A journey to sustainability
As the co-founder of sustainable Scottish fashion brand Beira, one might assume Antoinette Fionda-Douglas had always been an ethical shopper. Not so, she says. Here, in her first sustainable style column for The Flock, she explains her path to becoming a kinder consumer
JUN 1ST 2020
I love fashion. Sadly, I also used to be very much in love with fast fashion. I hate to admit it, but I was an addict with an unhealthy obsession for Zara.
In my previous role, as an academic, I spent a lot of time researching and lecturing on the business of fashion and its negative impact on the environment, its lack of economic viability and social inequality. I know, I should have known better, right?
But, like many other experts, it was only over time and through education that I concluded the fashion system was, and still is, broken. The problems range from the fast-paced fashion calendar to the overproduction of goods that encourage, and ultimately depend on, overconsumption to sustain a broken economic model. And that’s only the start. The lack of traceability and transparency in the fragmented supply chains, the exploitation of land, labour, and exotic animals, and the level of greenwashing that has seen sustainability become a profit-driven marketing strategy rather than inherent to business values, also play a key role.
Eventually, these realisations led me to an overwhelming feeling of guilt and I made the fateful decision to embrace conscious consumerism. Ultimately, it changed my life, allowing me to realise the dream of launching my own slow-luxury brand, Beira, which crafts limited-edition investment products for the discerning conscious consumer.
Dr. Antoinette Fionda-Douglas
I should point out that I am actually the co-founder. The brand is a joint venture between myself and my Italian business partner, Flavio Forlani, an inspirational businessman and the owner of the world-renowned La Rocca SRL. I may be biased, as he has been a wonderful friend for over 15 years, but he is without doubt one of the leading luxury outerwear manufacturers in the world. In fact, Beira actually began as a result of Flavio sharing his production problems over a lovely glass of prosecco. His main issue was waste – what is often called ‘spill’ in the manufacturing process.
Waste within the fashion industry is a really hot topic and is discussed at length from a post-consumer perspective, but what is less considered is the waste generated at the six pre-consumer phases of the manufacturing chain. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 52 million tonnes of fabric are produced each year for clothing and less than one per cent of that is recycled. That’s less than half a million tonnes. A study by Runnel in 2017 further estimated that a factory producing seven million garments per month creates 300 tonnes of spill per month. These numbers are huge and very troubling.
But sometimes problems create the most beautiful opportunities. After much deliberation, we created a disruptive solution to manufacture clothing while minimising that impact on the planet. Beira sources all of its raw materials by embracing the circular economy. We source exclusively from waste and use a process called design-led remanufacturing of reverse resources. I know, it’s a mouthful, but bear with me. Essentially, it means we buy waste from the luxury fashion industry and we let that waste lead the design.
“There is currently a lot of discussion about sustainable fashion futures. But the real change starts with the consumer”
Our end goal is to create durable and repairable investment products that we expect to enhance our customers’ wardrobes for ten to 15 years. And while the industry standard for sustainability is to ensure consumers get 30 or more wears from a garment (#30wears), we design to ensure more than 100 wears. To us #30wears seems like nowhere near enough. Our products are limited edition, as we are limited by the amount of luxury waste fabric we can access. Everything is made in Italy by artisans who also work for some of fashion’s most well-known luxury brands and we are completely transparent about our process and prices.
Transparency is another topic that has created some controversy of late – transparency is not the same as sustainability – but for us, being transparent about our pricing is a second fundamental in our ethos. We are delighted to illustrate what it costs to pay the artisans to make our products ethically, and fair labour is something I’ve campaigned about within the industry for years. It’s really sad that charities like Fashion Revolution and Labour Behind the Label still need to campaign for fair treatment for garment workers when, surely, this should be a fundamental for any business.
While we produce in Italy, our brand is based in Edinburgh and named for Scottish folklore. Beira was the Goddess of Winter and the Mother of all the Gods and Goddesses in Scotland. Her greatest strength was her ability to see beyond polarity and duality, an ability symbolised by her possession of one eye focussed on the oneness of beings. This concept was so inspiring, it became our logo, and represents our approach to radical transparency and honesty in all aspects.
Moreover, this dark queen was a complex character, simultaneously the creator and destroyer, gentle and fierce, and mother and nurturer. For us, elements of her story had similarities with the fashion industry today – fashion is an incredible creator, but also sadly a destroyer of our environment. It can be gentle and inclusive, but it can also be fierce and unethical.
Basically, at Beira, we aim to create honest luxury. And we are proud of that. The current COVID-19 situation is tough for small business – something I will discuss further in my next column – but it has made me hopeful for the future of fashion. There is currently a lot of discussion about #buildingbackbetter and looking for sustainable fashion futures. But the real change starts with the consumer.
I was a fast fashion consumer. I decided to make the change. I don’t profess to be perfect, but I can confirm I am happier. And every time I have a moment of weakness, I think about that famous quote by Anne Lappe: “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”
Let’s cast those votes wisely.