Sustainable is not enough

Posted by Ed Bartlett on 15th Nov 2022

NOVEMBER 15, 2022

Sustainable is not enough

By Ed Bartlett

I came to road cycling relatively late in life. To my mind, it appeared outwardly stern, sterile and overly-serious. It felt a bit like a party I wasn't invited to, which was fine, since I was already having as much fun as I could handle crashing down the sides of mountains on knobbly tyres.

Ironically my first ever road ride happened spontaneously during an MTB-specific trip to Alpe D’Huez. I immediately fell for the sense of flow, the journey, the meditative headspace, and, of course, the exhilaration of absolutely pinning the descents. I brought the hire bike home with me and set about a radical transformation into a mile-munching, Audax-loving, rouleur-around-the-year roadie, replete with wardrobe of desperately mismatching lycra.

As anyone who has tried it will know, the beauty of long-distance cycling in particular is the amount of time afforded for thinking. Targeted problem solving. Serious soul searching. Casual mind wandering. And quite often just trying to remember a particular word or song lyric for hours on end. 

A sign we've come to expect as a standard part of the retail experience, be it physical or online (Image: Markus Spiske)

But what I found myself coming back to again and again was my new choice of lifestyle pursuit, and wondering ‘why?’ 

> Why were all the brands so racing-obsessed when so few people actually race?

> Why the focus on 'suffering' instead of having fun?

> Why were so few companies actively tackling their environmental impact in such an outdoor-loving sport?

> Why did the adverts seem to only feature skinny white guys?

> Where were the dedicated female options?

> In fact, where were the females? And the non-white faces? There seemed to be a decent spread of both within my own modest cycling community, but nothing obviously representing their existence from the industry.

Thankfully, at the time of writing, things have improved in some of these areas. But serious change rarely happens quickly, especially when a market suddenly explodes.

Alpe D'Huez. Not a bad place to have your first taste of road cycling.

Ideas are easy. Change is hard.

The cycling industry has seen significant growth in recent years, at least in part due to Covid and related lifestyle changes. Most of the people I spoke to whilst developing Kostüme (numbering into the multiple hundreds) didn’t really care much about ‘the rich heritage and traditions of cycle racing’. They just wanted to ride bikes with their friends, explore and have fun. On road. Off road. Often both in the same ride. Cycling was suddenly full of outsiders with new attitudes, and all the richer for it.

Being a newcomer in an established market brings the power to see things with fresh eyes. It’s true that change is hard. But it’s especially hard when you’re rooted in the relentless churn of running a complex business and supply chain, and the apparel industry seems perfectly designed to lock you into an endless sprint to stay one step ahead of new seasons, new technologies and, of course, your competitors. 

As an outsider looking in, it’s obvious that the traditional apparel industry model is past its sell by date. The challenge is how to fix it.

How much of the kit in your wardrobe do you regularly wear?

Sale Ends?

One of the biggest legacy problems with the fashion industry - and there are many - is the crazy guessing game played each time a new product is developed and launched. That apparently inexhaustible slew of sale emails, codes and discount sites cluttering your inbox is simply because brands routinely manufacture much more stock than they can sell, with analysts reporting anywhere from 4-20% overproduction as standard.

Whilst we all love a bargain, the reality is this is bad for everyone. It’s proven to be bad for brand image, but it also falsely teaches consumers that products are worth less than they often are, which in turn makes purchases feel less valued and more disposable. It also increases the trend for unnecessary impulse buys, with between 30-60% of the average UK wardrobe filled with clothes we never wear.

The ultimate distillation of this ends in the nightmare of fast fashion, where over 50% of items sold are reportedly discarded or disposed of in less than one year.

Of course, the ultimate burden falls on the environment. Forgetting for a moment the virgin materials and resources put into each product to manufacture it (and the pre-consumer waste that goes hand in hand), the shocking reality is that most unsold products will eventually end up simply burned or as landfill. Perfectly saleable, unused goods. Current estimates suggest that up to 30% of all apparel produced ends up discarded or destroyed without ever being used (including returns that routinely don’t get resold). And with 100-150 billion items of apparel manufactured globally each year, it’s a truly frightening thing to try to visualise. 

When you start your own apparel label and see what goes into designing, making, distributing and selling each garment, wasting even a single one seems utterly crazy. And yet, this is totally standard practise for most apparel brands, cycling or otherwise. At risk of stating the obvious, something has to change, and fast.

Ideas are easy. Execution is hard.

The real irony is that nothing happens fast in fashion. Those ‘trends’ you see on sale today? They were mostly decided upon 18 months ago. All of this is a decades-old hangover from the days when fabric mills needed to know a long time in advance what colour to dye the yarn for the garment makers. Do you think it’s pure coincidence that rival fashion brands seem to end up with roughly similar concepts and colours each season? 

The choice and quality of recycled fabrics on the market today is impressive, but less unsustainable doesn't translate as sustainable

When we got to the ‘how do we fix it’ part for Kostüme, the rapid realisation was there was no silver bullet. No wonder-fabric or short-cuts to sustainability, despite what many brands try to lead you to believe. And so our conclusion was that the only way to make a real impact was to simply make and sell less stuff, which flies in the face of the goals of most if not all commercially-driven brands. 

Eventually we settled on the following as our core business model:

    • Direct-to-consumer e-commerce sales focus to minimise both financial and environmental overheads;
    • Near-shore sourcing and manufacturing to limit unnecessary product miles;
    • Limited edition small-batch collections to cap our total production volumes and help ensure sell-through;
    • Unique artist designs and collaborations to inject creativity and fun, increase desirability and encourage co-promotion/crossover opportunities;
    • Most importantly of all, a made-to-order business model that ensures no overproduction and therefore no damaging sales

Beyond the obvious environmental benefits, the efficiencies gained across the board would allow us to invest more money in better materials and genuine product innovations, yet still maintaining a similar or better RRP than competitor brands. As you might imagine, we had a high confidence of success.

In reality, fabrics get delayed, innovative design concepts prove a little too innovative, priceless samples get lost in the post (twice!), suppliers let you down days before launch, and these are just a few of the ‘highlights’. All this before the monumental challenge of explaining your brand, model and product benefits to millions of potential customers in the face of an industry-wide discounting pandemic. Nobody said it would be easy.

Sublimation printing reduces the need for dye and long lead times on fabrics

Ideas are cheap. Executing is expensive.

So, are we suggesting we just stick with the status quo because change is hard?

Absolutely, unequivocally not. 

The cycling industry has made some good progress on issues such as diversity and inclusivity, but the devastating environmental impact of apparel production still needs serious cross-industry action.

Expecting any for-profit company to proactively make risky, expensive, time-consuming changes to their processes without serious pressure to do so is, unfortunately, wishful thinking at best. But the simple fact is that every commercial brand - fashion or otherwise - has to respond to consumer demand.

It’s partly this dynamic that explains why innovation and change is repeatedly driven by small, passionate startups like Kostüme. It might seem counterintuitive to claim to be launching an apparel brand to try to tackle the overproduction of apparel. But, like using controlled fires to limit forest blazes, we believe that we can start the ball rolling to show that there is a better way. And, as we grow and scale, who knows what might be possible.

Our business model is just the very beginning of our journey and plans, but one company alone cannot hope to tackle all the issues, and even our best efforts and intentions are still technically contributing to the broader problems as it stands today.

The 5 R's

So, aside from renouncing capitalism, putting square wheels on your bike and moving to the nearest cave, how as consumers can we each play a role? 

  • Educate yourself - even loosely - about the issues. There are numerous reports and statistics in the mainstream from respected sources, just a short Google search away;
  • Think about where you can make even small changes in your own habits, but most importantly make them stick. It’s better to make a small change that lasts than a big change you only manage once;
  • Demand better from the brands you support; and
  • Vote with your wallet. 

As trite and cliché as it may sound, you really do have power as a consumer, particularly within a word-of-mouth focused community like cycling.

The results may not be noticed immediately, but trust me, brands see it and feel it and will ultimately respond to it.

Live by the 'reduce, repair, reuse, resell, recycle' mantra

Finally, buy less stuff and buy better when you do. Support local, value independence and encourage innovation, otherwise we really are stuck with the status quo. And learn the ‘reduce, repair, reuse, resell, recycle’ mantra so that it’s at the front of your mind always.

Ultimately, 'sustainable' is not enough. What we eventually need to work towards is 'regenerative'. But getting there is going to take serious time, dedication, investment and, yes, some compromises for everyone, at least in the short term. The long-term consequences if we don't take the neccesary action is unthinkable.

Of course, if you’re really frustrated, tired of waiting for change to happen, and have some bold ideas, you could do a lot worse than to try doing it better yourself. Every great, worthwhile, successful idea you've ever seen had to start somewhere.

For more information on our environmental approach, please visit Planet First.

Ed Bartlett is the Founder of Kostüme