Happy International Women’s Day! Retail in Asia had the pleasure to interview Anya Hindmarch to learn more about her sustainability journey.
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RiA: How has your sustainability journey started?
Anya: It has been a long journey! It started in 2007 with the launch of I’M NOT A PLASTIC BAG which was a project to simply to raise awareness of the problem of single use plastic. It was at the beginning of us all hearing about the problems of the environment and I was approached by We Are What We Do (a social change organisation) who asked if I would get involved in trying to communicate the problem. I knew that the platform of fashion could be a huge communicator and could help to influence people’s behaviour.
I designed a canvas tote that was made in limited numbers and was sold at an accessible price point of £5. We launched it initially through a few key fashion partners – Colette in Paris and Dover Street Market in London and our own stores and it was worn by many celebrities from Keira Knightley to Reese Witherspoon. We then sold it through Sainsburys, a British supermarket, as we wanted it to be available where plastic bags were being used most to encourage people to re-use this for their shopping instead of taking plastic bags. All the bags sold out on the day they launched.
The project made a massive difference. According to the British Retail Consortium the consumption of plastic bags in the UK reduced from 10bn before the project to 6.1bn after the project. And Sainsburys saw a 58% reduction in single use plastic bags in a year.
It was a mad project though. 80,000 people queued on the opening day in the UK. We then launched the bag in different colours in Japan, Hong Kong, the US and Taiwan. They queues and ‘noise’ got bigger with every launch and the project really grew in scale.
Despite the impact of this 2007’s I’m Not A Plastic Bag project, the problem of single use plastic was far from solved. The mission has changed, however, from ‘awareness’ of the problem to ‘circularity’ of materials, something we have spent the last two years working on with the I Am A Plastic Bag project.
The ‘I Am A Plastic Bag’ collection is a small step towards reusing what we already have. Each bag and accessory is made from an innovative cotton canvas-feel fabric that is created from recycled plastic bottles. Each piece is designed to never be thrown away.
RiA: What are the challenges you have encountered in producing sustainably?
Anya: There are many challenges as there always when you are trying to find new ways of doing things. You have to really persevere to realise your vision and work with suppliers who are willing to go on the journey with you and to achieve the quality that we need. Inevitably, it tends to be a bit more expensive and often you have to do things differently. It is not so easy but it is like any change, once you have managed to force that change through, it becomes the new normal.
RiA: In your interaction with consumers globally, are there differences in the reception of sustainable goods?
Anya: Yes, there is a real difference with consumers globally. For some it is absolutely a top priority and for others it is not. But I think that is inevitable in terms of differences in countries and what stage they are at in their cycle economically.
But there is no escape from it, it is so important and that is where good PR and marketing and the power of celebrities along with really great product can really make a difference to inspire people even if it is not their number one on their agenda. I do think that most consumers now expect transparency on how products are made so that they can make fully informed decisions on what to buy.
RiA: In the era of circular economy, how will fashion brands adjust to remain relevant?
Anya: What is key is to keep all materials in circulation, so they do not go into landfill. It is about not making something with a short life and ideally using materials that is already around, reusing it and to keeping it in circulation. That is the best case.
If it is something new, then you make something that will continue to be used. That means you have to look for materials that can be recycled or repurposed. It is not too complicated, it just requires some research to see what is out there.
RiA: We have seen that the pandemic has brought to the global attention climate change and related issues, and hopefully those will remain topics of interest in the future, how do you this it is going to evolve across sectors?
Anya: My concern is that people are so busy battling the pandemic and all the issues of unemployment and economic difficulties that issues of climate change might slip down their agenda. It is really important to keep this front of mind and use this to show how scary things can get when it goes wrong. The forced paused the pandemic has inflicted will hopefully make people rethink how much they really need to travel and what they really need to buy.
RiA: “I Am a Plastic Bag” was a great success, what is the story behind it?
Anya: During the success of our original project, I’m Not a Plastic Bag, someone said to me “when you throw something away, there is no away”, and I was not able to get these words out of my head.
There are 8 billion of tons of plastic on the planet, and the question is, how can we stop making more plastic and instead reuse what we already have rather than it going into landfill. The ‘I Am A Plastic Bag’ collection is a small step towards reusing what we already have.
I spent two years working on developing a woven fabric that is actually made from recycled PET, which is recycled plastic bottles, and which feels like a really rich cotton canvas, which feels really natural. Each piece is designed to never be thrown away and to raise awareness for the importance of the circularity of materials.
RiA: You and your business partners around the world used the campaign to raise awareness about the single-use plastics, how was the response?
Anya: The response has been amazing. Instead of doing a big launch event during London Fashion Week, we closed our three London stores for three days and filled them with used plastic bottles as a showcase to connect people to the enormity of the problem of single use plastic going into landfill. It took over 90,000 plastic bottles to fill the stores, which had been collected by Anya Hindmarch employees from their local communities. This may sound like an astronomical number, but this is how many plastic bottles go into landfill every 8.5 minutes!
We used that idea to raise awareness around the world and it had an amazing response from customers as well as huge press coverage and engagement. When we launched the project in Japan and Hong Kong we took the same ‘protest’ approach.
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RiA: What are the future plans to continue this commitment?
Anya: We have been looking at every aspect of our business from our packaging to the materials we use in our collections – like our recycled nylon for example. I think its important that you don’t overpromise as it’s a journey but its one where you can make a big difference if you apply it to every area of your business and really challenge your supply chains. We always talk about progress not perfection.
It is of course particularly hard at the moment with the pandemic but there is a demand from consumers to buy something that makes them feel-good and a sensible purchase that is not damaging. We will continue to do everything we can do to keep the message out there and to keep using recycled materials.