Turnbull & Asser: The Sustainability Framework
This is the first article using our Sustainability Framework, which we set out on PS a couple of months ago. Its aim was to create a definition of environmental sustainability that could be used to talk to companies we cover, about their efforts to become more sustainable.
What we’re finding is that every company is on a journey. Some aspects of sustainability are easy to change, or have more impact, and so are tackled first. Others are almost impossible, or require innovation from suppliers.
None of it is simple, and everyone is different. Which is why a lot of companies don’t talk about it, and why an advert shouting that a brand has cut water waste by 67% is virtually meaningless. That kind of advertising can also make people understandably cynical.
By actually talking to companies about what they’re doing, we hope to have a more open and productive conversation. Both to improve understanding among consumers, and share advice with other small companies.
Our first conversation was with Becky French, creative director of Turnbull & Asser.
Turnbull is a nice example to kick off with, because it is neither a small company of two or three staff - as many are on PS - nor a large fashion brand.
A small company has the advantage of flexibility, and starting from scratch with suppliers. They can start with sustainability built in from the start. A big brand, on the other hand, often has dedicated sustainability staff, plus the budget to bring in consultants.
T&A has two shops in London and one in New York. It has a separate office, and both shirt and tie production in Gloucestershire. The business is still largely shirts, but it sells everything from trousers to cufflinks.
“The complexity of the product offer really makes things harder,” Becky told me, when we sat down in the Mayfair office. “It means for example that we have a huge range of packaging, all required for different sizes of product, for sale in store and online.”
However, shirts account for almost 80% of the business, so it made sense to start there.
“The first thing we did, three years ago, was switch all the external giftbox and bag packaging so that it was recycled and recyclable,” says Becky. “I think there are customer expectations about how a luxury product should look - Mr Porter probably set the benchmark - so we didn’t feel we could get away from that. But we wanted to make sure that that packaging could be re-used by customers, and it was as sustainable as possible.”
The next challenge was all the plastic inside. “Shirts have to be shipped without being damaged or the collars being crushed, and anyone who’s bought a good shirt knows how many plastic packaging accessories that requires,” Becky says.
Customers coming into Jermyn Street and buying just one shirt could perhaps do without so much packaging. But not when shipping them in bulk, for example from the factory to New York.
T&A has been around for almost 150 years, so the first thought was they must have used something before plastic. They did apparently, cardboard, but collars also got squashed.
That started a search for a replacement material - asking suppliers, asking peers, and the factory management doing the same. “The thing is, nothing exists out there in the market at the moment,” says Becky. “No one is making something we can use. So while we can talk to suppliers and let them know there is the demand, we are very dependent on them.”
One resource that was useful was Walpole, the British luxury association. It has discussion groups for members, such as T&A, and over the past six months Becky and the team have been asking everyone for suggestions.
“People were so open and happy to share, which isn’t necessarily what you would expect,” says Becky. “Someone will have a supplier they recommend; someone else will have an experience that was helpful. Everyone is trying to improve here, so there’s no shortage of searching.”
There’s also no snobbery. For example, on plastic packaging one of the most helpful Walpole members was a dry cleaning company that was trying to cut down its plastic use, as it goes through a huge volume.
“We’ve looked at so many options,” says Becky. “For a while we were talking to Flexi-Hex, which originally came up with a cardboard packaging to use on surfboards, but is now used by lots of industries.”
T&A hoped a version of the corrugated cardboard could be used to support shirt collars, but that didn’t pan out. Part of the issue is that every company is trying to become sustainable at the same time, and small companies like Flexi-Hex can’t innovate in every direction at once.
Another option being considered is replacing the collar stays with a material like bamboo. “We’re doing trials on that at the moment,” says Becky, “but I’m not sure whether it will be as reliable or, again, have that luxury finish people expect.”
There’s also a project to encourage customers to return their plastic packaging, so it can be re-used at the factory. “With a lot of these solutions, half the challenge is communication,” says Becky. “Such as encouraging people to re-use those plastic collar stays, or give them one metal set that they can use on all their shirts.”
A similar push is underway to get customers to return shirts they don’t wear any more - to be recycled or (if still wearable) given to charity.
In many areas, T&A has a bit of a head start.
“For example, encouraging people to buy less is contradictory to the interests of a lot of businesses,” says Becky.
“But we’ve always encouraged customers to bring back their shirts to be repaired, or to have collars and cuffs replaced. The team love this - there’s something very satisfying for a maker about keeping a great product going.”
Turnbull also has a lot of loyal customers around the world, and some bring in shirts that are 20 or 30 years old, to offer them for the archive. “Touring the archive as a designer is inspiring,” says Becky. “It reminds you of how great shirts can last well and, in that way, be quite sustainable.”
It should also be mentioned that Becky was wearing an archive piece herself, when we met: a boldly striped blue-and-white shirt with the collar cut off and therefore frayed. It looked very chic, at least on her.
Having its own factory helps T&A keep travel miles down. And while its raw materials come from around the world, shirting mils are among the most innovative when it comes to sustainability. Whenever I see Albini or Alumo at trade shows it feels like they talk about nothing else.
T&A is also planning to offer a range of shirts in organic cotton - which brings up an interesting question: Why not make everything in that cotton, if you want to be more sustainable?
“We could take a position on that as a business,” says Becky, “but it would make the end product more expensive for the customer. I think it’s another area where the customer can drive things - if everyone just buys the organic range, then that encourages us to make more of the product that way. We’ll see the response when we launch the range in 2022.”
It also works further down the supply chain: as more companies have asked for organic cottons, mills like Albini have increased their range, and made them available as part of their standard stock service, rather than special order.
Interestingly, the original spur for all this work was T&A’s Royal Warrant from HRH Prince Charles. The Royal Warrant is a stamp of approval for quality, yet perhaps customers aren’t familiar with anything further,” says Becky. “The criteria to retain a warrant are quite detailed in some ways.”
I didn’t know this either: the Royal Warrant has to be renewed every five years, and part of the process for those given by Prince Charles is that the company answers a set of questions on sustainability - and shows that they are constantly improving.
“In response to that we initially looked at B Corps certification. Their process is very impressive, and not easy to go through, but it is widely recognised. In the end we decided we weren’t ready for it, but it’s something that’s still on the table when team capacity allows,” says Becky
The pandemic also delayed much of the work. “Supply chains have been under so much stress in the past two years that it’s not surprising a lot got put on hold. But it was frustrating. Now we’re back on it again, sampling and actually making decisions.”
That currently includes making some shirts out of Lyocell (wood pulp) and talking more about linen, which is one of the more sustainable fibres. Both require more communication work than production.
They’re also experimenting with how shirts are stocked and stored. And looking at sourcing for other areas of the business, such as suits. “We generally use British fabrics, but the suits are made in Italy. There was a discussion of whether we should use Italian fabrics instead, to cut down on the mileage,” says Becky.
“In the end we decided not to, and that was probably right for our brand, but I think if one thing has really changed in the past few years it’s that sustainability is part of every one of those conversations.”
For me, that last statement of Becky’s is the most important of all. No one is perfect - but many companies are genuinely striving every day to be better. Hopefully this first article has given you some insight into how this actually happens - the challenges and the achievements - at one company in particular.
Read the Sustainability Framework, its definitions and aims, here