Ulla Vitting Richards
Ulla Vitting-Richards, founder of sustainable fashion brand VILDNIS

“Our customers aren’t asking for sustainable fashion, so why should we invest time and money in changing our practises?” This is a sentence I have heard many times during my 20 years of working in fashion. 

In fact, while I was preparing to launch Vildnis, someone even told me not to bother with the eco-friendly aspect of the brand, as no-one was interested. 

It’s true that consumer demand for sustainable fashion hasn’t been high in the past – and while this is slowly changing now, it’s still only a small part of consumers (around 3%) that are buying ethical and eco-friendly clothes, despite research showing that at least 30% of us would like to wear sustainable fashion. Why is that? And what can we do to change it? 

Why demand for sustainable fashion is low

I think the main reason that the demand is low is lack of knowledge about the current practises in the fashion industry.

Just as I have little clue about the healthcare industry or car manufacturing, many people are unaware of how their clothes are made. You just have to trust that the industry knows and does what is best for the world, but this is not always the case.

Having worked in the industry for 20 years, I have seen both the good and bad sides of it. I know that there’s a lot of exploitation of workers happening (although I have always done everything I could to ensure it didn’t happen on my watch!), and I know that there are lots of materials and processes available that are much more eco-friendly than what’s normally used. 

Whenever I do a talk for university students, I am always surprised by their questions. Things that I assume everyone knows, like how polluting cotton farming is, is far from common knowledge. We need to change that! 

Another reason why the demand for sustainable fashion is so low is – in my opinion – because the general perception of ethical and eco-friendly fashion is that it’s beige, made of hemp, hippie and super expensive. This isn’t the case at all. 

Of course, if a brand is selling T-shirts at £3 and suddenly has to pay the workers in its supply chain a living wage, then the price will go up, yes, but not as much as some may think. 

I have a strong belief that everything we see on the high street can be made in much more ethical and eco-friendly way without compromising on the look – and while keeping it affordable. 

Vibrant colours, bold prints, ‘bleached-look’ denim, faux furs etc; everything is possible! Vildnis is proof of that.

How can we change the fashion industry?

While you’d hope most fashion brands would embrace this and start changing their practises in order to do something good for the planet and people, I think unfortunately we will find that most big brands are driven primarily by profit and that most good intentions from the employees get lost in bureaucracy. 

The biggest driver for change in the fashion industry is you – the consumer. Every time you buy something, you’re sending a signal to the seller that you would like more along the same lines as what you just bought. Every time you give feedback, someone from the buying team (or at least that is what happens in the businesses I know) will read that feedback and take it into consideration. 

You have more power than you know and – together with a bunch of small brands like Vildnis and an information sharing platform like Live Frankly – you literally have the power to help change the norms in the fashion industry for the better. 

Ulla, Founder of sustainable fashion brand VILDNIS. This piece is part of our ongoing series speaking to the people at the forefront of sustainability, pioneering a new approach to business.