Business Leader recently spoke to with Smruti Sriram, CEO of Bags of Ethics, to discuss how the company has adapted during COVID-19 and how the UK Plastic Pact has affected the fashion industry.
Can you give me an overview of Bags of Ethics?
Bags of Ethics is a positive label that promotes the people and planet behind reusable products. All BOE products are designed to be reused several times, from 50+ times for our reusable face masks, to our 5,000+ times for our reusable packaging and ethical merchandise.
Our combined knowledge spans over 60,000 global clients, over 20 years, and our aim is to bring their consumer insight into their products. The Bags of Ethics label was created to unite consumers, businesses, and makers across three key pillars: PEOPLE, PLANET, and PRODUCT.
Our community spans designers, technicians, growers, tailors, printers, packers, merchandisers, buyers, and everyone along the supply chain. 90% of our manufacturing team are women.
How has the company adapted during COVID-19?
At the start of the pandemic, really even before we knew the scale of it, we made a very public promise to our staff in Pondicherry in India that we would support them to have a great year, and be by their side through the uncertainty. This has even meant we’ve provided a food stipend for them, because we know it’s crucial that our team is supported beyond job security.
Obviously, the biggest adaption we made was launching ‘Great British Designer Face Coverings: Reusable, for People and Planet’ with the British Fashion Council. We have come together to manufacture and retail internationally, sustainable and reusable non-medical face coverings to use alongside existing social distancing measures. We wanted to champion the best of British design and sustainable manufacturing.
We really had to respond to new time scales – we knew we had to act quickly to get the face masks to market, and this meant getting every aspect of the collaboration with the British Fashion Council (BFC) across the line in a very short space of time.
What charity work has the company been involved in during the pandemic?
For our campaign ‘Great British Designer Face Coverings: Reusable, for People and Planet’ with the BFC, we’re aiming to raise £1 million with proceeds going to support NHS Charities together COVID 19 Urgent Appeal, BFC foundation Fashion Fund and The Wings of hope Children’s Charity.
How big of an impact has the UK Plastic Pact had on business in the UK?
Back in 2004/5 we were amongst the businesses supporting the Waste Recycling Action Programme as part of the Courtauld Agreement reached by major retailers like Tesco, The Co Op, and Marks & Spencer. We have been supplying alternatives to single-use plastic bags to global retailers for 20 years and so the UK Plastic Pact in 2018 was just a continuation of the work from many years ago.
It is great to see the how the BBC’s Blue Planet by Sir David Attenborough has brought large public attention to the devastating effects of single-use plastic to creatures and habitats on Earth. We have definitely had a more aware client base discussing the issues raised by the various plastic initiatives but there is a very long way to go, into dramatically changing behaviour – especially as COVID-19 has we believe reversed much of the good sustainability work done around the plastic issue.
Can you tell me about your work with the British Fashion Council?
We have always been at the forefront of supporting the public through mass behavioural changes in positive and useful ways, so we were delighted to partner with the BFC on this project. With fashion being such a unifying force, we wanted to not only celebrate British designers but also champion sustainability in a time of crisis.
The masks were designed in London by six British designers, Halpern, Julien Macdonald, Liam Hodges, Mulberry, RAEBURN and RIXO.
Can you talk about working with your father on the business? Pros and cons?
In our business, everyone is treated like family, and we have made it a policy that there is no special treatment for the founding family. However we treat business very much as business and have a structured approach to making decisions for the business – both on strategy and on tactical operations. One of the biggest assets I see is that there is a trusted sense of partnership and mentoring between father and daughter.
How do you run a sustainable business?
A sustainable business should be run like any successful business: clear business strategy, good procedures, agile and creative team members, and a workforce that cares deeply about the mission and values of the business. Sustainability is a wide-ranging term and must encompass all aspects of supporting a long-lasting business – be it the materials you choose to use, the products you design, the people you respect along the supply chain, and the partners you work with, and for.
What does the future hold for the company?
We recently partnered with Selfridges and RAEBURN on bespoke masks for their team members to wear in their stores, and have a second group of designers coming on board for our project with the BFC.
In terms of the broader picture, we are now aiming to drive the conversation around sustainability when it comes to face masks. According to a UCL study, if every person in the UK used a single-use plastic face mask every day for a year, it could create an additional 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging. So, we think it is crucial that we help push the importance of choosing reusable and sustainably-made face masks, and create a similar association between single-use masks as we did with plastic bags in supermarkets.