Helen Farr-Leander, founder of Surrey-based vegan wallet brand Watson & Wolfe, lifts the lid on her work as a sustainable fashion entrepreneur
Helen Farr-Leander decided to start her own business in late 2016, and with 10 years' experience in luxury leather goods she thought the luxury wallet market would be a natural fit. "I thought initially that I would just design a few wallets, have them made in China, and then sell them online," she tells BusinessGreen.
That was before Farr-Leander started researching the environmental impact of the fashion industry.
It is one of the most polluting sectors on the planet, and could consume up to a quarter of the world's carbon budget by 2050 if growth is left unchecked. Experts hold the phenomenon of 'fast fashion' - where garments are worn one just once or twice before being discarded - as one of the main drivers of surging environmental impacts. Research released earlier this month from campaign group TRAID suggests 23 per cent of Londoners' wardrobes go unworn, yet in spite of this, almost a quarter of Londoners say they buy new clothes every month.
In recent months the issue has stormed into the public consciousness, with everyone from MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee to TV presenter Stacey Dooley launching investigations into the issue.
For Farr-Leander, the turning point came back in 2017 when, after struggling to pinpoint a brand identity for her start-up, she began to read up on the leather industry's environmental footprint. What she found shocked her. "I hit upon some articles online about the impact of the leather industry on the surrounding areas of tanneries in the world, and on the fact that leather is no longer just a by-product of the meat industry," she recalls. "The demand for leather is so high that leather comes from all sorts of places that consumers don't know about. It makes its way into the supply chain of leather, and no one ever knows now really what they are buying - that will be making its way into the European market."
Farr-Leander's concern is echoed by many in the fashion industry. A 2017 report from The Boston Consulting Group and the Global Fashion Agenda found that leather is one of the materials with the highest overall environmental impact, ranking highly for causing global warming, water stress, and eutrophication.
"For me [there is] this whole black cloud over what we are doing to our planet in the name of fashion," Farr-Leander says. "I have two small children and I thought 'how can I put my name to something that is this damaging?'"
'It's not about needing different skills, it's about asking more questions' - Farr-Leander
Farr-Leander decided to completely rethink the company's direction, and earlier this year Watson & Wolfe was reborn as a vegan leather wallet brand. The company's range of wallets, travel purses and card holders are made by craftsmen in a factory in Turkey using bio-based vegan leather, with a nylon lining made from recycled plastic bottles. They are aimed squarely at the male market - who, Farr-Leander says, "have as much right as anyone to own a luxury product that is cruelty-free, sustainable, and made with as much care and attention as you can buy on Bond Street".
"I wanted to go down a more sustainable route, I wanted to have no animal products, and I wanted to appeal to a male market because men are one of the hardest group segments to green, but actually they have a lot of buying power," she explains.
Heading up a small fashion brand with two young children is "tough" Farr-Leander admits, but there's a wealth of support from the growing ranks of fellow green fashion entrepreneurs and designers across the country. "I had no idea this movement existed or was happening until probably the last 12 months," she says. "There are a lot of groups of like-minded people online who are starting and running sustainable businesses with ethical manufacturing, who care about where fashion is going."
She insists you don't need a set of special 'environmental' skills to start work in the green space, but one thing you do need is belief in your brand and its mission. "You just need to have a passion to make sure you are researching your product line or where materials are coming from a bit more thoroughly," she says. "It's not just about finding a polyester that's thick and is the cheapest one you can find. That really isn't the point of it. It's about finding the material you want to use, finding the highest quality you can get but also from a factory that is aligned with your values."
It's a skill set that is familiar to a raft of sustainability roles across the burgeoning green economy. As Farr-Leander observes, "it's not about needing different skills, it's about asking more questions".
Farr-Leander believes the green fashion industry will be driven by millennials and Gen Z (those born after 1995). But although younger consumers want to do the right thing, the fashion world is a tricky beast to navigate ethically.
"Consumers already find it really difficult to decide what food they should buy based on whether they are healthy or not," points out Farr-Leander. "Imagine when you are looking at the high street and all the clothes in each of those stores, to determine whether you are making a good decision or not. It's impossible for consumers to make that decision."
She wants to see companies ranked according to their sustainability performance, with their scores displayed for consumers to see on product labels - a little like the grading system in place for electrical goods. "I believe as a business owner that I should meet certain criteria within my business to help the planet move towards our sustainable future," she argues. "Therefore there should be a ranking system - 10 being the worst for the environment, one being the best you could be. Brands should be ranked on that."
Farr-Leander also wants to see polluting companies taxed at a far higher rate than their greener peers. "If there were a corporate tax system based on your eco-friendliness to the planet that would definitely help," she says.
Watson & Wolfe may have only started selling its first wallets in July, but, as Farr-Leander puts it, it is a "kitchen-top start-up with big ambitions". By next year it is aiming to achieve 'carbon neutral' status, and is also working to become completely zero waste. But more than that, Farr-Leander hopes the company will get people to think differently about fashion. "It's within us all to make the change," she says. "It's just about whether you're motivated to do it."
With growing public awareness of the impact cheap clothes are having on the planet, and inventive start-ups like Watson & Wolfe springing up from Cornwall to Carlisle, it seems fast fashion is becoming so last season. For aspiring and established fashion professionals the ability to spot a trend is priceless, and as the green fashion sector continues to expand the opportunities for forward-looking designers, retailers, and suppliers have never been clearer.