Christopher Raeburn is a fashion designer and the founder of innovative and environmentally responsible fashion brand Raeburn. In November of last year, he appointed his brother Graeme the label’s performance director. Here the pair highlight the fashion industry’s terrible record on sustainability and talk us through how they approach the notion of “responsible design”.
Even as children, we were interested in the “make do and mend” idea and had an appreciation for things no matter what they are or what condition you might find them in. That’s a fundamental part of how we design today, too.
We talk and think about “responsibility” as opposed to “sustainability” because the latter can mean a hell of a lot of things to a hell of a lot of different people, whereas we believe that as a company we have a responsibility to design, source and manufacture things in the right way.
We have an obligation to do that both as a community and as an industry. As you might know, we (the fashion industry) are the second biggest polluter in the world, just behind the automobile industry. Which means there’s a lot to question and a lot to take action on.
Designing responsibly implies a level of accountability on both an individual designer level and on a business level, and a community level too, for that matter. We’ve found in our work that it also imbues things with a sense of dynamism. We’re very aware that we aren’t perfect – because perfection is an impossibility – but in taking a dynamic approach to working with materials in a responsible manner we’re ensuring that we’re constantly looking to improve. For us, being accountable and responsible means also being aspirational – you want to ensure you’re proactively producing a better world.
The textiles industry is quite far behind others when it comes to putting metrics on things and that means there’s little quantitative analysis on things like water consumption, energy consumption, miles travelled or carbon footprints.
Whether it’s a sportswear brand or a luxury French house, we’re lacking in unified standards across the fashion industry, and that means there’s no way of reviewing things on the same level. That isn’t to say there isn’t a desire to change when it comes to facing climate breakdown, though. The question is: How can we bring it about and what does it entail?
One way to start is to think about things in terms of efficiency. For us, part of this involves considering something as basic as how often a garment gets used in its lifetime. Once that’s lodged in the design process you make sure the fit is right, that the colour is beautiful, that fundamentally the customer gets to love a product as long as possible. We already offer free repairs for life on any Raeburn garment, which hints at being responsible: we’re going to keep your garment going for as long as we can.
With us, everything comes back to what we like to call the “Three Rs” – that’s how the business is divided up. There’s “Remade”, which is where the company began, and that’s always been focused on the deconstruction and eventual reuse of everything from 1950s silk maps to hot air balloons to military blankets and sleeping bags. All of those pieces are made right here in our lab in Hackney, and it’s a labour of love which sees an incredibly dedicated team designing and crafting highly skilled pieces.
The thing is, if we only did this, we’d have a very, very, very niche company on our hands. And so we decided to introduce two further lines. “Reduced”, as the name suggests, focuses on waste reduction, which spans everything from producing carbon-neutral T-shirts to bringing about more local manufacturing partnerships, keeping things close to the eventual customer.
Finally, we’ve got the “Recycled” range, which sort of speaks for itself. In case it doesn’t, this is where we primarily use recycled plastic bottles which are then chipped into pellets, made into fibre, and finally recycled up into wearable garments.
Of course, this isn’t just about us and what we do at Raeburn. Everyone in fashion is going to have to think about the brute fact that material supplies are dwindling, and the reality of the future of this industry involves closed-loop systems and carbon-neutral options. Otherwise things simply aren’t sustainable, in the truest sense of the word.
Recently there’s been a governmental review into the sustainability of the textile industry, which could end up enforcing policy change around the use of virgin plastics and introducing supplier accountability charges for each garment being made, which would then be directly invested into recovery processes. Essentially, good practice would be incentivised and poor processes penalised.
No one is doubting the fact that performance, bottom line and profitability are all things that businesses have to consider, but we feel that there are opportunities to do things in the right way in order to engender change, and that’s something we find exciting.
While there may be new conversations around these topics and new ideas being introduced, fundamentally some of the things we do in our business are harking back to old ways. Our grandmother, for example, got married in a wedding dress she’d made herself from an old parachute. We’re giving that mindset a modern twist, and the way we’ve been able to communicate that with the help of amazing art directors has let us go beyond simple garments.
Admittedly we work slightly outside of traditional consumer culture, and people across the world need the kind of affordable clothing which can cause an environmental headache. It would be remiss and wrong of us to be critical of that out and out.
In the world of fashion, we’re all part of the problem. But that means we’re all part of the solution as well. Everyone – be it brands on our level, or the massive luxury groups, or the fast-fashion merchants – holds different keys to the problem and we all need to remember just how important it is that we work together at this crucial time.
Climate breakdown is, obviously, the biggest issue we face as humanity and what could be more compelling or urgent than that? The reality of our situation is very daunting and fear can cripple decision-making very easily, but it’s important to never lose sight of the fact that we’re living through a moment of incredible change – politically, socially, and environmentally.
Change allows for creativity and innovation; individual actions come together to make massive impacts.
This article is part of Response and Responsibility, a series of features and opinion pieces about the ongoing climate crisis and what the creative industries can do to make a difference.