The founder of Neutral discusses sustainability in the garment industry

Lars Bech

Thanks to Greta Thunberg and the climate protests, there is currently a lot more focus on sustainability.

Have you noticed an increased demand for ecowear as a result?

Yes, demand has increased. But it’s not only because of Greta. She’s had an influence, but we can see climate change happening all over the word. It’s happening in Europe, in India, Africa – we can see it happening, and it can’t be ignored.

How else is this increased awareness impacting the industry?

We’re moving away from the focus on price. Now there’s more interest in the materials used, the impact of the production process and the wellbeing of the people who make the garments – especially after the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse that happened six years ago. That stuck in people’s consciousness.

What does it mean when we describe a garment as sustainable or eco-friendly?

You have to look at two things: how it’s produced, and how the people who produce it have been treated. If you take a single garment, the production process is so long – it starts with a seed in a cotton field. We can’t check every detail so we believe in certification. We need companies, such as Control Union, that work with the farmers and check that they are following these standards. This is the best way to establish traceability in the supply chain: these certificates prove that you have certified organic cotton and that your brand can be trusted.

What about eco alternatives such as recycled polyester: could you see customers choosing this type of fabric over organic cotton?

I think cotton is the best option. We need the farmers to grow their cotton in balance with nature. We need healthy soil so that when climate change comes, it can better absorb the water. We need nature to be there for us.

Part of the sustainability story is a move towards longer lasting garments: are today’s consumers really willing to pay a premium for quality so that their garments will last longer?

Yes. When you use good, organic cotton, the fibres are stronger and the garment lasts longer, so it’s a better purchase. People want their clothes to last for longer. We’re getting away from this fast fashion idea, where we wear something once and throw it out.

Should governments be doing more to regulate garment production?

Yes! Why should I have to prove that I’m doing everything right? I have certificates that prove that Neutral garments are sustainable. So shouldn’t there be some kind of ‘danger’ marker on the labels of those T-shirts that the fashion chains sell for £2? There’s no way they are sustainable, and they [the fashion chains] should be made to show that to their customers.

Where do you think the sector is headed next in terms of becoming more sustainable?

I think the next big problem that we have to solve is recycling. We have so many different materials – cotton, polyester, nylon – it’s not easy to recycle. We don’t yet have the techniques to do this, so we have to invent them. It could be a mechanical process, or a chemical process, or even a biological process, but I think this has to be the next focus.

What’s the most important first step that all garment decorators could take to make their business more sustainable?

Ecowear should be your number one choice because it helps the people who have been part of the production chain, it helps the environment and it helps the customer who can use it as a point of difference in their marketing. If you want to still be in business in 20 years’ time then you have to change – and you have to change now. You can’t bury your head and ignore it: these changes are coming fast because we finally understand what’s at stake.