The Executive MBA (Fashion) was designed for global management and entrepreneurial professionals, to develop their business leadership skills. As the course comes to a close after 8 years, to make way for the development of a new disruptive course to follow, we caught up with EMBA alumni Blu Label to hear about how the course was a launchpad for their business as an interactive climate label focused on measuring products' carbon footprint, helping consumers to understand the global impact of their garments.
Tell us about Blu Label. What do you do?
Blu Label is a digital environmental label. We measure individual product’s impact on climate change by tracking the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions created in brands supply chains. We are currently piloting our digital Blu-Label and our GHG Traceability Software with fashion brands. We have just completed our market research with London College of Fashion students and discovered that our environmental label is perceived as offering massive benefits to customers wanting to shop sustainably and make environmental choices when it comes to fashion.
By collecting specific climate data from brands and their suppliers, we are able to deliver a point of sale carbon footprint that shows the emissions saved by purchasing a Blu-Label item. Customers access the Blu-Label data by scanning our QR code or embedded NFC tag with their phones, without having to download an app. The Blu-Label can store unlimited environmental information, so the brand can upload videos and trust marks, environmental goals and projects and show how they are aligned with sustainability and net-zero goals.
We give critical information to customers about provenance, distance travelled, plastic packaging, material composition and how and where to recycle the item. The Blu-Label is a way for customers to be able to verify brands’ sustainability claims. For example, if an item is organic, Blu-Label offers a way for brands to add further information to show what percentage is organic, which organisation has verified the organic claim and what steps the brand has done to ensure that the item is genuinely organic. Customers today are laser focused on brands that make vague sustainability claims without any evidence. At Blu-Label, we believe that shoppers deserve more information on the environmental impact of the production of the garment, as there are some brilliant brands out there doing incredible things and these hero products need to be really visible to customers. That's the purpose of the company – to show customers exactly how sustainable an item is and what it’s impact is on climate change.
So, to take it back to basics in order for you to be able to provide this service, it's generally about the supply chain and how that works for a brand. For people that are new to the idea of the supply chain within fashion, could you explain what it is and at what stages do carbon emissions typically occur?
That’s a really interesting question. In general supply chains refer to logistics, and how you get the right quantity, of the right item, in the right place at the right time. With most industries, they're manufacturing their own items so the supply chain deals with getting the right components and the raw materials from their downstream suppliers into the factory, then making and packaging the goods, and sending them to the warehouse before shipping those items out to the customers directly or to their stores.
However, many brands have a really small scope of operations limited to the design, marketing and selling of their clothing, because they outsource a lot of their core responsibilities such as finishing, packaging, storage, distribution, construction, dyeing, textile making, yarn, spinning, raw material production, etc. This is where a lot of the problems are set in with sustainability in the fashion industry. Most of the brands do not know where their fabrics are made because they don't actually buy the fabrics, the factory does. Even with pure brands that are familiar with how the textiles have been made, or where they have been made, it's incredibly difficult to actually verify how a roll of fabric has been made.
To break this down, let's say you have the simplest operation, and you're a student buying fabric for your end of year collection from the shop local to you. You just look at the fabric and check the price, and that's it. For brands, it's really very much the same thing - the designer creates the designs, sends them to the factory with a spec sheet, the factory sources, the materials and the components. The brand has no visibility of any activity beyond the first interaction stage. Which is why in the fashion industry, we say that our supply chains are opaque. It's very difficult to see, actually, what goes on further down the line.
That is so interesting, you think you’re aware of the whole process but actually there are many processes within the process. You used an example of how, for example, students might be able to think about this in their own work. What small steps could brands take to make a start in the right direction? Are there things that they could start to think about?
I think that what's really important to make clear here is that pretty much every single brand that we speak to, they're doing the best that they can to try to discover how to move towards a more sustainable production. I think the first thing that brands should do would be to give over this role to somebody else, because it's a huge body of work. If you do want to do it yourself, and you're wondering how best to do it, I think the number one thing you could do would be to buy fabrics which have been certified - so there's some level of traceability in there. If you're a student, and you go into a fabric shop, you could ask ‘what items do you have, which have an organic cotton label?’ It is a small step that you can make, but it does really help a lot.
That’s great advice. COP26 is coming up and will be a big focus for LCF along with Centre for Sustainable Fashion. One of the goals is ‘to secure global emission reduction targets that will align with reaching net zero by 2030.’ What are your thoughts on that and would you say it’s achievable?
By 2040, every single product sold in the UK has got to be either a zero-carbon footprint or a net zero carbon footprint. When you look at where the UK has gone from the 1990s, baseline level year, when we started measuring emissions and trying to reduce the carbon impact - almost half the grid is now from renewable energy. It’s really phenomenal work.
Is it achievable? It is if the government continues to push forward renewable energies, but I think a lot more needs to happen. We need to help the people who own cars to maybe buy electric vehicles. On a practicality level, it's great to have these goals. But a lot of people are asking how are we going to get there? We can't do this alone - it needs to be cross collaboration. It needs to be brands, working with customers, working with government policy; everybody has got to work together to get to this goal. It's achievable if everybody moves.
It's definitely a collaborative challenge and not something we could tackle by the very few, I think we're very past that point now. Can you tell us about your time LCF? And did you have any particular highlights?
I'm very fond of LCF because I've been there twice; I did my MA in 2004 in Fashion Journalism which was a very exciting course and then I went back again, to do my MBA. I focused very much on sustainability and supply chains. It was a life changing moment for me, because in every single module, somebody from CSF would come up to the room and look from a sustainability perspective. They would give us a little insight into how we can do things better, and what we should be thinking about.
I really had my ‘A-HA moment when I was doing my MBA. When I was a buyer, I was taking three or four flights every week and that was just normal - I never considered my carbon footprint. As part of the EMBA, we went on an amazing trip to Venice to visit a jeans manufacturer, that made jeans for a very well-known Paris Fashion house. They explained to us that every stage had to be approved back in Paris. Meaning they would get the jeans made elsewhere, then fly them in, and then they would take the seams apart and dye them, then send it off, then they would sew them all back together and then again send it to Paris. I started to count the number of times that these jeans were coming in between Paris and Venice and then I realized that those jeans had hundreds of journeys, before they were finally approved and it made me think; what is the carbon footprint on these jeans? Because actually, I don't want to buy them at all, I'd rather buy something a lot simpler. This is what ‘Blu Label’ is, it means how blu are you? What's your impact on climate change?
I'm really grateful for my time at LCF and there are some amazing people who dedicate a lot of time coming for free to talk to students. It's a really inspirational place and I’m really grateful to the college.
Did the EMBA help you to launch Blu Label? And if so, how did you go about it?
Yes, it really did help me a lot. The finance aspect was really important. We were taught a lot of management tools, which are really critical, especially when you're very much thrown into the deep end, running your own business. Having that basic knowledge of legal contracts and accountancy was incredibly helpful. The things that I learned the most from the course, were the management tools; the way to value a company, the way to position your brand and how to present yourself.