The Whale Company is an ethical fashion brand making sustainable products for a mindful lifestyle. They make organic cotton bags and recycled tire flip-flops, and they pledge that 5% of their profits will go to support marine conservation.
Carolyn Newton, the founder of The Whale company, explained to Utelier what it is like to run an ethical fashion brand.
How The Whale Company started
I entered the fashion world by accident; I did not follow the usual path through design school and I did not set out with the fashion industry in mind. My business was born out of my passion for saving the environment and my frustration with plastic bags.
In 2007 there were virtually no reusable bags on the market and the plastic bag statistics were frightening. An estimated 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide every year; that is more than one million a minute! The average lifespan of a plastic bag is about 12 minutes but they take 1000 years to break down and they do not biodegrade; they photo-degrade which means that they just break into smaller particles which never go away. How ridiculous to make a throwaway item out of a virtually indestructible material?
At that time I was living in a top floor flat in Bristol, working as a Primary School teacher. I struggled to climb five storeys with my shopping in plastic bags that would split on my way up and send my groceries tumbling down the stairs. Like many entrepreneurs, I saw a problem and decided to try and fix it.
I then discovered the detrimental impact of plastic pollution on the ocean and the fact that every year hundreds of thousands of marine wildlife die from either ingesting plastic or from becoming entangled. Furthermore, toxins accumulate on the plastic particles in the ocean and work their way up the food chain, eventually ending up on our plates. I was so affected by this that I sat down at my sewing machine and designed my first Whalebag. I pledged then and there that I would give back some of my profits to marine conservation.
I learnt my sewing skills from my mother, who used to make some of our clothes when I was growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa. She taught me how to thread the machine and create a garment using a pattern, so I knew the basics and had the sewing machine (mainly) for making fancy dress costumes! I could have gone out in search of a reusable bag but they were not commonplace then, and I liked the idea of creating my own bag.
My goal was to make it as easy as possible for people to stop using plastic bags. I knew that people would have to change their habits and so with that in mind, I designed a bag that was very large, had no seams on the bottom and was tested to hold 20kg. Most importantly, it can fold up into a tiny pouch that fits into your handbag or pocket.
Fast-forward eight years
The plastic bag charge has just come into effect and caused a stir. People have been stealing trolleys, borrowing baskets and someone even got a tattoo because he was so disgruntled with having to pay 5p for a single plastic bag. It is sad that often the ethics and environmental concerns are forgotten or ignored because convenience is more important. This can be especially true in the fashion industry, and this is why ethical fashion is so important for our future.
My journey into ethical fashion begins
My journey can be broken down into two phases. Firstly, when I initially set up the business, my goal was simply to reduce the number of plastic bags used. I really had no idea how to find a manufacturer and I did not fully appreciate the importance of using organic cotton.
I received some business advice from Brave in Bristol, and I was lucky enough to win the University of the West of England (UWE) business plan competition. The prize was £5000 of funding and this allowed me to produce my first (very basic) bags in China. But they were not organic, and I realized this had to change. I also won a year in an incubator office, which gave me a foundation in how to run a business. However, during this time, I was still working as a full-time Primary School teacher, and I was unable to dedicate all my time to the business. I managed to launch a website, sell quite a few bags to local stores, and began negotiations with a large supermarket. But when that deal fell through in 2010, I decided to put the business on hold and go traveling.
It turns out launching a business is tough. Finding stockists was harder than I thought; I assumed everyone would want a Whalebag, but they were a very plain calico material back then and not particularly stylish, so gauging the correct price-point was difficult.
My journey continues
During the second phase in 2012, I relaunched The Whale Company. This time I approached things differently and the most important change was my manufacturing – it had to be ethical. By this time I had found out about the dangers of pesticides used in cotton growing. One area in Southern India was nicknamed “The Killing Fields” because of the number of deaths resulting from exposure to pesticides.
Then I learned that nearly 300,000 cotton farmers in India had killed themselves to get out of debt. The average Indian farmer earns £16.20 per month and spends £24.30 per month. It is expensive to pay workers, pay rent, buy seeds and chemicals. It is estimated that the global textile industry is worth £1.6 trillion, yet many of the people we depend on to grow our cotton live in poverty. I met Leah Borromeo at Brighton’s Ethical and Sustainable Fashion Week who has made a feature-length documentary on the fashion supply chain of cotton and the impacts on the farmers in India, called Dirty White Gold.
I went to India to find my factory and to build a relationship with my suppliers. I made sure that the cotton was Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) certified, which means that strict standards are adhered to at every step in the supply chain. I saw happy workers, looked at the holiday rota, and discovered that family members and locals are employed when unskilled workers are needed. There was also a sign saying “NO CHILD LABOUR,” and indeed this was true.
Over the years, I have worked with my suppliers to develop the bags, and their expertise and advice have been invaluable. I would say cultivating a good relationship with your supplier is very important to running a successful ethical fashion business.
I now have a range of six different bags, made of GOTS-certified organic cotton in a range of warm/vibrant colours. The bags all roll up into a toggle or fold into a pouch and they are stylish, strong and practical. They are sold directly from the website, on www.notonthehighstreet.com, and at independent stockists across the UK.
The future of The Whale Company
My dream that everyone would own a Whalebag has not come true yet; although perhaps the plastic bag charge may change that! It is a little too early to say what impact the plastic bag charge has had on my sales as it has only been a couple of weeks; however, I have definitely noticed a steady increase in sales. I am hopeful that Christmas sales will be good this year as the bags happen to make excellent stocking fillers.
I have already diversified into flip-flops; we make ‘Whaletreads’ out of recycled tyres with either hemp or kikoy fabric on top, which are handmade in Kenya. I would like to diversify further into yoga and meditation leisure wear, and I am currently looking for new suppliers who make organic cotton garments. I also believe in sharing skills and expertise and as you know, I am not a fashion designer, so I am looking to collaborate with young designers and illustrators who have a passion for ethical fashion.
The challenges I have faced
One of my biggest challenges is raising awareness of the brand. I am becoming much better at social media (like us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!) but it is hard to get mainstream media coverage. Although I try to get as much marketing for free, it is important to set aside a little bit of money for marketing.
So many magazines approach me and ask me to take out advertising space, but it is very expensive and I am not always sure that I see the results. So I would suggest that if you do choose to take out paid advertisements that you have ways to measure the success of those adverts. For example, you can offer a specific discount code with the advert and track that.
My ‘Dos’ for a successful and ethical fashion business
Starting a business can be lonely
Do find someone who you can trust and bounce ideas off easily. It is really important to have a sounding board and someone to give you another perspective. Your business is your baby and you are very emotionally invested in it, so having another viewpoint gives balance.
Know who you are working with
Do visit your factory and cultivate good relationships with suppliers.
Accept that you need help
Do work with freelancers; as a teacher, I fully accept that I do not have all the right skills to run a fashion business so I work with a number of people, including:
- a wonderful designer for all my graphics: Julie Grand Scrutton.
- web designers on my website, Samantha Bishop and Dan Price.
- a photographer (because I am a terrible photographer!), Felipe Gonçalves.
- (and most importantly) a bookkeeper/accountant to help me with all my invoicing and ensure that I stay on top of my finances, Vivienne Newton.
- Most of the people I work with are family and friends; I owe a huge amount of gratitude to my mother, who is my accountant and general sounding board on all matters!
Mind your manners
Do communicate clearly and always be polite. If you run an ethical business, you must treat everyone fairly; you will come across people or situations that can be difficult or infuriating but stay calm and polite and things will always work out in the end.
Know who you’re selling to
Do understand your customer: when I started out, I believed that everyone should, and would, buy a Whalebag. However, in reality, this is rarely the case for any product. I now realise that people who love whales and dolphins, and those who care more about the environment and ethical fashion are more likely to buy a Whalebag. Now that the plastic bag charge is here that may help too.
Getting feedback from customers can also be helpful, I recently heard someone talking about her Blue Whale shoulder bag, she said: “It’s a magic Mary Poppins bag because it holds so much. Everyone needs one!”
Stay true to your brand
Do have clear ethical values and stick to them: it might be harder or more expensive at times but it is always worth it in the end.
Carolyn wants to work on collaborative projects, so if you like what she does, get in touch here.
Image credit: The Whale Company.
Do you have your own ethical fashion design story to share? We’d love to interview you!