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Exporting Cradle 2 Cradle and conscious design to the United Kingdom

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Increasing consumer awareness of sustainability issues in the United Kingdom (UK) is pushing garments which involve recycling, conscious design and cradle-to-cradle production into the mainstream market. Many Asian exporters are starting to recognise this growing demand, but most do not go further than using more sustainable fabrics such as organic cotton or recycled polyester. Finding ways of making your entire product, collection and organisation sustainable will give you a far stronger position on this market.

1 . Product description

Sustainable production has to do with both the manufacturing and the marketing of apparel products. The Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) and other initiatives aimed at retailers tend to focus on three factors in defining this segment. Sustainable apparel:

  1. reduces the amount of used textiles going to landfill;
  2. minimises the environmental impact of fashion throughout its life cycle;
  3. improves transparency and ethical issues in the entire value chain for clothing.

The aim of sustainable apparel is to reduce the environmental impact in the industry by applying a sustainable approach throughout the product’s entire life cycle, from raw material extraction and transport to consumption and disposal of the product. This process usually involves reducing the usage of non-renewable resources, affecting the environment minimally and connecting people with the natural environment.

In order to offer sustainable apparel, you have to take into account some or all of the these considerations:

1) using environmentally safe and healthy materials;
2) maximising reuse of raw materials, including recycling and composting;
3) using renewable energy and managing your carbon emissions;
4) managing your water usage responsibly;
5) ensuring social fairness.

Cradle-to-cradle (C2C) production

One popular approach is cradle-to-cradle (C2C) production. It means that you follow the social, economic and ecological principles of sustainability in producing and marketing your garments (see Figure 1 for a diagram of the cradle-to-cradle life cycle in products).



Another approach is recycling. It can cut back the environmental impact at both ends of the fashion value chain, reducing the demand for virgin raw materials and minimising textile waste going to landfill.

There are different ways that you can apply recycling principles, for example:

Reusing raw materials
A knitted jumper can be unpicked and the yarn reused to knit a scarf or another style of jumper in a different pattern, eventually bringing recycled knitwear back to the market at little or even no cost premium.

One example is Econyl, a brand that makes nylon out of used fishing nets reclaimed from the seabed for swimwear, lingerie and outdoor wear. Another example is SaxCell, a Dutch brand of cellulosic fibre made from cotton waste.

Repurposing raw materials
Water bottles made out of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) can be melted down and the polymer re-extruded into a polyester fibre for use in a trouser or fleece – an industrialised and therefore relatively cheap process.

Repurposing fabrics for a unique look and feel
Some high-fashion brands in the UK, such as Vivienne Westwood or Stella McCartney, are exploring repurposed fabrics as a route to uniqueness. Think, for example, of the felted effect of boiled wool.

Downcycling used materials
Worn-out clothing can be shredded and reused (for example, as stuffing in car seats) or mixed with virgin fibre, boosting the quality and usefulness of the recycled fabric.

Upcycling used materials
Garments that have quality but are out of style can be restyled and updated, or incorporated into another garment. Think, for example, of lining a handbag with jeans or making a skirt into a coat fabric. This option requires a lot of creativity and results in higher-end, exclusive products.


  • If you want to target the sustainable apparel market in the UK, do not settle for just sourcing organic cotton or recycled polyester but try to go further in applying sustainability and recycling principles.
  • Look for examples of the different kinds of recycling mentioned above on your market and explore which of these examples may be feasible in your production.
  • Check the Green Textile Guide to gain insight into the latest eco-efficient textile materials and processes, as many of them are still being explored.
  • Consider committing some time and resources to running trials; for example, with brands, universities or research institutes. This strategy could open the door to innovation and longer-term commercial opportunities.
  • Help retailers to promote recycled garments by sharing accurate information on the carbon footprint, water consumption and toxic load of your recycled products. Work out the savings that your product offers as compared to non-recycled products. Think, for example, of all the land, water, pesticides, chemicals and energy used for cotton production.
  • If your recycling leads to colour variations, be transparent about potential variations between the prototype sample and the bulk production.
  • Also make sure that you target the right end-use. In formalwear, for example, colour consistency can be vital to customer satisfaction.

Product specifications


Sustainable apparel usually has high quality and value-for-money ratios, regardless of whether it is made for the for low-end or high-end market. Consumers expect medium- to high-quality products that are durable and easy in care. Garments should maintain their shape during wear, retain their colour after washing and, ideally, need less frequent washing, since the chemicals used in laundry also have a negative impact on the environment.

Garments also need to be designed with their end of life in mind. This aspect means that they must be easy to disassemble and biodegrade or dissolve.


The following information is generally included on apparel labels:

  • care symbols;
  • composition (fibre content by percentage);
  • size;
  • country of origin (”made in”);
  • further information, such as ecolabels or labels for sustainable cotton (see Figure 2).


The product information on the label must be in English. The labelling of fibre content in clothing is mandatory within the UK, as laid down in the 2012 Textile Products (Labelling and Fibre Composition) Regulations. The basis of these regulations is that the label must include information on the main fibre types used and their percentages. Washing instructions, size of garment and country of origin are recommended.

Labelling after Brexit

At the time of writing (November 2017), the UK is preparing to leave the European Union in March 2019. However, there is no indication that the UK will change the standards for labelling or product safety. It is expected that the UK will continue to follow EU legislation in this field for the foreseeable future.

Care labelling

The care labelling system developed by GINETEX, the International Association for Textile Care Labelling, is widely used in European countries including the UK. The GINETEX symbols are also very common. You can only use them under contract with the association. GINETEX advocates that labels should cover the following topics: general care and warnings, washing, drying, ironing and professional textile care (dry-cleaning).



Eco-labelling is largely unregulated in the clothing industry. There are several private labels that have their own defined set of standards for C2C or other forms of sustainable apparel. As a producer, you can volunteer to follow any of these standards.


  • If there are sustainable aspects to your garment production, label this aspect clearly on the products through at least one of the available labelling schemes – either the European ecolabel or one of the private ones. This process will lend credibility to your sustainability claims. See more about labelling schemes in the section on Requirements.
  • Read up on sustainability definitions, trends, requirements and labels in our study of Sustainable apparel in Europe.


Factors to consider when choosing materials for sustainable apparel include:

  • the source, renewability and biodegradability of the fibre;
  • the process of turning raw fibre into textiles;
  • the possibilities for using recycled materials or materials that can be easily be recycled after use;
  • the working conditions of the people producing the materials;
  • the total carbon footprint of the material.


Organic and synthetic materials

Cradle-to-cradle production (C2C) is one of the more advanced forms of sustainable apparel. C2C can involve both organic and synthetic materials. The biological materials must be easy to dispose of in nature. Usually, these materials decompose into the soil after they have been used, providing food for small life forms without affecting the natural environment.

Synthetic materials should be strictly limited to non-toxic, non-harmful materials that have no negative effects on the natural environment. Ideally, they can be recycled without losing quality. In C2C production, the goal is to avoid the use of dangerous materials such as mutagenic materials, heavy metals and other dangerous chemicals in the product life cycle.


  • Seek out the best materials with the lowest social and environmental impact.
  • Create your own speciality and handwriting by focusing on specific material qualities.
  • Learn about materials by reading the extensive materials overview – natural animal fibres, cotton and other plant (or cellulose) fibres, protein, wool, angora, silk, camel, alpaca, llama, vicuna, cashmere, mohair, recycled fibres and man-made fibres – in our study of Sustainable apparel in Europe.
  • Check our study of the market for Man-made fibres in Germany.

Colours and design

Colours should always be attuned to the target segment or demographic. Designers are incorporating sustainable practices into fast fashion and luxury brands alike.

However, global brands are collaborating with yarn producers to improve the choice and quality of sustainable yarns as well as seeking to reduce cost. Significant progress is anticipated here by 2020, as many retailers have publically declared their intention to convert most or all of their fabrics to sustainable sources. For example, the aim of H&M is “for all cotton in our range to come from sustainable sources by 2020 – organic cotton, recycled cotton or Better Cotton” (source: H&M website).


More and more European buyers are reducing packaging materials. Less packaging not only means improved sustainability, but it also reduces cost and increases margins.

Packaging is an important part of exporting. Packaging in the UK needs to meet all European Union requirements. These requirements aim to minimise unnecessary packaging, to promote the reuse of packaging and thereby to reduce the final disposal of such waste.

Retailers typically specify the way that they want your products to be packed for transport and for sale. Nonetheless, as a manufacturer, you should also take care to ensure compliance with product safety, legal obligations, branding and marketing aims as well as seeking to minimise packaging.

2 . What makes the UK an interesting market for sustainable apparel?

The UK is an interesting market for sustainable apparel. This fact is mainly because sustainability awareness and initiatives are growing here at many levels at once: among consumers, retailers and business, and governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Increasingly, mainstream retailers are explicit in their annual reports about their ambitious goals to increase the proportion of raw materials which they can claim are sustainable. Many are in fact targeting 100% sustainable, which creates a major opportunity for recycled fabrics.

More and more market observers believe that sustainability is the only way to ensure long-term success in the apparel business. As researchers of McKinsey & Company wrote in an October 2016 report, “Production methods that are more sustainable may cost slightly more, but they can also spur innovation and protect businesses from supply-chain shocks and reputation risks, resulting in greater resilience and profitability” (Style that’s sustainable, McKinsey Sustainability & Resource Productivity, 2016).


  • Find out which UK brands are interested in sustainable design and in suppliers who provide garments made from recycled fabrics by visiting platforms such as the Ethical Fashion Forum.

The market for sustainable textile is growing

Another factor that makes the UK an interesting market for sustainable apparel is that the production and sales of sustainable or environmental textile and clothing are growing robustly, albeit from a small base.

A Cotton Incorporated Environment Survey carried out in 2013 indicated that 57% of shoppers say that “sustainability” claims influence their shopping decisions. Only 23% “always or usually” buy clothes marketed that way, while 26% say that they are willing to pay more for clothes labelled as sustainable or environmentally friendly.

However, in-store trials indicate that the majority of UK consumers will not be persuaded to buy a product just because of its ethical or sustainable credentials. In a highly competitive market with lots of choice, the garment styling and fabrication must be highly attractive to the consumer as a first priority. Sustainability alone is not a sufficient driver of sales.


  • Remember that sustainability itself is not a selling point but an added feature on the mainstream market; always keep design, price and saleability in view as top selling points.

Trade and macro-economic statistics

Until now, the sustainable clothing segment – in its different forms – has been driven by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and by the apparel industry itself rather than by specific legislation. However, in April 2017, the European Commission announced a proposal for a co-ordinated European effort to support the development of more sustainable value chains for garments through targeted interventions in the form of policy, financial support and promotion so as to build awareness.

Consumer spending

Consumer spending on clothing and footwear in general showed a consistent rise from 2005 to 2016, with a dip in 2009 during the aftermath of the financial crisis.

The recent growth is driven by a rise in the demand for women’s outerwear, which grew by 22% to € 23.8 billion (£ 21.3 billion) between 2013 and 2016 (note that outerwear here means shirts, skirts, trousers and tops as opposed to underwear – not to be confused with outdoor wear, which means jackets and coats). In addition, the market growth is driven by men’s outerwear which is up by 21% to € 12.5 billion (£ 11 billion) in the same period. Finally, children’s wear grew by 14% to € 6.5 billion (£ 5.7 billion).



These spending figures mask severe price competition and promotional activity, which has eroded the average selling price across all categories, including the sustainability segment.

Import and export figures

UK exports of clothing have been increasing steadily since 2009 with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.8%, reaching a total of € 8.39 billion in 2011. Imports have also recovered after the recession, growing with a CAGR of 3.5% to reach € 23.07 billion in 2011.

The largest importers of clothing to the UK – and to the rest of the European Union – are China, Bangladesh, Turkey and India. The most rapid growth is coming from Myanmar (Burma) and Cambodia.

3 . Which trends offer opportunities for sustainable and recycled apparel in the UK?

The UK fashion market is highly dynamic. It is market- and brand-driven, with a wide diversity of individual perceptions and attitudes towards brands and trends. All of these factors create opportunities for sustainable approaches in the UK.

Market drivers for sustainable apparel

Increasing consumer awareness

In developed countries, consumer awareness of environmental and sustainability issues is higher now than it has ever been. NGOs such as Greenpeace and Fair Wear have been actively campaigning to raise awareness among consumers. Many consumers now care about where the things that they buy are sourced and how they are made. Transparency and traceability could provide another route to large-scale sustainability, making it easier for the consumer to see where their fashion is really from and to compare the sustainability of different brands.

Although sustainable products are still a niche market in Europe and the UK, certification is growing and the demand is expected to increase. Even leading retailers of fast fashion, such as Zara, are actively tapping into this trend. This development is also improving the image of sustainable clothing.


  • Avoid overpricing your sustainable products by building economies of scale and efficiency into the manufacturing process, minimising waste and maximising the value throughout the chain.
  • Communicate all of your company’s efforts in sustainable design to gain a competitive advantage.
  • Find out more about sustainability, transparency, waste reduction and other important trends in our study of Trends in European apparel.

Retailer initiatives for sustainable practices

More and more clothing manufacturers and retailers are entering the sustainable clothing market. Sustainable clothing labels or collections are being launched, while eco-fashion is showing up on the radar of high-street designers.

Under the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP), companies which together represent more than a third of the UK clothing sales pledged to measure and report the environmental “footprint” of their clothing production throughout its life cycle, as well as to take action in order to reduce their impact.


  • Tap into retailer initiatives for sustainable clothing by defining your market (budget retail or high-end).
  • Create clothes that flatter while remaining stylish and trendy, with a good cut and of good quality.
  • Focus on appealing and trendy design as regards style, in all segments or demographics.

Regulatory initiatives

The European Union has launched several action plans and established legislation to promote a more sustainable apparel industry. In 2007, the UK government launched the Sustainable Clothing Roadmap programme. It aims to improve the sustainability of clothing throughout their life cycle.

4 . Which requirements must sustainable apparel comply with on the UK market?

In addition to the general European requirements for sustainable apparel mentioned in the Product description section above, there are many other factors to take into account when exporting to the UK. These requirements can be divided into (1) musts, or legal requirements; (2) common requirements, the ones that you need to comply with in order to keep up with your competitors; and (3) niche market requirements for this segment (see also Figure 6).


Codes of conduct

UK buyers expect manufacturers to comply with their supplier codes of conduct. This code can be their own version, or a code of conduct that is part of a broader initiative such as BSCI, Fair Wear or the Clean Clothes Campaign.

Consumer labels

Consumer labels are used on the final product to show consumers that the product which they are buying is produced in a socially responsible or environmentally friendly way. In order to be allowed to carry the label, producers must meet certain standards which have to be audited independently by approved agencies.

Consumer labels can focus on a single issue – such as social conditions or environmental issues – or on a broader range of issues; for example, the Soil Association Organic Standards (promoting organic materials and animal welfare), the Fairtrade Standards (reducing poverty and promoting fair prices), the Fairtrade Cotton Programme or OEKO-TEX (removal of harmful substances).


  • For a clear overview of requirements, see our study of Buyer requirements on the European apparel market.
  • Visit the websites of some of the standards organisations mentioned above to gain a clear idea of requirements and trends for sustainability.
  • If you make sustainability claims for your product, be sure that you can support them with a valid and independent laboratory test certificate proving the correct composition or other evidence. The UK Trading Standards Authority has legal powers to enforce compliance and can conduct random tests to verify claims. Misleading information on packaging or labelling may be considered a criminal offence.
  • Consider certification not only as a means of making clear to customers what you stand for but also as a means of providing direction to your own sustainability development.
  • Discuss with buyers which sustainability aspects matter most to them and try to match these matters.
  • Follow the publications and social media activities of other leading sustainability advocates to keep in step with developments; for example, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Made-by, Ethical Fashion Forum or the Nordic Fashion Association.
  • If you are looking to focus on the ethical niche market, find business partners. These partners can range from large companies with sustainable product lines to specialised apparel buyers.
  • For an extensive overview of legislative, common and niche requirements for the sustainable apparel market, read our study of Sustainable apparel in Europe.

5 . What competition does sustainable apparel face in the UK?

Although the field of competition for sustainable apparel in the UK is somewhat comparable to that of the overall apparel market in Europe, competition is less fierce because there are fewer competitors; however, competition is slowly increasing. While most sustainable brands were previously niche or high-end brands, now large, well-known mid-market brands are increasingly offering sustainable garments at affordable prices as well. The main reason for the increased competition is the segment’s moderate growth.


  • Identify as clearly as you can in which aspects of sustainability you are best and use those aspects to strengthen your competitive position.
  • Develop additional dimensions of sustainability as you move forward; for example, waste reduction or social engagement in your local community.
  • Always remember that sustainability in and of itself does not sell – consumers buy clothes first and foremost because they like the combination of design, quality and price. Make sure that your work in these areas is competitive before adding sustainability as an extra sales argument.
  • Learn more about competition for European apparel in our study of Competition on the European apparel market.

Medium to high rivalry

Rivalry in this market is medium to high, with a growing number of companies offering sustainably designed products in different segments. High product differentiation has a dampening effect on the degree of rivalry, however.

The growth of this market means that companies can improve their revenue. This development creates opportunities for suppliers from developing countries to enter the market with relatively low-cost, sustainable or innovative offers. 


  • Actively contact small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK, as these enterprises usually present better opportunities to suppliers from developing countries.
  • Participate at trade fairs so larger market players can find out about your product offering as well.

Supplier power

Many independent retailers would argue that some of the brands which supply to them are also their competitors. High levels of competition among suppliers tend to reduce the prices for producers. This fact can negatively affect your position as a supplier from a developing country.

In addition, the wide range of distribution channels weakens your bargaining power towards individual distributors. Conversely, there are relatively few suppliers who are consciously specialised, which means that your chances of success are good if you find the right niche.

Buyer power

The wide range of buyers without significant concentrations, combined with relatively low switching costs, offers medium buyer power in this segment.

New entrants

Numerous retailers and clothing manufacturers have launched new sustainable clothing products (see the examples above). Although many are existing players doing so on the side, new players are also entering the market. Strong brand names are important in this segment and new competitors need to establish brand recognition on the market. The barriers to market entry are low.


  • Consider joining one of the sustainability cooperatives or initiatives mentioned in this study to improve your market visibility and to access new channels.
  • Join a buying hub so you can connect with others and benefit from economies of scale.


The threat of substitutes for sustainable apparel in its different forms is high, as there is a low threshold for consumers to shop elsewhere. Consumers wishful of contributing to a more sustainable world may as easily apply their ideals to their travel and living experiences as to the clothing that they buy.

Brand loyalty can be high in some conscious design segments, where products are perceived to have a strong story behind them.


  • Create clothes that flatter while remaining stylish and trendy, with a good cut and of good quality.
  • Focus on appealing and trendy design, regardless of the segment or demographic that you are targeting.
  • Eliminate waste all the way along the value chain so you can offer value for money, making it harder for others to compete at your quality and price level.

6 . Which channels and segments are best for sustainable apparel on the UK market?

Generally speaking, the market channels and segments for sustainable apparel are comparable to those of the wider apparel sector in Europe. The most lucrative segment may well be casualwear. The reason is that it is the largest market segment with the best growth projections.

Usually, sustainable offerings are best suited to the middle to higher market segments, where added value and specialisation matter more than at the lower end. Interesting target groups include the 50–55+ age group or highly educated 25- to 35-year-olds.

The low barriers to market entry in this segment mean that importers and wholesalers are the best way for small and medium-sized enterprises to bring products into the country.

Physical shops and online sales

Sustainable design and recycled clothes are mainly sold via the physical shops of retailers, but online sales are growing rapidly. Retailers range from specialised small boutiques to large supermarkets such as Tesco, selling their own private labels.

An increasing number of high-end fashion designers are making sustainable design more visible in their high-street fashion. Lower-end segments have also been active. One example is H&M’s Conscious Exclusive 2017 Collection.

Sustainable initiatives in UK retail

Asda, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury and Tesco are focusing on green factories, reducing the impact of packaging, increasing their ranges of Fairtrade and organic products, increasing take-back and recovery of unwanted clothing, ensuring supply chain traceability and messaging consumers on low-impact practices for washing clothes.


  • For conscious clothes, focus on good-quality items that can be sold in the middle to high segments.
  • Define your target group (end-users of your product/consumers). Who has money and is environmentally conscious? Think, for example, of the age groups mentioned above.
  • Consider niche products within the conscious segment; for example, organic babywear.
  • Contact importers and wholesalers directly via their representatives.
  • Find out more by reading our study of Channels and segments on the European apparel market.

7 . What are the end-market prices for sustainable apparel?

Typically, the retail price for apparel is 4.5 to 6 times the Free on Board (FOB) price, which means that the cost of delivering the goods to the nearest port is included, but that the buyer is responsible for the shipping from there and for all additional shipping fees.

As design and manufacturing costs for sustainable clothes are usually higher than the segment average, this aspect will be reflected in the price. Environmentally conscious consumers are sometimes, but certainly not always, willing to pay up to 10–20% more for these products. However, a brand has to communicate the superiority of its offer effectively. Although sustainability will increase costs, fashion retailer C&A’s sustainability programme has shown that creating a bulk business in bio-cotton can minimise the price increase. C&A is now the world’s largest buyer of organic cotton.

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