Kim Oakhill explains how Sigma Embroidery and Printing is embracing sustainability in every area of its business

In her everyday life, Kim Oakhill has always believed in doing her bit for the environment, but in May this year she decided it was time for a step-change at her company, Sigma Embroidery and Printing, as well. After building the business up over the past six years, she was keen to thread sustainability and ethical trading through every aspect of the operation. “I read an article about the production of organic cotton against standard cotton and that made me realise that, as a business, we have to take responsibility and stop having this impact on the environment and society and the [textile] workers. We knew that we had to make a change.”

Kim previously worked for the NHS as a clinical scientist; however, with three young children, she wanted a more flexible career. Looking around, she came across Sigma Embroidery, a small business set up in 2000, whose current owner wanted to move away, and which oered the perfect opportunity. “I wasn’t particularly looking for embroidery,” she admits. “I just saw it and it sparked an interest so I thought I’d look at it. I thought it was something I could grow as the children grew.”

From the outset Kim was keen to expand into new areas, as reflected by the company’s name change to Sigma Embroidery and Printing. At that time, the business comprised a small shop, with one embroidery machine, in the village of Littleport, north of Ely. It didn’t take long, however, before trade started to grow, driven by Kim’s simple but effective new approach. “When I took over, I realised that customers needed something more. They were coming in being offered one T-shirt, one polo, one sweatshirt, but not all of the customers needed that. I started asking them what it was for, what their plans for it were, whether it was for a uniform. We would then offer the product that would be more successful for them. It was talking more about decoration and trying to suggest different ways to do the decoration for them. Some wanted more high-end products that would last longer.”

Growing the business

With no significant advertising, growth has been ‘organic’, coming through word of mouth, networking groups, recommendations and repeat custom. “Slow and steady won’t make you a millionaire, but you will still be here,” Kim notes. She has also diversified Sigma’s product offering; for example, including horse blankets and jackets for the equestrian community in the area. However, the mainstay of the business remains workwear, including safetywear, for construction, laboratory and care home customers. This makes up about 75% of business with the rest coming from local groups, such as sports clubs and community organisations, all based in Cambridgeshire. “On talking to those people, we found they had to buy in bulk from most suppliers,” Kim explains. “We set them up on our website where they have a dedicated page and members can order themselves. That part of the business has grown steadily. It took a while for that to take off, but there is now a larger number of groups on the website.”

After moving to a larger shop in Littleport, Sigma relocated again to even bigger premises in Sedgeway Business Park in Witchford, west of Ely. It now has four embroidery machines – two Brother BS single-head machines, a ZSK single- head and a ZSK twin-head. There is also a Ricoh sublimation printer and an Oki transfer printer to deal with requests for print work. The staff has grown as well, with Kim now working alongside three other people – Jamie Cranwell, Janine Darnell and Owen Timmins – plus Charlie “the print shop pooch”. The company is also currently recruiting for an apprentice.

With business growing steadily, Kim noticed there were a number of areas where Sigma was falling short in terms of its environmental credentials, so she carried out an audit. This was linked to the company making a pledge as part of the Eco Ely initiative, which was set up in April this year to help individuals and businesses take action to be more environmentally friendly.

“We started with small changes, and then in May we went through everything in the business, asking what was good and bad and what we could change,” Kim says.

Charlie with Sigma’s reusable bags

Every customer is offered a chance to order items made with Fairtrade 100% organic cotton, sourced from Danish brand Neutral, such as T-shirts, polo shirts and hoodies. “We don’t force them,” she stresses. “We give them the option. It’s about educating customers so that they want them. They’re a little bit more expensive, but they’re better for the environment, they’re sustainable and better for the people working on them.” She believes strongly in Fairtrade which ensures better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world. “It is all part of the same thing.”

Customer education will be supported by the company’s new website, due to go live by the end of this year, which will include information on sustainability, and garments that match the company’s ethos. Customers are already embracing the idea, Kim says. “We have had a good response. Without a doubt, it increases interest, particularly with the younger generation.” Alongside the Neutral range, which has “brilliant ethics”, she is looking to other suppliers to be more environmentally aware. “There are a lot of new brands out there that are taking their impact seriously,” she says. “But we have found a few brands making claims and when you look for the certification, you find it’s not true, like only 80% is organic cotton or it’s not Fairtrade.”

Sigma has switched from plastic to sustainable packaging including cardboard boxes and reusable bags, sourced from United Brands of Scandinavia. However, Kim says the biggest challenge comes further up the supply chain. “Packaging is really hard for us when receiving goods as some brands supply items in plastic bags, sometimes individually, particularly shirts. They could at least bag them in groups of ten. Some suppliers out there provide a ridiculous amount of packaging and they don’t need to. We are trying to move away from brands that do that.”

Kim wants everything Sigma uses and produces to be recyclable, and has linked up with local crafts groups to donate waste products, such as rolls from vinyl and leftover material. It also gives scraps to a local charity that makes blankets for hospitals and other organisations, while scraps were also used to make a giant eel for children to carry in the parade at the annual Ely Eel Festival Weekend.

Sigma has diversified into print alongside its embroidery business

Neutral sustainable garments

Returns scheme

The company’s latest initiative is to offer a service for customers to return unwanted embroidered and printed garments for recycling. “A lot of people don’t want to give clothing to a charity with their logo on,” Kim explains. “They can bring it back and we remove the logo and can cut up the material and recycle it. Our plan is that we’ll be able to take anything back.” One of the last remaining recycling challenges is vinyls. While vinyls in themselves are not harmful to the environment, they cannot be recycled, Kim says. “It is difficult. I’m struggling to find vinyl. But some companies are working on consumables to come up with new products that can be recycled.”

Next on Sigma’s sustainability agenda is a move to an eco-friendly energy supplier when the company’s current contract ends. “It’s slightly more expensive, but not significantly expensive,” Kim says. While Sigma has achieved a lot in just a few months, Kim concedes that it’s the kind of challenge that might deter others. “It’s not the easiest thing in the world to move over. We have had to put some effort into doing it. There are cost implications, but it’s worth it.”

Kim believes that change is difficult for some businesses simply because they are so stuck in doing things the way they have always been done in production for clothing. “There are some businesses out there that just want to do everything as cheaply as possible and they won’t change. But there are a lot of businesses out there that are very keen to change but don’t know where to start,” she adds.

As Sigma has demonstrated, moving to a more sustainable business model isn’t easy, it requires effort, but it’s a worthwhile challenge. For those garment decorators that are figuring out how to take the first step on this path, Kim has a final word of advice: “You just need to sit down and work out where to change.”