Polyester & BCI Cotton and come with a unique QR code in the care label that when scanned with our app reveals the products journey from fibre to finished good.
If you have a unique product or want to create a sustainable masterpiece from scratch, then a bespoke manufacturing route will be the right option for you.
2) Raw Material Choices
Of all the elements of production, choice of raw materials generally has the biggest environmental impact. That's why it's so crucial to choose the right materials for your products.
It's important to recognise that every material has its pros and cons. Whilst some may be generally better than others, each come with their unique challenges. Let's take a look at the worlds two most popular fibres as examples.
Cotton - even though cotton is a natural fibre, it still has a significant environmental footprint. Cotton is an incredibly thirsty crop which requires a staggering 10,000 litres of water to produce around 1kg of fibre on average. Naturally this can place significant pressure on local water supplies and there are other concerns with the use of pesticides in cultivation. Organic cotton is an excellent alternative to regular cotton, it only uses rainwater for cultivation and uses no synthetic chemicals or pesticides.
Polyester - Polyester is an inexpensive synthetic fibre which is derived from fossil fuels and does not biodegrade. Recycling plastic bottles to create recycled polyester fibre is now extremely commonplace in the industry, whilst not a perfect solution, evidence shows it has a significantly smaller carbon footprint than its virgin counterpart.
When considering sustainable material alternatives for our clients, I usually divide sustainable textile fibres into 4 broad categories:
Natural Organic - Organic fibres offer significant environmental benefits versus conventional methods. Organic cotton, wool & linen are all common and widely accessible in the industry.
Natural Other - There are many other natural fibres that have relatively small environmental impacts when compared to traditional polyester and cotton. Lyocell, Bamboo, hemp and seaweed are a few that come to mind.
Natural Recycled - Recycled cotton (usually from post-consumer clothing) is also very common, but the fibre loses a lot of tensile strength once recycled. So you rarely see more than 50% of a garment made from recycled cotton, it needs to be blended with something stronger. Recycled wool is also very common and easy to access.
Synthetic Recycled - When using synthetic fibres in our products, we only use recycled versions. Recycled polyester (from recycled plastic bottles) and recycled nylon (primarily from old fishing nets) are widely available. The recycled versions of these fibres are virtually identical to virgin material and don't lose much tensile strength.
The fibre you ultimately choose will be dependent on your vision for the collection, the nature of the garment itself and its sensitivity to cost. Most garment factories will allow you to nominate your own fabric sources, but make sure you know the minimum order quantities for your chosen fabric!
Most factories will also be happy to suggest their own fabric sources for your products too, this could save you a lot of time and energy and you can leverage their supply network.
3) Sustainable Trims & Packaging
People often forget about the trims and accessories that make up your garment, but it all adds up! At Lyfcycle, we always begin by breaking out a product into its individual components, and asking ourselves what is the best material to use?
The most common trims, such as labelling & ticketing can be easily substituted with recycled / organic materials. Woven labels & care labels can be made from organic cotton, or recycled polyester, swing tickets can be made from recycled paper. These days, it's relatively easy to get access to sustainable trim options. If you ask your garment factory, they will likely have a nominated supplier who can provide these. Crucially, you should ask yourself if you even need all of these trims. We always try to challenge ourselves and our customers to remove unnecessary design elements that can minimise our waste where possible.
As for packaging, it is the industry standard to send goods from factories individually wrapped in polythene bags, particularly when the goods need to travel a long distance by boat. Without some protection, the garments could be damaged, damp and even mouldy. So whilst poly bags serve a purpose, they're not particularly desirable. There's a few widely available options that you can consider as alternatives for your collection, to name a few of our favourites.
Recycled Poly Bag - a cheap alternative to a regular poly bag
Compostable Poly Bag - can be derived from sugar cane, potato starch and other renewable resources.
Naked Packaging - more and more brands are trying to minimise the amount of packaging that they use in their operations. Consider avoiding individual packaging if you can.
You should also consider the secondary packaging that will be used to send your products directly to your consumers.
4) Green Processes
As well as the raw material inputs for your production, it's also important to consider the manufacturing processes that will be used. You can ask your supplier about the energy sources they use to power the factory. Many suppliers today are adopting more sustainable approaches to manufacturing, using renewable energy to power their machinery & implementing water saving initiatives to reduce their footprint.
Important considerations that are often overlooked are some of the chemical processes that are required in manufacturing. Fabric & yarn dyeing is a great example. Traditional textile dyes contain large numbers of chemicals, many of which can be harmful to humans and wildlife when it enters into the water supply. Fortunately, there are several options that you can consider for your products.
Organic Dyes - organic dyes reduce the number of potentially harmful chemicals that are released in the process. You should also look to use a closed-loop dye process where possible which can save large amounts of versus a traditional dye method.
Natural Dyes - natural dyes are far less widely available, particularly for start-ups but they are growing quickly in popularity. As the colour is derived from natural materials, colour choices can be quite limited, but technology is advancing all the time in this area.
If you're product requires printing, then consider using a water-based screen print. It's widely considered to be one of the more environmentally friendly options!
5) End of Life
It's important to think about end of your products life at the start of its life! Generally speaking, blended fibres are much more difficult to separate which makes them more likely to end up in landfill. It's not always practical to have 100% of a single fibre in your products, but it doesn't hurt to keep this in mind! As technology continues to advance, the recyclability of blended fibres is improving all the time.
As sustainable brands, our responsibility doesn't end when the product leaves your store. Encourage your customers to donate unwanted clothing or use take back incentive schemes and make sure your clothes are being disposed of properly.
When thinking about sustainable sourcing, we need to be conscious about the working conditions of the people in our supply chain and verifying the authenticity of our raw materials. Global brands have the ability to make regular visits to their
supply network all over the world, but this is rarely a practical reality for most start-up brands. Many international bodies exist to set leading operating & ethical standards to the industry and reduce these uncertainties by providing confidence throughout the supply chain.
This is a complicated topic, but you can categorise the most common industry standards into four broad categories:
Social & Ethical: standards that exist primarily to ensure healthy & fair working conditions in the supply chain. Two of the most popular standards are BSCI & SMETA guidelines, but there are many. These are typically reviewed annually in the form of a physical audit and auditors prepare audit reports which you can request from the factory.
Environmental: standards that exist to ensure responsible manufacturing practices, a common example is ISO 14001, which is a collection of global standards on environmental management practices. STeP by Oeko-Tex is another example, which is aimed at guiding production facilities to implement environmentally friendly production processes in their operations.
Product: certifications used to verify the authenticity & safety of raw materials, often these standards require everyone in the supply chain to be certified with a governing body before you can claim your product is 'verified'. Often brands are required to pay a fee in order to use the branding on their products. Some of the most well known examples include:
GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) - One of the primary standards for certifying organic content.
GRS (Global Recycled Standard) - Verifying the authenticity of recycled materials.
Standard 100 by Oeko-Tex - certifying that every component of the article is free from harmful substances
QMS (Quality Management Systems): a typical example would be ISO 9001, which organisations use to demonstrate their ability to consistently deliver products and services in line with customer and regulatory requirements.
Most suppliers will not have all of these certifications so you will have to decide which are more important for your brand when choosing the right supplier. You can ask your suppliers to share their certificates for the standards they claim to uphold, if there's any doubt over the authenticity then you can contact the governing body that issued the certificate to verify.
7) Choosing the right manufacturing partner
Selecting the right manufacturer is not as easy as you might think. If you're completely new to the industry, you should consider working with a sourcing company like Lyfcycle who can share their expertise and guide you through the process. If you choose to go it alone, then you should consider a couple of things before approaching manufacturers:
Do you have tech packs and size specifications? Most factories will not even consider quoting for your products without a complete tech pack and size spec. This is the document that shows the factory what the product should look like and contains detailed measurements which inform the factory how to make the pattern. Without this, a factory would be unable to give accurate costings. If you require help preparing tech packs & size specifications, there a lots of services out there to support you. We also do this on behalf of many of our clients at Lyfcycle, you can send us an enquiry here if you're interested.
Where should you source your products from? Where you choose to source your products will depend heavily on order quantity, price sensitivity the type of product you're trying to create. Generally speaking, European manufacturers cater to smaller order quantities whereas suppliers further afield are geared more towards larger scale production. As you might expect, the prices are significantly lower in Asia than Europe, but minimum order requirements are also much higher. At Lyfcycle we manufacture for most of our start-up brands in Portugal, which has a very rich textile industry and the quality is second to none.
What's values should your supplier share? You should decide which values you want your suppliers to have from the offset, as this will help to narrow the parameters of your search and guide your decision making.
How do i find a manufacturer?
As well as the obvious google, there are a number of sourcing platforms online that can help you search for a potential manufacturer, such as Alibaba or Foursource. In addition to this, many of the big international standards publish lists of certified suppliers which you can filter to find relevant manufacturers, e.g. GOTs & Textile Exchange.
But finding the right supplier for a new brand can be challenging and time consuming, so you'll need to have some patience!
If you're completely new to the industry, you should consider seeking the help of an experienced sourcing company or agent who have established networks of fabric suppliers & garment factories.
Sustainability is an extremely complicated topic and this guide is only scratching the surface! But i do hope that this guide has been a useful introduction. If you'd like more info, please feel free to reach out to us at Lyfcycle.