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On Linen: A Panel Discussion

Sustainability at Oliver Spencer has always been about promoting conversation without condescension. Their latest panel discussion with The Essential Journal and the I Love Linen initiative is no exception 

words by Will HALBERT

Oliver Spencer have always had a candid approach to sustainability. As a fashion brand, they know they can’t do everything, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to sit by and do nothing. Over the last few years, Oliver Spencer has dedicated itself to steady, incremental changes in the right direction. That leaves us with an awful lot to talk about. And thanks to the chairing skills of Oliver Horton, talk is exactly what we did. Joining Oliver Spencer’s Head of Sustainability, Blue Burnham and UK Fashion Market Analyst and Spokesperson for GGHQ, Gill Gledhill, our Editor, Will Halbert waxed lyrical on the subject of linen and its role in the forward march of sustainability in the fashion industry.

Oliver Horton: First of all, what does sustainability mean to each
of you personally?

Blue Burnham (Head of Sustainability, Oliver Spencer): It’s a case of doing things in a way that affords future generations the same opportunity to do those things. From an environmental perspective, that boils down to looking at what you’re using and the way in which you’re using it. My job as Head of Sustainability boils down to working with the rest of the company, from design, to production, to marketing, to make sure we’re doing what we can to reduce our footprint and, ultimately, be a force for good. 

Will Halbert (Editor, The Essential Journal): Sustainability is quite a tricky one because it’s become such a catch-all phrase. I’m also from a food and drinks background and we often have the same problem with terms like ‘natural wine’. From a perspective of terminology it does run the risk of becoming a little too general a phrase. In terms of fashion, at least, I think it boils down to a sense of accountability and approaching fashion and style with a long-term plan. Fashion with a little forward thinking.

Gill Gledhill (UK fashion market analyst, GGHQ London): It’s about knowing the impact of something, both socially and environmentally. Which is why I work so closely with linen. It is, after all, a plant-based fabric, it’s grown locally (and on rotation) within Europe, it’s grown by farmers who care about the environment, it produces no waste and it’s totally rain-fed. It’s almost magical in terms of what it gives back, it’s an extraordinary fabric.

Blue, are you facilitating the design process by informing Oliver Spencer along the way? Or are you approaching him with potential projects and steps to take?
It’s a bit of both. There’s no real structure to how we go about things. I have my ideas of how we should be moving forward: Looking at low impact fabrics, renewable energy, looking at how we make things and how we package them, and their life cycles. But there will also be situations where Oli will come to me with a particular plan or project and ask how to go about it. So while I sit at the Head of Sustainability for Oliver Spencer, ideas come from all levels and directions.

In the past, I’ve worked with brands that have been pretty reluctant to change their ways, but Oliver Spencer as a brand has a very progressive mindset. Everyone shares the same moral standpoint. Everyone’s on the same page and sustainability is now core to what we do.

It was a really rewarding process, thinking back. We looked at the basics to begin with, looking at our fabrics and our overall footprint, the kinds of energy we were using, other pressure points like packaging, and we managed to take some pretty big steps fairly quickly. Sustainability will always be a continual process though; there’s no golden point to which we’re working. We just want to keep making progress. It will always be a journey.

Will, you meet a lot of makers and creators in the world of men’s fashion and beyond. Where is the sustainability conversation at right now? Is there a forward momentum to the movement?
From a journalistic perspective, it initially felt like a flash in the pan. But really, this has been simmering away in the background for some time, slowly reaching boiling point. And now that it has, I don’t really think it’s going anywhere. There’s a real forward march now, people are only going to grow more curious. Consumers are so much more savvy now; they’re asking more questions. They want to know who made the garments they’re wearing.

We’re also lucky enough to live in an age where the answers to these questions are only a Google away. Which imposes a certain level of transparency on a brand. You have to be more honest, or else you’ll be found out pretty quickly. Neither that march towards transparency nor that growing curiosity are going anywhere. You can’t regain ignorance of these subjects. Once you know, you know, and you have to act in some way.

Do you have any lightbulb moments yourself?
WH: From a fashion standpoint, the Oliver Spencer/Wolfgang Buttress exhibition at the Soho store, Reverie, was a  real eye-opener. It broached the subject of environmental engagement in a very approachable and welcoming way. It created this really strong audiovisual metaphor of the links between what we do as a society and its impacts on the wider environment.

BB: It was pretty insane. You sat in this chair, immersed in these flowers and plants of a wild meadow at head height and there was this audio element that reverberated through the entire chair. You could hear bees buzzing around your head, it was incredible.

Gill, how do you explain the evolution of Linen and it’s newfound fame?
GG: I think transparency plays a big part in its rise back into popularity. We can see how easily it can be transposed from a plant to a useful material. It’s a seemingly simple fabric, but it has a lot of magic to it. It keeps you cool in summer, it’s thermo-regulating. It can hold around 20% of its own weight in moisture before you even start to feel it. It dries really quickly and it has antimicrobial qualities to it too, so it’ll take a lot of wear before it starts to get smelly. And if it does, all it takes is a little airing out and it’s good to go again. Which is also great for the environment. 

So these are all really good qualities, and that’s before even mentioning how rich the fabric is, it’s great to the touch, it has this lovely sheen. And there are so many different ways of using and wearing it. And beyond fashion, flax has a bunch of other applications. It really is a magic plant, full of possibilities. 

BB: Linen is a naturally low-impact fiber. Here at Oliver Spencer, we’ve always used a lot of linen, and people have always bought it. For the most part, people are already on board with linen because of its functional and aesthetic charm, but they don’t often know the great story behind it and just how environmentally sound it is. That’s the story we really want to tell now. It’s a simple, but very interesting fabric. So reinforcing that narrative is important because it will further inform people’s purchasing decisions, compelling them to opt for more environmentally-friendly fabrics.

Is there a trade off in terms of design and sustainability? Does being sustainable mean taking a step back in terms of design?
WH: I don’t think there really is a trade off anymore. It seems to me that Oliver Spencer have always operated on a fabric-forward way, whereby you can look at the potential of a particular fabric and let your ideas run wild. There’s no compromise in terms of aesthetics. It’s perfectly possible to have great-looking garments that also happen to be sustainable. And that’s important, because you never want to come off as too preachy with your sustainable credentials. So no, there’s no real trade off. If anything, design and sustainability are the obverse and reverse of the same coin.

BB: It’s so important that there isn’t a trade off. People’s primary criteria when shopping for a garment is how it looks. I’ve actually done a fair bit
of research about it. Firstly, there’s the aesthetic component, then comes the price, and then there’s a few variables that come next where sustainability rates quite highly. So the first two need to be strong pulls in order to achieve the third. So it’s super important that neither the aesthetics nor the price point are compromised. Which is something Oliver Spencer have always focussed on.

Do any of you have any tips or guidelines on how to be more sustainable?
BB: From an environmental perspective, the most sustainable item of clothing you can choose is something you’re going to wear for a long time. So it’s about buying something that’s made to last, from a construction perspective and a design perspective. So timeless design is important. From a social perspective, there is a wider range of areas you might want to look at: Be sure to buy organic cotton wherever possible; look at the way things are being manufactured. Don’t just look at the country where the factories are based, there are good and bad factories everywhere. It’s about drilling down and talking with each brand, getting whatever information you can. Recycle, obviously. And never take things at face value, I’ve heard people say that certain things are environmentally sustainable for the simple fact that they’re natural. That’s just not true.

WH: I think asking questions is key. Be curious about all that you read, and be sure to read wide to gain a fuller picture of what’s going on. Take all of the information you can get from wherever you can get it, just don’t be so fast to swallow it all wholesale. Be open to challenge, if someone has something to say about the sustainability of something you do, talk it out. If you take a defensive stance, you shut down any opportunity for discourse and dialogue. 

GG: You can also learn some skills yourself. Find out what it takes to put a garment together. Because there is a value in the garment, a standard to its construction. When you try putting your hand to making something yourself, you realise just how much skill and energy goes into it. You just have to look at the construction of an Oliver Spencer piece to see that they’re incredibly well put together. Try it yourself and see what you create.

BB: And there’s so many layers to the whole process too. Each of these layers come at a cost, adding value to the garment: growing, spinning, weaving, designing, constructing. Learn to appreciate those to better understand the price of a garment. 

On that note, are there any false friends and not-so-sustainable hooks that we need to be aware of?
BB: Get away from the idea that cheap clothes are good clothes. The only good clothes are those that go the distance, and clothes that go the distance don’t tend to come cheap. We need to slow our spending down and get behind brands that are looking to make things more circular, looking to close the loop. I remember that buying cheap is a false economy. You wind up spending more replacing the things that don’t last.

GG: One of the lovely things about linen is the fact that it’s totally biodegradable. That’s huge if we really are looking to minimize our impact, especially in the realm of fashion. But I think we really are coming around to the idea of being more responsible consumers. We are asking questions, and we do support brands that are pushing a more sustainable model. It’s about loving the garments that you have. If you love them, you’re going to wear them again and again. Those kinds of garments are the real heroes of sustainability. You’ll repair them and look after them.

WH: The aphorism rings true: you buy cheap, you buy twice. And that’s why education is key here. Prices are going to rise as production standards improve. The key is to help people to understand why something costs what it does. 

The flip side of that is they also learn why something is cheap, and the consequences of that lower price point. I know that runs the risk of sounding elitist, but in the long run you will save money. Buy less, wear the hell out of it, and when you’re finally done with it, pass it on and let it continue its story.