10 Lessons from 10 Sustainable Entrepreneurs

By Janice Sommer

Since launching In Conscious Conversation (ICC) – available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and other platforms -, I have been continuously learning. What started as just a podcast to tell sustainable fashion stories has grown into a knowledge hub and a powerful community accelerating business growth through founder-to-founder information sharing.

I have learned about business management, sustainable innovations, and the tumultuous journeys of entrepreneurship. Here are my ten biggest lessons to date, with examples from brands who have proven that these approaches are a recipe for success.

1. Make sustainability inherent to the design of the product

Integrate sustainability into your business model from the get-go, not as a later add-on.

Eugenie Mulier’s brand Archivist Movement upcycles high-quality hotel linens into white cotton shirts. The linens are normally discarded from luxury hotels due to policy requirements and their pristine quality wasted. Archivist gives them a new life, often opting to celebrate small flaws in a concept reminiscent of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery pieces with gold and embracing imperfections to create something even more beautiful.

Lucia Radeljak, co-founder of circular, carbon-negative cashmere label Mansken, uses scraps from existing high-end brands such as Loro Piana, which are spun into new fibres in an innovative process known as “reyarning” to make wonderfully soft jumpers. This attitude is also not restricted to textiles alone, as Anna Molinari has proved with her jewellery brand Atelier Molinari, which uses recycled gold in its unique designs.

2. Assess the full product lifecycle and aim for circularity

Best practice is to regularly conduct a lifecycle assessment of the environmental impact of your entire manufacturing process, considering how to “close the loop” and ensuring effective end-of-life strategies, including repairs, returns, and recyclability.

At Mansken, every jumper comes with a lifetime warranty and free-of-charge repairs, as well as the option to return used jumpers (also from other brands) which have seen better days to be used as raw materials for further items.

3. Consider the environmental and social impact of your entire supply chain

It is beneficial to quantify carbon emissions and social impact in your supply chain. Getting this right takes time, research, and a willingness to ask suppliers, factories, and logistics partners some difficult questions, but ultimately will pay off.

Most of the brands I have had on the podcast have reduced complexity by keeping supply chains short, choosing trusted factories in countries that uphold labour rights, and working with certified materials, such as GOTS-certified cotton at Iona Debarge, or low-carbon footprint linen at resort-wear brand Oramai.

4. Reduce the length of your supply chain and optimise production methods

Long, complex supply chains make it difficult for legacy players to implement changes at the necessary scale and speed, meaning that smaller, agile brands have the advantage.

Many practice nearshoring and local production such as British sustainable sleepwear label, Iona Debarge, which sources surplus fabric from major textile fairs and employs a network of London-based seamstresses that sew the products in their own homes.

Olivia Thurn-Valsassina works with underprivileged women in Jaipur, India, from the Princess Diya Kumari Foundation to create her SAFAR travel bag. The multi-use, see-through, one litre bag eliminates the need for disposable airport plastic bags and adheres to security regulations, whilst making use of locally sourced raw materials that have travelled the shortest possible distance.

Kate Wrigley’s Colombia Collective works directly with Colombian artisans, cutting out middlemen and merging traditional techniques with modern design. Collaboration with, and welfare of, the artisans is the top priority, even when this means longer lead times. Each product tells stories not only of the makers but of cultures and heritages, with skills passed down generations.

5. Be sustainable in your financing, budgeting and growth 

Slow, mindful growth is better than overly rapid growth, which risks overproduction – a systemic issue of the fast fashion business model.

The aforementioned Iona Debarge built her brand slowly, despite having inherited pattern-cuts and a passionate clientele from her mother’s shop, After Dark, the go-to destination in London for high-end sleepwear in the 70s (with glamorous clients including Princess Diana). Rather than ordering from factories with large minimum order quantities, Iona releases small batches that match client demand. 

6. Choose a business partner whose values are in line with yours

Value alignment is particularly important in the sustainability space for founders wishing to build a mission-driven brand.

At the Colombia Collective, Kate parted from an early business partner after realising that their visions for the future were misaligned. She wanted to keep the focus on the firm’s social impact while he prioritized growth and profitability at all costs.

When choosing business partners, ensuring a synergy of skill-sets is beneficial, so ideally, co-founders can build something bigger than the sum of its parts. At Mansken, Lucia’s co-founder had already founded a knitwear brand, whilst Lucia’s past experience brought sustainability expertise.

Equal symbiosis can be seen at Renoon, an invite-only app which provides shopping recommendations based on sustainability criteria, and was started by four co-founders with complementary skills. Iris Skrami is the extroverted marketing, brand and product lead, while introverted, coding-experienced Nico is the lead developer. Strategy-driven Gabriele never misses a detail and heads up the data and finance side of things, while commercially-minded Piero runs partnerships and sales.

7. Make careful choices about materials and consider using technological innovations 

Carefully chosen materials are essential for reducing your brand’s climate impact. Also consider using materials innovations, including for packaging and logistics.

For example, Adele Logan Helmers’ brand ByAdele uses innovative materials such as Piña, a fibre made from pineapple plant leaves, and Calado, a type of hand-embroidery that involves puncturing the fabric for a lacy effect. Mansken collaborates with a specialised startup based in Italy which provides the innovative re-yarning machine that breaks down old cashmere fibres, while Alexandra Jacobsen, founder of sustainable activewear brand Evig, uses TENCEL™ Lyocell, a renewable, biodegradable, plant-based fabric woven in Portugal from sustainably forested eucalyptus.

8. Patience and resilience are key.

Several of the businesses I have had on the ICC podcast launched in the middle of the pandemic, with many referencing a “birth by fire” in the most disruptive time in recent history for the fashion industry. Travel bans made it nearly impossible to visit suppliers, and demand for some products drastically reduced. However, resilience, a strong team, and in some ways, the gift of time, has enabled our founders to consolidate their sustainability policies and define their businesses’ values.

9. Build deep, authentic customer relationships

Engage directly with your customers and make sustainability an integral part of your brand identity. By building real relationships with customers while producing smaller quantities, you can adapt, producing items your customers will truly love. Atelier Molinari and ByAdele prioritise made-to-order products, with only a very small ready-made range, whilst Mansken’s long R&D process resulted in a single minimum viable product, available in three colours.

10. Integrate sustainability in all aspects of your life (not just your business)

I particularly encourage this last lesson. By truly integrating sustainability not only in your brand but also in your personal habits, you will live a life with integrity, fully aligned with your values. A sustainable mindset includes an awareness that all of our actions play a role in ensuring that our planet is a beautiful, liveable place for our children, and our children’s children.

Janice Sommer

Janice Sommer is a podcast host, model activist and sustainable fashion advocate. She is one of the leaders of the London branch of Model Mafia, a group of models working to create a more just, equitable and sustainable fashion industry and world.