Sustainable Style

How Oliver Spencer took 28,753 cars off the road by ditching cardboard collars (sort of)

...and why, according to the brand's head of sustainability, Bleue Burnham, plastic isn't always the enemy

‘There’s not a one-fit solution for any of this,’ explains Bleue Burnham, head of sustainability at Oliver Spencer, as we sit in the zen surroundings of the showroom on Lambs Conduit Street. Around me hangs the brand’s Spring/Summer 19 collection, all muted browns and grassy greens in the brand’s signature summer linens and cottons. From the low level wall lighting fuelled by renewable energy, to the wooden shop fit upstairs by ‘progressive’ outfitters Another Country, ‘there’s completely different answers for everything we do,’ says Burnham.

Bleue Burnham

Talking about sustainability and fashion is sometimes like trying to square a circle that is immovably, undeniably round. From the 1,468 gallons of water it takes to make just one pair of jeans, to the 70 million barrels of oil that are used each year to make polyester, the clothing industry takes a lot from the earth – and doesn’t give a lot back. So how does Oliver Spencer square the circle?

‘At the end of the day, people need clothes to wear,’ argues Burnham. ‘We make clothes that are made to last for years, and we hope our customer wears them for years. But we’ve seen the evidence and it wouldn’t be right for us not to act on that. We love clothes and the enjoyment people get out of nice clothes. It doesn’t make sense to do that at the expense of other people or future generations.’

‘We’ve seen the evidence and it wouldn’t be right for us not to act’

In Oliver Spencer’s case, this translates into thinking critically of every aspect of the business, from fabrics to packaging. Its spring collection is made from 30 per cent ecologically friendly materials, which means organic cotton, European linen and untreated fabrics. Achieving that 30 per cent – actually the best that it gets in the fashion industry – was a challenge. ‘There just aren’t enough mills out there creating great quality fabrics using organic cotton,’ explains Burnham. ‘But we’re slowly moving towards using more and more of it.’ It helps that consumers – and ergo the rest of the fashion industry – are waking up to the benefits of organic cotton. ‘A lot of the chemicals used in growing cotton are really intense, and they just kill the life in the soil,’ explains Burnham. ‘Healthy soil retains water and stores more carbon, so by growing things in an organic way, you allow life to flourish within it, helping reduce emissions, and meaning plants need less water.’

Oliver Spencer Spring/Summer ’19

For Burnham, sustainable agriculture like organic cotton will play the most crucial role in fashion’s future. ‘I hope to see a situation where we give more than we take from the planet. One of the biggest reasons for that will be through regenerative organic agriculture, which is a method of farming that allows more carbon to be stored in the ground than is created through garment production.’ Because of advancements in agriculture, he thinks we’ll soon be seeing a very different fashion industry: ‘Within the next five years we’ll see carbon negative T-shirts.’

Another process the brand’s looking at improving is its packaging. But, although other names in the industry are moving towards paper bags, Oliver Spencer is sticking with plastic. ‘It’s a really great material, but the way we use it isn’t good ,’ explains Burnham. ‘And right now the alternatives actually create more carbon emissions, including paper – the recycling process of paper uses a lot of energy.’ Paper is also a major source of air, water and land pollution, due to the chemicals used to make it. Instead, Burnham has taken small steps to minimise Oliver Spencer’s paper consumption. Removing collar cards from garments reduced the brand’s carbon footprint by 36,934 kilograms annually – that’s the equivalent of taking 28,753 cars off the road each year. The brand’s also partnering with RePack, who provide reusable online dispatch packaging – the customer can just fold it up and post it back with the free returns label, meaning the packaging stays in the loop. ‘As long as people post it back, it works,’ says Burnham.

‘The government should get their act together to change things more’ 

Oh yes, the customer. With sustainability, the onus is often on the consumer to make better choices with their purchasing power – a pressure that often doesn’t recognise the fact that, sometimes, there is no environmentally friendly choice. But Oliver Spencer’s position is that it’s the responsibility of everyone – businesses, customers and the government – to chip in. ‘It’s not one or the other. The burden of it shouldn’t be on just one section,’ says Burnham. ‘But businesses have the potential to make the biggest impact if they choose to act now. And the government should get their act together to change things more.’ 

For Oliver Spencer, it’s not the big gestures that count, but the small, considered ones that impact how you live and work every day – just look at those collar cards, for example. And, at the end of the day, it’s an easy leaf we can all take out of its book. ‘There’s not a Holy Grail we’re trying to achieve, but we just want to keep improving our performance,’ argues Burnham. ‘After all, it’s just thinking about the future. It feels quite logical to us.’