9th April 2020

Culture / Julian Granville

Boden’s Managing Director Discusses Sustainability: An Original Interview with Some Good Ideas

2 11 mins 0

Fashion sustainability is an extremely complex and most often contradictory subject. How does a business -that relies on trends, seasons and consumer consumption- become more sustainable?

Julian Granville, the Managing Director of Boden, explains that when striving for a more sustainable future, businesses must be totally transparent and honest. Sustainability is not a competition. It is an ambition for us all and we must share our methods.

Julian Granville: The idea I want to tell you about is not a particularity new idea, but I think it is very good nonetheless. It is something that is very close to Charlie and Caroline’s heart. It is to do with items that are ‘made to last’, and thinking very carefully about that, in a way that the tireless drive of consumerism has taken us further away from.

The clothing business, which is the business I am in, is particularly in the spotlight for the environmental damage it does, quite rightly. But if you make things that people keep and love and use year after year, then you are essentially moving in a much more sustainable way. It is much more important to build something, to make something that people will use for five years, maybe ten years, than to think about just simply removing litres of water from its production.

Some Good Ideas: I agree with that. What I don’t understand is, as a clothing brand, how you continue to survive as a business? How is it that you deal with seasonality and selling new stuff because your engine is that; you put out a Spring, or pre-Spring, or whatever collection it is, and then people buy more coats.

JG: That is the inherent problem with fashion, newness is the engine that drives it. We should remember Coco Chanel’s famous phrase that, “style stays, and fashion goes”.

SGI: So perhaps fashion businesses need to shift away from seasonal newness.

JG: I think newness will always have a role; people want to feel current. But I think if you make good fashion it will last more than one season; in fact, good fashion lasts many years and indeed will come back around again too.

SGI: People have become very used to buying things at unbelievably low prices. Do you think the consumer is happy to pay for, say, a shirt that is made in England or Portugal? Or do you think consumers have just got into the habit that the shirt has got to be £30 or less?

JG: Well, there has been an extraordinary price deflation in clothing over the last 30 years. People don’t generally want to pay more for quality. As a brand and a business, you have to explain why it is worth more. Why should they pay more?

The true value of something is its price, divided by the number of times you wear it. The true environmental damage is the accumulative environmental damage, divided by the number of times you wear it.

If you are buying something to wear one or two times and then throwing it away, that is extremely wasteful. Our parents’ and grandparents’ generation were right, we should be less wasteful and we should buy better quality things. It’s very much part of human nature to be driven by the price. Low price retailers of clothing and other products have done -and continue to do- extremely well. It’s a matter of educating your consumer that they are getting better value by spending a bit more.

SGI: But the price is not actually a guarantee of sustainability. You can spend £500 on a pair of trainers that are made in precisely the same factory as a £30 pair, made in exactly the same conditions. So we have to be much more transparent.

JG: The Boden returns guarantee is a one year, 365-day, full refund guarantee, that is to stand behind the quality of the product. If there is a fault with the product, we will correct it or we will replace it.

SGI: And if the product comes back to your warehouse -let’s say I returned a pair of trousers that have got three missing buttons- do you then recycle that item?

JG: Certainly. We have a whole series of Town Hall sales around the UK where we refurbish and resell those products at appropriate discounts. We also give excess or damaged stock to charities. We have a main charity in Africa where our Spring/ Summer clothing goes. Our Autumn/ Winter excess goes to charities that distribute in Eastern Europe and Russia.

SGI: Have you looked at the economic benefits and the sustainability of offering repairs?

JG: We have.

SGI: How does that work?

JG: Well about 8 years ago we launched a repair service where you could send back your much loved clothes, and if possible we would repair them. Now clothing does wear out, fabric wears out once you have worn something a few hundred times, and shoes in particular will wear out. People wrote to us and posted these much loved things and we said we will try and repair them. We did that, but it had a relatively little take-up, which we were slightly disappointed about. We are looking now at relaunching it, as I think that the mood has now changed and I think we will get a lot more traction. But we want to be quite careful, as this isn’t just a form of marketing or “greenwashing” because actually there are some things that you don’t want to send 200 miles to be repaired and 200 miles back.

SGI: So the first time you offered a repair service was for reasons of pure integrity and now you have to be really careful that it really works; rather than just doing it because of “greenwashing”. Not only is “greenwashing” bad in terms of publicity, it actually can really undermine your brand.

JG: It can. I don’t want to name names because everyone is trying, but take for example, the issue of single-use plastics. Boden moved to a biodegradable vegetable-based packaging to ship items from our manufacturers to our U.K. and U.S. warehousing, but we then faced the challenge of that actually degrading in the warehouses. We see quite a lot of other retailers taking things out of plastic -I’m sure they are then recycling it- and then wrapping them in paper and putting them in a paper bag. Now the carbon footprint of that is considerably greater than using recycled plastic. I used that word very carefully, recycled is much more important than recyclable. Recyclable is, well, you can write that on anything, but very, very little plastic is recycled, it’s still shamefully low. What is absolutely crucial is that the big consumers of plastic (and plastic is a perfectly viable material) use, wherever possible, recycled plastic. It is difficult to get something made of to 100% recycled plastic, but certainly 80-90% recycled is absolutely crucial. And that is preferable to ripping off some not-recycled plastic and then wrapping it in paper and then saying to your consumer, gosh aren’t we just marvellous?

SGI: Do you employ a team to look at these sorts of problems?

JG: Yes we have a sustainable and ethical trading team who work within our sourcing unit. Our sourcing director is particularly passionate about this subject, so it’s embedded at quite a senior level and I am trying very hard too. I have probably got this wrong, but in the past I’ve always said internally to our team and our marketing team, that I don’t want to show off about this stuff, it’s a bit like showing off about being honest, it’s just something you should do.

As long as you’re completely transparent and you’re honest, that’s fine.

I found it so distasteful that some other businesses were showing-off about their ethical or sustainable credentials, when I knew they were manufacturing in the same places as we were. We were all doing the same things, and we were all trying quite hard in all these areas, but some were claiming to be “more ethical than thou”… I think you have to back that up and actually what is more important than us competing on this, is that we all move together. Boden has been a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative for a very long time, it’s a cooperative venture. We all share data, we have NGOs and trade unions involved to ensure that every single season, every single year, the ethical standards get better and better, in all the places that we are sourcing. I think that a similar approach to sustainability issues is the way to go.

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Julian Granville

CEO and Chairman of Boden, Advisor Piper Private Equity and Chairman of Monica Vinader

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