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  1. I spend much of Autumn feeling a bit chilly, as I ambitiously eek out the wearing of my summer skirts and shorts (often teamed with woolly socks and a jumper for the height of vogue). In years passed I would be planning a trip to the high street right about now, for a few winter season purchases to cheer me and my wardrobe up. But for the past few seasons, I have reigned in this urge to shop on impulse, and there are a number of reasons for this. I don’t like to have too much stuff, I tend to wear whatever is warmest when the cold weather really kicks in (i.e. the two wool jumpers that I have) and, eclipsing all other reasons, I’ve learnt that most high street fashion comes with a price much higher than that shown on the tag.

    ‘The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world, causing human misery, enormous cost of life and gigantic environmental devastation.” Vandana Shiva

    I think most of us have a notion that fast fashion isn't great, but do we really stop to think about our purchasing decisions? Whether we like it or not, when we buy a piece of clothing, we're casting a vote in favour of everything that went into making it. The trouble is, we don’t exactly know what into making it most of the time, do we? Flicking through the latest Autumn/Winter brochures might show me what I'd look like gallavanting through the British countryside in a mack and a well cut pair of jeans, but it tells me nothing about the integrity of those same clothes. Were they made in Britain (VERY unlikely)? Where, then? And by whom? Are they treated well? What fabric is used? Was it grown sustainably? What effect does its production have on the environment and local communities?

    It would be nice to think that we can sit back and trust our most well known brands to ensure that their supply chain is kind to everyone involved, but the truth is that there is a lack of transparency across the board. It's a case of 'maybe...maybe not.'

    Are we turning a blind eye for the sake of convenience and cheapness? If we could see the story behind each piece of clothing that we buy, would we buy differently?

    Some of the high street brands are starting to turn the ship toward more sustainable practices (M&S, H&M), championed by ex fashion designers like Lucy Siegle, who have spoken out about their experiences in a ruthless industry focussed on unsustainable mass production that leaves families, communities and the environment in tatters.

    Siegle's book ‘To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World’ is a sobering read to say the least. From the example of a shopper dropping her Primark bag in the rain and not bothering to pick it up, to the drying up of the world's 4th largest lake, the Aral sea, used to irrigate intenstive cotton growing fields. Our disposable approach to fashion in the west is inextricably linked to this level of exploitation. It is the very definition of unsustainable.

    ‘The exposure of the bottom of the lake has released salts and pesticides into the atmosphere poisoning both farm land and people alike. Carcinogenic dust is blown into villages causing throat cancers and respiratory diseases.’ Tansy Hoskins, The Guardian

    I’m not saying that I won’t, and that you shouldn’t, ever buy from the high street again. If we can just consume fashion in a slow and more considered way, hang onto the items we love (and avoid throwing clothes into landfill) as well as support those that are doing things differently, we can cast our vote in favour of a new wave of sustainable fashion. The high street will be sure to follow.

    The good news is that in researching the world of sustainable fashion, and sourcing organic cotton tops to sell at The Wise House, I’ve discovered some fantastic companies out there who are bucking the fast fashion trend, producing affordable ethical fashion with sustainable practices at the very heart of what they do. You won’t have to look far to see the story behind each of their garments, so you can shop with your eyes wide open.

    1. People Tree

    One of my favourite items of clothing bought earlier this year came from People Tree; a beige jumpsuit made from thick 100% organic cotton. It’s so versatile and has been worn on evenings out and for daytime events. On a balmy evening in London whilst sitting at an outside bar with my bestie, I was very flattered to be asked by a trendy young lass as to where it came from. I was very happy to point her in the direction of an ethical company of whom she had never heard!

    I currently have my eye on their Marlowe Apple Shirt £59; gorgeous colours for Autumn. I love their new Corduroy culottes and shirt dress too. You can see in the product details (as is the case with all of their clothes) where, by whom and with what the shirt is made:

    '100% organic cotton, made by Assisi Garments, a social enterprise in India. The skilled artisans at Assisi transform Fairtrade and organic cotton fibre into beautiful handmade garments.’

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    Marlowe Apple Shirt £59, People Tree

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    Organic Cotton Jumpsuit
    Spring/ Summer Collection, People Tree

    2. Two Thirds

    TwoThirds, located in Barcelona (international shopping available) design a sustainable clothing line made ethically in Portugal. They place great emphasis on the materials they use, constantly analysing and searching for better alternatives that will reduce environmental impact. They also carry out a great deal of work on marine preservation.

    I bought two jumpers from them last year, the yellow stripy number you can see below and one of the cute whale jumpers. They are really well made and warm, and I wear them all of the time. I really love the Sibu knit pictured below left (62.40 euros) - this may well make it onto my birthday list (October)!

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    3. Bibico

    Bibico is a small sustainable clothing company based in Bath. The clothing is designed by its founder, Snow, and made ethically by producers that they know and trust.

    ‘I had been designing for major high st clothing brands for over 10 years and had become disillusioned by the industry how it had changed in 10 years from producing 4 collections per year to churning out new collections every week. The clothes were cheaper but the quality was worse and there was no consideration for the people producing these clothes.’

    Bibico is new to me, and I am yet to try any of their clothes out myself. A couple of my favourite items from this season’s collection are the Gracie Floaty Skirt (£59) and the Elena Organic Pinaford Dress (£49).

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    4. Celtic & Co

    If you’re at outdoorsy person and are looking for clothes and boots to keep you really warm this Winter, then Celtic & Co is a great place to start. Almost all of their products are manufactured in Great Britain, using organic or natural fibres. ‘Celtic & Co. has been an eco friendly company since it first began and we run every aspect of our business in the most responsible way we can.’

    Whilst their clothes are on the more expensive side of affordable, I would definitely consider investing in a really warm jumper dress that I know I would wear for years to come. Their boots are handmade in a purpose built factory in Cornwall by a team of skilled craftspeople.

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    Supersoft Slouch Dress £98

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    The Essential Leather Ankle Boot £145

    5. Nancy Dee Clothing

    Another new and exciting discovery, I find this collection to be the most edgy and stylish of all those mentioned. The clothes are designed and made in Great Britain using eco friendly fabrics. Inspirational stuff!

    These two pieces caught me eye;

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    Cece Black & Ecru Dress £69

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    Carmen Combstooth Bomber Jacket £59

    In addition to my top picks, here are a number of other brands that are also on my shopping list;

    The Wise House (yours truly) - basic organic cotton tops and t-shirts that can be used for day and nightwear. You can use code ORGOCT for 10% off our organic tops. New organic cotton slogan ‘WISE’ sweatshirts, with £5 from each purchase going to ‘Surfers Against Sewage’. 

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    Finisterre - practical outdoor wear, originally designed for surfers and now extending to a range of warm clothing for men and women. All sustainably made.

    Patagonia - another outdoor clothing company

    Mayamiko - gorgeous African inspired fabrics with a modern twist, ethically handmade in Malawi.

    Thought Clothing - sustainable organic clothing. I do rather like the Bamboo Slacks.

    If you know of any other ethical fashion brands that you can add to our list, then please leave in the comments section below or on social media and help to spread the word.

    References/Resources

    https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/sustainable-fashion-blog/2014/oct/01/cotton-production-linked-to-images-of-the-dried-up-aral-sea-basin

    A MUST SEE! The Wardrobe To Die For - Lucy Siegle. TED Talk. https://youtu.be/YglyHzvBqpA

    https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2013/may/17/ethical-shopping-high-street-fashion

    Stella McCartney, Desert Island Discs BBC Radio 4 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08vxjth

     

  2. The Wise House opened its doors 5 years ago and I wanted to share with you a ‘warts and all’ account of my experience of running a small business to date.

    Where did it all begin?
    It began with an ending, when I left the corporate health company for whom I had worked for 13 years in a number of roles - fitness instructor, gym manager, events manager and marketing coordinator. I taught aerobics, took groups of employees away to events like the Corporate Games, wrote countless tender documents and took thousands of blood pressure readings. I enjoyed the creative side of marketing, but was just too impatient (& cynical!) to spend hours in meetings discussing things like pantone colour. That particular shade of blue was to tip me over the edge, and with two small children at home tugging at my heartstrings, I decided to take a break.

    At around the same time, online shopping was starting to become a real ‘thing’. My friend Heather had started her online bedding business, Quick Brown Fox of Dulwich, and I was totally inspired and intrigued by her business, from the hand sketched fox logo to the gorgeous bedding prints that she designed and produced. Even before I left my job, I had designed a logo for ‘The Wise House’, as I had decided my own online shop was to be called.

    A great designer, Niki, brought my ideas to life and designed the first set of draft logos. My best friends remember my asking them to choose their favourite designs. One version was a house with a chimney and smoke, but as my friend Lucy pointed out, this probably wasn’t the best choice for a business that hoped to adopt an eco stance!

    Once I had left work, I underwent a total detox from anything work or computer related, and as such I hardly checked my e-mail for months. The logo was put to one side, and I enjoyed a year off with my children, which was blissful.

    However, a holiday trip to Ile De Re with all of its natural beauty and shopping inspiration, reignited my interest and I decided to source some French Sandrine storage tins and placemats. It was a bit like a hobby in the beginning; set up a basic website, sell at a few local fairs, and see what the local community think of my wares.

    This simple start to things set me off on a fairly slow and organic path with the business. There certainly wasn’t an epiphany or defining moment. There was no plan as such, no absolute decision to go it alone, no real marketing research. I just felt a quiet momentum take over me...

    What are the significant changes and moments of the last 5 years?
    The placemats sold quickly to local customers and the storage tins sold well online, the quirky Sandrine brand enjoying a healthy collectors market. I continued to grow my product range with my focus (and tagline) being ‘cheerful, quirky and (mostly) practical gifts and things for the home’. Early customers will remember the Hampton Hipster Bag and Bless This Home print, still being sold today.

    I had a limited budget, and no dedicated workspace. The spare room in the loft started to fill up with bags and boxes, much to the consternation of our regular house guests! I worked at the kitchen table (until last November) and did my wrapping and packing at the island unit.

    In the early years I was guilty of stocking anything that looked ‘nice’, without much thought to the business case behind it. It meant that my resources were stretched thinly, both financially and time-wise. My attention would go on the newest thing, and I would neglect products that had only been in stock for five minutes.

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    Heather & I at the Dulwich Fair       My daughter Rose and her friend    An early modelling pose with a 
    pedalling our wares                        Izabelle model the Hipster Bags     wicker shopping basket, still a bestseller!     

    Over the years I was able to see the negative effect that this lack of focus had on the success of the business, and I gradually began to stock products that fit a tighter brief - eco friendly, ethically made, useful, innovative, able to be given as gifts (and they still had to look the part).

    The business steadily grew over the next few years, with a few good pieces of press, including a great feature in Sainsbury's Magaizine, to push things in the right direction. Returning custom and word-of-mouth has always been high. Facebook has proven to be a brilliant platform for spreading the word, and Facebook advertising has also been an effective tool due to the ability to define customers so precisely. Despite this, I know that in my heart I was hanging on for that one ‘magic’ product that would give my sales a real boost and The Wise House greater exposure.

    Along came Bee’s Wrap! I discovered Bee’s Wrap via a US site called Food 52 (great blog and shop) and it struck me as a product with a great story; swapping clingfilm for a sustainable replacement seemed like a no brainer, and the excellent branding and packaging meant it fit nicely into the gift bracket too.

    Shortly after the Bee's Wrap range was launched in 2015, a blog that I had written went viral on Facebook and sales took off. It was then featured in numerous household mags like Country Living, as well as on many green blogs. More recently, BuzzFeed launched one of their videos on Bee’s Wrap and things went beserk. The success of this product considerably bolstered business in general, and allowed me to make the biggest step of all...move out into a new garden studio.

    After operating a ‘kitchen table’ business for 4 years, throughout which I had made many thousands of trips up and down the stairs in order to fulfil my orders (excellent for weight loss but totally exhausting), I could finally access everything I needed in one place. In November 2016, I held an opening ceremony for my new studio at the end of the garden (with the lovely Ellie Crisell doing the ribbon cutting). I am now thoroughly settled in ‘Her Majesty’.

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    I had to use bribery for this              Ellie officially opens the new            An eco-geek gift set, you won't find
    family photoshoot!                          garden office named 'Her Majesty'    anything like it anywhere else!

    What are the best bits (and worst bits) of running your own business?
    Having total creative control is lovely; you think of something and you can action it, without having to persuade anyone else of its merit (no boss to impress!). However, you are constrained by your own creativity to an extent, especially when you find yourself staring vacantly into space with nothing and no one to break the silence! To counteract this, I regularly bounce ideas off of friends and family, and ask for feedback from customers too. I also read as much as I can, and I find Instagram a great source of inspiration.

    It is very freeing to have the flexibility to work around domestic and family responsibilities, as well as doing indulgent stuff like enjoying a birthday cuppa and cake with friends or going off for a swim. There is a pay-off; the lines can become blurred and there are times when work and home (or should I say family) just don’t mix. I’m the sort of person who struggles to work with any distractions at all, so I find it really hard to focus in the school holidays when the children are off school. What makes it easier is engaging the children in the business; Rose (aged 9) now helps with address label writing and Will (aged 11) is my social media adviser.

    I have found my confidence (and sanity) severely tested at times. In the early years, days would pass without an order, and I would convince myself that I would never sell another thing. The very sight of all the stock (especially when it was in the loft) would fill me with horror, and I wanted to blame everyone around me for letting me get carried away with this business lark! I have been lucky enough to have a great mentor in my friend Heather (Quick Brown Fox of Dulwich). We’ve always shared our darker moments through the medium of humour, and a problem shared is a problem halved as they say!

    Looking ahead to the next few years, my focus will be to continue to build a strong collection of accessible products that offer people a simple way to live and give more sustainably. I would love to expand our range of tailored gift sets, as I believe these offer a really unique way to give a thoughtful gift whilst introducing people to natural, ethical products. I aim to take on a part-time employee, possibly an apprentice, to help with various aspects of the business, as well as signing myself up to do some training and mentoring. Letting go of any aspect of the business is difficult when you are used to being jack-of-all-trades, but in order to grow I know I need to tap into the expertise of specialists in certain areas.

    In the end, running a business is what you make it. If you stick at it, keep trying out new ideas and ‘doing’ with integrity, I believe success will follow. The word ‘entrepreneur’ is often associated with people making big bucks, but I think many small business owners have smaller ambitions. I now pay myself a conservative monthly wage and I am content with having achieved this aim through a business that I enjoy and that allows me more freedom and time with family.

    Please leave a comment (with your e-mail address) at the bottom of this blog post, and you will be entered into a Prize Draw to win an 'Eco-Geek Starter Kit'.