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Scaling Up or Selling Out: How Can Sustainable Labels Credibly Collaborate with Big Brands?

H&M’s latest collaboration with Liya Kebede’s Lemlem drops on Earth Day, but it won’t use the artisan-focused label’s supply chain, underscoring the complexities of these kinds of partnerships.
Lemlem x H&M campaign. H&M.
Lemlem x H&M campaign. H&M.

H&M’s latest designer collaboration with Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede’s fashion label Lemlem promises to be about more than just design.

The collection drops on Earth Day, an increasingly popular marketing moment for fashion brands to burnish their sustainability credentials. The selection of colourful beachwear, sundresses and accessories will be made from more sustainable materials than H&M’s standard offering, including organic linen and recycled polyester. It will be accompanied by a $100,000 donation to the Lemlem Foundation, the label’s philanthropic arm.

But the tie-up doesn’t sit well with some observers, who point to the differences between Lemlem’s promise of slow fashion and commitment to its supply chain of African artisans, and H&M’s fast fashion model.

“It’s an antithesis [of brand values],” said Jacqueline Shaw, founding director of sourcing and production consultancy African Fashion Guide, which promotes fashion and textile suppliers in Africa. “The contrast between the two brands is confusing. People are upset because they stand for different things.”

It’s a tension increasingly present in the fashion industry as a growing number of young designers seek to build their businesses around particular values or sustainable practices. In the past, collaborations between big and small players have proved mutually beneficial, boosting visibility for emerging designers while giving mass-market brands a patina of high-fashion cool. But throw sustainability in the mix and things get more complicated.

To be sure, big companies like H&M are increasingly throwing their clout and cash at high-profile sustainability initiatives, but the structure of their businesses still sit at the root of many of fashion’s biggest environmental and social issues.

Top of that list is the sheer volume of products they produce; Lemlem said it couldn’t use its own supply chain for its new collaboration because of the scale of production required. On the other hand, the tie up will also significantly boost the visibility of the brand and its mission, and allow it to expand work training women artisans in Africa, it said.

It’s a tricky balance to strike. As sustainability remains front and centre for the industry, BoF outlines some key lessons for collaborations that move the needle, rather than risk falling into the greenwashing trap.

Find Genuine Alignment

For a small label, the opportunity to work with a bigger brand can be tempting, but prioritising core values over visibility, expansion and scale can be a shrewd business decision too.

Always ask, “Is the collaboration going to damage or support your brand messaging?” said Amy Powney, creative director of contemporary brand Mother of Pearl, which produced an exclusive collection for British department store chain John Lewis & Partners last year.

Lemlem said sustainability was at the centre of its discussions with H&M from the start, leading to the collection’s focus on a small range of natural materials. “There was a careful and deliberate thought process that went into design, supply and production choices,” said Lemlem chief executive Eva Jean in an emailed response to questions.

I’m so proud of the projects we’ve done, but … I’m as proud of the things we said ‘no’ to.

But brands shouldn’t be afraid to turn down opportunities either, said designer Christopher Raeburn, whose namesake label is built around principles such as upcycling, waste reduction and recyclability. The designer’s collaborators have included Depop, Aesop and Timberland, where he was named creative director after a successful partnership for Spring 2019.

“I’m so proud of the projects we’ve done, but … I’m as proud of the things we said ‘no’ to because the values weren’t there or because it didn’t make sense for us, or indeed for the other partner,” he said.

Mother of Pearl and John Lewis collaboration. Mother of Pearl.

The key for any small label when considering a partnership with a larger brand is thorough research and tough negotiation to ensure key values are protected. For Powney, the decision to collaborate with John Lewis was a deeply considered one.

“There was lots of back and forth in my mind on whether partnering with the high street was the correct thing to do for sustainability in general,” she said in an email exchange with BoF. Ultimately, she felt that it was a worthwhile opportunity to reach new consumers with sustainable messaging and a more accessible line of products.

The key is to “meet, meet and meet again, [and] ask as many questions as you can,” she said. Before signing on to the partnership, Powney also hired third-party experts to vet John Lewis as an organisation, including its supply chains, to ensure that the collection could retail at a lower price point than Mother of Pearl’s usual offering (in part thanks to higher-order minimums) without compromising her values.

Collaborations Don’t Have to Be About Product

Tie-ups between brands in the name of sustainability can do more than contribute to fashion’s existing overproduction problem — they can take the form of events, summits or marketing moments that educate and drive more sustainable practices.

Raeburn, a prolific collaborator, says some of his partnerships start as simply informal opportunities to experiment without the pressure of deadlines or commercial rollout.

“There have been a host of things where we haven’t had a formal contract because it’s been an understanding,” he said. “We’re trying to do something new … so let’s do some work and get to know each other and test and learn and go from there.”

When ideas do reach the consumer, they don’t have to be about driving more mass consumption. Raeburn’s collaborations have included a DIY hat-making kit sold through resale app Depop and a downloadable sewing pattern for a travel case developed with cult-favourite skin care brand Aesop.

Move the Needle

The fact that brand collaborations often take the form of one-off capsule collections can make it difficult to achieve substantive or long-term change, which is why Powney advises that sustainable designers push for details on how the partnership will create a lasting impact.

“Ask if your collaboration is going to support change or whether it’s an organisation’s way of greenwashing via you,” she said.

The planet doesn’t care about our marketing ... is it a collaboration that’s shifting the business model?

Tying collaborations to quantifiable targets or measurable progress is key, says Maxine Bédat, director of sustainability think tank New Standard Institute.

“The planet doesn’t care about our marketing; the planet cares about our results,” she said. “Is it a collaboration that’s shifting the business model? Then that’s something that can be truly transformative.”

Small collaborations can also be the starting point for deep-seated partnerships between a sustainable designer and fashion giant. Raeburn’s position at Timberland is a case in point.

Raeburn x Timberland collection. Raeburn.

“It’s been a real opportunity for me personally, and then for Raeburn as a brand, to bring our aesthetic and the way that we work to Timberland and really make a difference on a global scale, because all of a sudden, [we’re] able to tap into innovation and supply chains that we weren’t able to previously,” he said. It helps that Timberland also made significant commitments to operate more sustainably.

The most impactful collaborations go beyond the products to invest in and support transformations in the supply chain, where the bulk of the fashion industry’s social and environmental impact — and potential to innovate — can be found.

By doing that, said Samata Pattinson, CEO of sustainable fashion advocacy group Red Carpet Green Dress, “you’re facilitating the creation of a larger sustainable brand.”

Related Articles:

Independent Brands Must Change Their Business Strategies

Building A Sustainable Brand: How to Get Started

Making the Business Case for Sustainability

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State of Fashion 2023
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State of Fashion 2023