In this series we talk to the individuals and companies helping retailers become greener businesses – highlighting the tools, technologies, and options available to support a change in environmental focus.
Environmentally-aware fashion designer Raeburn has been at the forefront of creative thinking when it comes to changing the narrative around annual mega-sales day, Black Friday.
In 2021 it ran a ‘Buy Nothing New’ campaign. Consumers were unable to purchase anything new from the brand on Black Friday, with the online shop disabled and just a selection of second-hand pieces made available in its London store.
And then last year, it launched ‘Buy Back Friday’. Consumers were encouraged to bring into store no-longer-needed clothing from Raeburn and other premium street brands in exchange for cash – with those items collected before being resold or recycled.
Both concepts were focused on highlighting the environmental benefits of keeping clothing in circulation rather than throwing it away, and providing an antidote to the overconsumption message typically associated with Black Friday. And both events were supported by Belfast-based Responsible, a platform dealing in re-commerce, repair, and circular economy education with a mission to change how the fashion world operates.
What is Responsible and who are its partners?
Responsible was launched in 2021 by Mark Dowds and Mitchell Doust, who wanted to help premium labels and streetwear fashion brands become more circular in their operations.
The venture capital (VC)-backed business comprises a trio of key divisions, which chief marketing officer (CMO), Ciarán Jordan, calls the “three pillars of circularity”: acquire, processing, and sales. Responsible therefore works with brands to find ways to get unwanted products out of people’s wardrobes, it has the internal capabilities or partner relationships to get those items ready for re-circulation, and then it sells these goods through marketplaces, retailers, and its own channels.
Barclays Sustainable Impact Capital is the company’s lead investor, while other backers include the Irish/Scottish VC, Techstart Ventures.
Partner brands include Raeburn, which Jordan tells Green Retail World was a “top target, given the impact Christopher Raeburn, the founder, has made with the brand over the last decade and how seriously it takes sustainability”. Côte et Ciel and Heliot Emil are among Responsible’s wider list of partners.
The work with Raeburn has been well-documented on the pages of this publication, but for Côte et Ciel, Responsible helped upcycle a backpack line from the brand where the strapping had damaged.
“The brand didn’t want to destroy them so they approached us to see if we could do something special to mark the beginning of our relationship,” Jordan explains.
“So we did – we repaired 100 bags in total and came up with an upcycling approach using their design language and ours.”
The latest brand tie-up is with Heliot Emil, which resulted in an upcycled garment collection launching at Paris Fashion Week earlier this year. The Responsible CMO comments: “It was an upcycled collection we worked through with them – materials do not need to go to landfill, they just need some love and care.”
Reflecting on Responsible’s unique approach, he talks up “the idea of full circularity” and a willingness to not offer a cookie cutter approach to brand partnerships. It is that flexibility which led to the aforementioned campaigns.
“We don’t just class ourselves as re-commerce, we are a circularity platform,” he notes.
“We do re-commerce and think it’s a very important thing to offer but we want to close the loop and work with our partners and give them the data and insights on how their products have been worn and where repairs were needed. We want them to embed that data in their design processes, to design better – for longevity and repair.”
Strong tech foundations and collaborations
Part of that unique proposition comes from the technology developed by Responsible. Dowds and Doust both have a background in insurance technology, and that experience has been used to create tools now used by their Belfast-based start-up. Facilitating transparent dataflows with partner brands is a key focus, for example.
More specifically, the company’s ‘Buy Back’ tech enables trade-in, where consumers can send back items and receive a payment in a seamless process. Automation comes into play, too, with an accompanying WhatsApp chatbot allowing consumers to converse with Responsible before shipping label distribution is triggered once a trade-in is agreed.
Collaborations with the ever-growing circular economy ecosystem are wide ranging.
“We work across a few marketplaces and have formal relationships with eBay and Depop,” Jordan says, adding that the business will sell via websites such as Vestiaire Collective when it comes to premium luxury goods.
“We started selling on marketplaces six months ago and is a big area of growth at the moment. We try to be quite agnostic in terms of where product gets sold – we look at what has the greatest sales potential so we can ensure we manage costs effectively for everything we handle and work with brand partners to respect their sales strategy.”
It is still early days for Responsible, which now operates with around 20 members of full-time staff. And although Jordan recognises the re-commerce, repair, and circular economy movement in fashion is increasingly crowded – with companies like Reskinned, Re-Fashion, and Thrift+ working with brands and retailers to get pre-loved items back into circulation – he feels there’s room for all.
“When we look at what others have achieved, that’s great – we’re very collaborative – if there’s an opportunity to work with another company to create a greater impact we’re all for it,” says Jordan, who argues pre-loved is still such a small part of overall fashion retailing.
“Repair of garments is a very complex area of operations, for example – if it’s just on us to scale up and make the impact that’s going to slow us down in our mission so we very much look to industry partnerships because together we can make a greater impact.”
Brighton-based company Circular Inc. is a repair shop specialising in performance outerwear that supports some of Responsible’s clients. “We’re very happy to build an ecosystem of partners right across Europe,” Jordan adds.
The motivation of the company’s founders is to drive a profit for investors, while doing so in a responsible way that can improve fashion’s environmental footprint. So partnerships that can aid this are encouraged, according to the CMO.
Where the rubber hits the road in retail
Through our coverage of this space, Green Retail World has developed the optimistic view retailers are generally interested in reducing the negative impact they have on the planet. So many initiatives are under way – ranging from nature restoration projects to supply chain operational overhaul – but continual improvement is the key for retailers.
Jordan says: “If there was a report card, there are some positive signs and green shoots [for the industry’s environmental agenda] but a lot more to do.”
Indeed, it is in the bricks and mortar retailing space where the CMO sees some significant potential for development.
“Bricks and mortar is where the rubber hits the road – it is where we can bring to life in a tangible way what circularity means,” he explains, adding the potential lies in training programmes for retail staff but also generating in-store theatre for consumers via real-life examples of product repair and other circular concepts.
“If the future of bricks and mortar retail is moving towards a showroom approach, or brand showrooms, we see circularity concepts that enrich the overall experience deeply embedded in that.”
Jordan, whose previous employers include Nike, Diageo, and Adidas, expects to see much more from brands and retailers in stores about their respective approaches to circularity.
“We would be keen to work with brands to help them deliver that.”
It is too early in the company’s evolution for Responsible to share any financial results, but Jordan feels confident the VC investment – which included $6.6 million in seed funding at the end of 2021 – puts the organisation on a path to success.
“We’re a VC-backed company and they usually come with ambitious growth plans – and we’re no exception to that,” he notes.
“We’re investing today for impact tomorrow. And we’ve got investors who share that vision and share in our vision to make a dent in the fashion industry and help in the journey we’re all on for a better tomorrow.”
At Green Retail World we are giving greener retail champions, like Ciarán and Responsible, a chance to explain how they are helping retailers become greener businesses. Please contact editor, Ben Sillitoe, if you’d like to put yourself forward for an interview on this key subject. Sharing good practice can help the wider sector move in a positive direction.
[Image credit: Responsible]