Sustainability. It’s possibly the fashion industry’s next greatest frontier, as consumers and designers wake to the urgency of environmental waste and damage. But it’s a big problem, and one that needs to be solved from multiple angles and players.
One such company that is taking some of the most impressive strides is Net-A-Porter. The online luxury fashion retailer launched its Net Sustain programme in 2019, with the goal of curating a conscious edit of products designed and manufactured with sustainability and environmental friendliness in mind.
In September this year, Net-A-Porter partnered with the Capella Singapore hotel on a collaboration called “A Considered Life” to provide guests with experiences like conscious cooking and crafts workshops, curated gift sets of beauty and grooming products, and an exhibition in the hotel foyer of augmented reality artworks.
This year, the Net Sustain campaign has seen a big expansion: what started out as an edit that comprised 26 brands in 2019 has now increased over five-fold to 150 brands in the fashion and beauty categories. To qualify for inclusion in the Net Sustain edit, a brand must meet one of several criteria – what it calls ‘pillars’ – like being locally-made and fair-trade or using materials and techniques that are certified for their reduced environmental impact. This year’s edition adds a ninth attribute: “designed for circularity”.
While that extends to some of the most wasteful attributes of shopping online like packaging (making it recyclable or reusable, for example) circularity is in fact quickly becoming a key idea in sustainable fashion. It’s got more to do with moving away from throwaway culture.
For example, more timeless designs that have longevity; brands with repair and restoration services; buy-back and recycling schemes; and using upcycling in their manufacturing processes. The point is clothes that you can own and wear for years to come, and more wholesome solutions for when you are ready at some point perhaps to dispose of it.
Ahead, we speak with Libby Page, Senior Market Editor at Net-A-Porter, on how Net Sustain is making conscious shopping easier than ever – see our shopping picks below for the proof in the pudding.
Libby Page, Senior Market Editor at Net-A-Porter
Net Sustain has made great strides since it launched in 2019. Can you tell us about the process of expanding the range and assortment of the edit?
It’s been so exciting for us to grow the edit – when our buying team discovers a brand that’s operating uniquely in the sustainability space, we can’t wait to bring them on board and introduce them to our customers. It’s key for us to make the conscious shopping experience easy for our customers, and for them to no longer have to choose between style and shopping.
Has that been particularly challenging during these times?
The process is generally ever-changing, especially in today’s climate. Over the last 18 months, our teams have been scheduling virtual buying appointments and working closely with our brands. Technology and our ability to adapt fast has helped support the process during this period – and not only limited to Net Sustain.
Designs by Cape Town-based brand Sindiso Khumalo, which is also a nominee of the 2021 edition of the LVMH Prize.
Net-A-Porter carries a dizzying number of brands. How does this sustainability initiative take into account the diversity and variety of these brands?
I’ve learnt that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to sustainable fashion. Every brand takes a slightly different approach and prioritises different issues. That depends on the nature of their supply chain and end product. So it’s important we take a nuanced and nimble approach.
Can you elaborate on this approach?
Our goal is to allow customers to make informed choices that align with values they’re passionate about. The products and brands featured within Net Sustain are badged so customers can easily identify them, and they can be filtered according to these attributes.
Also from Cape Town is Lukhanyo Mdingi, an eponymous brand that places collaborations with skilled artisans at the heart of its design identity.
There’s perhaps an idea that sustainable fashion can look dowdy or unexciting. What do you say to that?
It’s a common misconception that customers need to choose between timeless aesthetics and exciting directional pieces. The two can go hand in hand, and our Net Sustain edit enables customers to easily find contemporary pieces and brands that fall within this category so they don’t have to choose between style and sustainability. We hope to have contributed to making this shopping experience easier.
Since you work closely with the buying teams, do you have examples of designers we should be looking out for?
Sindiso Khumalo and Lukhanyo Mdingi have such a unique approach to design that draws inspiration from their home countries of South Africa. Sindiso’s feminine prints and silhouettes have a sweet sensibility and prairie style. Lukhanyo’s woven technique is truly beautiful, and it has an elevated appeal with unique patterns and colour palettes.
Another designer to look out for is Conner Ives (also a 2021 addition to Net-A-Porter’s Vanguard initiative that supports emerging designers), whose innovation in sustainability is in upcycling mixed with his incredible use of print and colour. It’s exactly what we’re looking for in an emerging designer. My favourites of his this season include a cotton-jersey midi dress which transforms leftover sportswear fabric into an exceptional piece.
A creation by wunderkind designer Conner Ives, part of Net-A-Porter’s Vanguard programme for emerging designers, who graduated from the prestigious Central Saint Martins school of fashion just last year.
One of the newer ideas to emerge in sustainable fashion is that clothes should be designed to, with some proper care, last a long time. Can you talk about how Net-A-Porter is addressing this?
To promote product longevity, Net-A-Porter recommends regional care and repair partners that can provide services like wet-cleaning that uses responsible techniques, clothing alterations and tailoring, as well as restoration and repairs. These are all accessible through the Net Sustain offering to all customers globally. Care and repair partners are based in London, New York, Sydney and Dubai, with more to be announced.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.