Aesthetics don’t come second to ethics.
ASOS is one of the world’s biggest online retailers and has moved from selling celebrity-inspired clothing to being a major innovator in the digital fashion sphere. The ‘Green Room’ is their sustainable fashion hub and showcases new eco labels alongside their flagship sustainable line, ASOS Africa.Now in its tenth season, it’s proof that “aesthetics don’t come second to ethics.”
Make it last spoke to ASOS’ Sustainable Fashion Manager Claire Hamer to find out how ASOS Africa has grown from its first small collection to being Michelle Obama’s label of choice for her tour of South Africa and her interview with Oprah Winfrey at the White House.
The idea came from a trip to Kenya in 2009 and a meeting with SOKO, a social enterprise founded by Joanna Maiden. “We were looking for African manufacturing partners with whom to create a brand for ASOS that went beyond a project or one-off collaboration. I spent an incredible month in Kenya and Uganda with Joanna visiting a variety of manufacturers and artisans of both clothing and materials – from small co-operatives through to huge manufacturers with minimum orders of 50,000 units. It was quite an eye opener.”
Now people sometimes complain that ‘ethical fashion’ can be a little… boring? Less than stylish? It’s vital that the clothes stand up to stylish scrutiny as well as ethical standards. Claire declares, “Aesthetics always come first. A collection will only be successful if our customers are inspired to wear it.”
After 12 months of planning and development the debut collection – made from East African Kangas and Kittenges sourced from local markets – went online in 2010 and sold out completely. The aesthetic continues to evolve: ““Throughout the seasons we have stayed close to different African heritage, be that working with local artisans in Kenya or Nigeria as well as taking inspiration from our frequent visits to see our manufacturing partners. We also source materials globally to ensure the collection remains on trend.”
The current collection has an early ‘90s, acid house vibe, with bold Autumnal African florals and animal Kanga prints in a moody colour palette of black, white, grey and lilac on scuba and textured crepe fabrics. It’s that fusion of clashing references which has made the line so popular with ASOS’ young, fashion-obsessed customers. For Spring/Summer 15 the colour palette has lightened up but the prints are just as punchy. A tiny beetle detail and a woven chevron stripe subtly nod to the collection’s origins, while the shift dresses, trapeze tops and wide-legged trousers continue the ‘90s theme.
The ASOS Africa project doesn’t feel like a cynical move to grab a piece of the sustainable limelight. Instead, it looks like the brand is in it for the long haul. By starting small scale and growing at a manageable pace, and by reinvesting in the people and their environment, the project is sustainable in the truest sense – it’s not going to burn out, but will grow bigger so SOKO can fulfill larger orders for other clients too – with ASOS’ blessing.
Benefits for the largely female workforce – which has grown from four in 2009 to 45 today – include an on-site creche and healthcare, while their environment is protected too. “In November 2012 SOKO moved to a new eco-factory which ASOS half funded through a £5 donation per garment from the S/S11 and A/W11 collections which we match-funded through the ASOS Foundation. The eco-factory is based at Wildlife Works, the world’s leading REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) project development and management company.”
Smart brands understand that sustainability isn’t a passing fad or a marketing trick, but a crucial part of future-proofing their business. “Any business operating within the fashion industry would be foolish to ignore the sustainability challenges we will increasingly face. For example, to be an efficient retailer is going to require reducing the amount of resources consumed – both directly and within our supply chains as well as working with those suppliers who see quality, and therefore sustainability, as a key mission of their business.”
High street brands are often criticised for their laissez faire attitude to sustainability, so it’s impressive to encounter one that’s using its scale and clout to influence industry practises, as well as effecting change in consumers’ habits. As Claire puts it “Although ASOS Africa is a small percentage of sales, it carries a very powerful message.”
Words by Phoebe Frangoul
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