Chloe Forster (Partner, IPT at DLA Piper London), interviewed our Founder and Creative Director, Bernice Pan, for her views on the future of the fashion & retail industries.
Chloe: How and why did you come to found DEPLOY?
Bernice: As creatives, it is always vital that we start with the question of ‘how can we use our abilities to make a meaningful difference’.
This principle goes to the root of my personal decision-making, going back to downtown New York in the late 1990s. It felt like I was being baptised by the fires of the Fashion System with all its glamour upstairs and the grit downstairs. Whilst quickly rising through the ranks with the responsibilities of heading up design, marketing and wholesale for a high-end brand house, the biggest battle each day was not a creative or commercial one, but an ethical one.
As it is the primary objective of any business to increase revenues and reduced cost; in fashion, businesses are built entirely on cost of goods sold (= material + labour). Unfortunately in reality increasing revenues results directly in exploitation of the environment through over supply to stimulate demand. And reducing costs equates directly in exploitation of people through reduced wages and rights.
Two critical issues became clear to me:
- On a macro level, the culture of excess is only a mild symptom of a seriously rotting system, and the obsession to propel newness at all cost serves as a necessity for disguising its ills.
- On a micro level, the problem isn’t going to be solved by a new collection or as even working as a cog in a different machine. And I cannot facilitate to reap in ways I am morally against.
So the quest to research, develop and design a new model for a reformed fashion system began in 2000. This endeavour took shape through concepts and theories of my thesis ‘The Fashion System’ and formed the DNA of DEPLOY with our 360 Sustainability Ethos as compass.
It’s why we are called DEPLOY. Founded in 2006, it is a strategic action plan to reform the fashion system by deploying sustainability & social equality. Because without changing people through serving them better, we cannot change the environment. DEPLOY offers sustainable style for smart women with garments that are impeccably tailored, functionally versatile, and properly fitted.
We do this through our innovative business model of design customisation, zero-waste processes, streamlined supply chain, mobile retail format, and specialist after-sale service to complete a full microcosm of a DEPLOY circular economy.
Chloe: Is sustainability the future of fashion & how can the fashion industry become more sustainable?
Bernice: Sustainability should be a minimum requirement not an optional extra for all businesses. But unfortunately the global fashion industries is a long way away from that -- due in the biggest part to the excess supply and consumption in the name of growth; where the size of the global fashion sector has expanded 5 fold since the 1990s.
At the current scale and speed of this ‘growth’, where the ‘fashion system’ ingests ¼ of the entire globe’s chemical usage and outputs 10 percent of the world’s carbon emission (higher than aviation and shipping combined) to sell 100bn garments year (not including the vast quantity of stock produced yet are unsold and discarded), with an estimated 60 percent of these items worn less than 7 times before being tossed and ending up in landfill and incinerators within a year of it being produced – we haven’t got a chance in mitigating the climate change crisis.
Moreover, fast (high street) fashion has grown so big and so vast, that 1 in 6 people in the world works for it (making it the most labour intensive industry in the globe), yet 98% of these people work for less than a living wage. That means over 1.25bn in the world is severely exploited to make our cheap, fast, throwaway fashion for us right here on Oxford Street.
Are we ok with this?
So, whilst a number of large global retailers are indeed making shifts to up their sustainability measures along their supply chains such as increasing efficiencies in energy and water usage, and moving towards using environmental cotton (versus traditional cotton which is water and chemical intensive) or recycled PET fabrics, until the large brands/retailers and their shareholders take a serious view with action to shift their focus from profit margin to their true cost of goods to the planet and people, i.e., cost to ALL OF US and our immediate future -- we are not going to see structural changes or significant improvements.
And this takes brands/retailers and their investors/ shareholders, manufacturers across sectors, government and consumers to all hold one another accountable. So in my view here is what needs to happen across all the counter parts across the chain in order to meaningfully reduce the current environmental impact:
• Brand/retailers MUST slow down their pace of piping out new products. This does not necessarily mean reducing revenues and growth trajectory. But it does mean re-evaluating their business structure and product offering, re-aligning their values to benefit people, the planet and their profits, and reducing their resource consumption and waste stream SIGNIFICANTLY.
• Manufacturers across sectors of materials (yarn & textile), chemical (polymer & dyes) and packaging MUST change gear to invest and speed up research development of new materials from renewable and non-toxic sources as well as upcycling waste stream to full levels of commercialisation, as the current options in the market place for sustainable material are still extremely limited. And this gives large brands/retailers excuses to opt out of choosing them.
• Governments MUST introduce public education and appropriate policies to regulate both the output and disposal of fashion garment textile goods. There is not one aspect of the commodities industries that we all depend on that isn’t subject to some degrees regulation, from food to motor vehicles to electronic appliances to alcohol and tobacco. We did not become a healthier nation by significantly cutting smoking because tobacco giants decided to be ‘more responsible’. This is a public health and safety issue and government must take action and accountability.
• Consumers MUST exercise their best judgement to make purchases that are truly beneficial for a long-term gain as opposed to a short quick fix. We must understand that buying throwaway GBP10 items means the direct exploitation of collective environmental resources (material) and fellow human being (labour) in one breath – making the ‘it’s ok ‘cause it’s cheap’ action a false economy with detrimental impact. So our decision not to buy from one retailer is as important as our decision to buy from another. As irresponsible businesses will cease to exist if no one buys anything from them!
Chloe: How can retailers build customer brand loyalty, in a world where sustainability is key?
Bernice: At DEPLOY, we design not just our product-service offering thoughtfully, creatively, efficiently and accountably to nurture a meaningful long-term relationship of mutual benefit.
We do this through the innovation of our own unique customised business/retail model, zero-waste supply chain processes, use of production salvage to create exquisite, upcycled trims and accessories, all the way to the design of specialist after-sale tailoring service to ensure longevity and circularity of our full microcosm.
So what customers get from a multi-functional/versatile style DEPLOY garment can equate to 2-5 pieces from elsewhere, i.e. with every piece we design and produce, we directly cut-down resource consumption by 50-80% compare to other brands. Plus our garments are finely tailored with quality fabrics and craftsmanship so they fit properly, last well and become your default go-to pieces, because you look great and feel confident from inside out, each time you wear DEPLOY.
This way we encourage you as the customer to treasure the relationship between YOU & YOUR GARMENT, YOU & US, and US ALL & THE ENVIRONMENT & THOSE WHO MAKE OUR CLOTHES, plus those who are marginalised in our societies through humanitarian charity partners we work with in different parts of the world we ‘popup’ in.
And we have certainly found over the 14 years that once people discover us, they stay loyal to DEPLOY as this is a unique, personal and valuable relationship to them -- not least for the fact that we have so many customers who tell us that every time their wear DEPLOY, they get compliments even if the piece they are wearing was what they bought some 5-10 years ago!
So whilst the constant challenges of running an independent brand and growing a small business abound, I believe that together with my business partners, Claudia and Tosin, we have indeed found our purpose in DEPLOY, making a meaningful difference to people and the planet we love and treasure, and we will strive to make this decade count.