Our young climate activists asked M&S how clothing can care for the planet

This is not just an interview. This is four young fashion fans going to M&S headquarters to find out how clothing can care for the planet

The current trend for fast, disposable fashion is simply unsustainable.

So we joined four young campaigners as they visited Marks & Spencer’s HQ to quiz their top team of experts about what one of the biggest and best-known brands on the high street is going to protect the environment and combat climate change.

They had a LOT of questions.

M&S interviewers
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Meet the interviewers

Ella: I’m 11 years old and I went on the climate change march because I think it’s important children have a say in what’s going to happen in our future. 

Billy: I’m 10. I’m interested in fashion and I’ve been learning more about climate change.

Eviva: I’m 12 and I went on the climate march to see how much of an impact we can make on global warming.

Ava: I’m nine. It’s really important to help the planet because if adults are trying and it isn’t working we should try to do it instead.

How M&S designs and makes clothes

The experts: Rebecca Garner – Kidswear
Assistant Designer, Paschal Little – Head of Clothing & Home Product Development

Ella: When we think about global warming, there is a lot of talk about plastics…

Paschal: For this swimsuit the yarn that makes the fabric comes from recycled plastic bottles that are melted down and made back into the raw material. It’s giving these plastic bottles a second life.

Rebecca: We also believe that high quality and durability is a very important part of sustainability. If garments last longer, people won’t have to keep going back to buy a replacement. In this case we use a special lycra, the stretchy component in the fabric, that is resistant to chlorine. The colours are one thing we have to think about when we’re designing and want to be sustainable. This swimsuit starts on a white base which means we don’t have to add extra dyes.

Eviva: Are the majority of your clothes completely sustainable – and if not are you working towards that?

Rebecca: We have some big commitments that we’re working on. One that we just achieved in March is that all the cotton for our clothing fabrics is now more sustainably sourced, and going forward it always will be. It’s definitely on everyone’s agenda.

Paschal: We use recycled polyester across a wide range of products from denim to knitwear, and the amount of recycled material we are using is increasing.

Billy: Plastic kills whales, and it’s not just in the seas, it can kill
tonnes of animals…

Rebecca: We wanted to make sure that everything about the swimwear was sending the same message, whether that was the fibre it’s made from, the printing process and actually what was on the outside as well. The messaging on this swimsuit says “ocean vibes”. Our target market is you guys – and we want to make sure you know what we’re doing to become more sustainable. We also always encourage items to be ‘Shwopped’ when you no longer wear them.

Ava: When we went to the march, me and Ella made banners. Mine said, ‘The World Can’t Fix Itself, Only We Can’.

Cotton on to sustainability

Expert: Phil Townsend – Technical lead, Environmental Sustainability

Searching for vegan products doubled

Ava: I’m guessing the wool is coming from sheep. When you take it off them, do you hurt the sheep?

Phil: No, they’re sheared as they would be normally but we need to make sure that practice is done in a responsible way and that the sheep are not mistreated. A lot of our jackets and suits are made from wool because it’s really good for performance. For some of our tailoring we have been working collaboratively to help trace wool from garment to a network of farms in New Zealand – the farms have sustainable grassland management as well as really good animal welfare standards.

Ava: If we’re trying to save nature, why would you use leather, because it’s made of cows?

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Phil Townsend from M&S talks cotton and sustainability

Phil: All the leather we use is a by-product – we are using a material that would otherwise be thrown away but we still have to make sure we source it responsibly. We have an animal welfare policy that covers responsible sourcing. We also have a lot of synthetic leather in our ranges. Recently we launched a range of vegan-friendly footwear made from synthetic leather, so it gives customers who are vegan the opportunity to buy a product that they want. Last year searches on our website for vegan products doubled.

Eviva: You talk about preventing deforestation – is it that you cut down trees where there aren’t a lot of animals?

Phil: We make sure we are sourcing material through credible sustainability standards such as the Forest Stewardship Council. Along with our suppliers we have committed to an initiative to ensure we are not sourcing wood from ancient and endangered forests. As part of this commitment the fibre suppliers commit to support long-term forest conservation solutions.

How clothes find a second life

Expert: Alex Florea – Sustainability Delivery Manager

Absolutely nothing ends up in landfill

Ella: What happens to the clothes that are put into Shwopping boxes?

Alex: Shwopping, the name we use for our clothing collection, is the partnership between ourselves and Oxfam – the charity that fights poverty around the world. There should be a box beside every till point. All the clothes we collect, we don’t keep them, we don’t sell them, we just collect them and pass them onto Oxfam. They look at every single item we give them and try to figure out if it can be worn again. Absolutely nothing ends up in landfill. If you have a pair of holey socks, it might end up being used for mattresses or as house insulation. If it’s made from wool or cashmere we can chop it up into small pieces then turn it back into yarn and make it into another item.

Since we started in 2008, we’ve collected 33 million garments raising £21 million for Oxfam

Ava: How did you come up with the word Shwopping?

Alex: When people come to buy something new, we want them to bring something old. So it’s a combination of swap and shop. Shwopping helps our customers give a second life to their clothes – so clothes they no longer like or they grow out of, we help them pass them on to Oxfam. Just walk into a shop with a bag of clothes, open it up and put them in. It’s as simple as that.

Ella: If people have clothes that they didn’t originally buy from M&S can they still bring them?

Alex: Absolutely. We take anything from any company, no matter what state they’re in, even if they’re a bit faded, we still take them because we want to make sure that nothing ends up in landfill. That’s our big mission.

Alex Florea from M&S
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Alex Florea: "Please tell your friends never to put anything in the bin!"

Billy: Why did you choose Oxfam?

Alex: When the programme started in 2008 – before some of you were born – you could only donate in Oxfam shops. In 2012 we put boxes in all of our stores and that’s when Shwopping was born. We were actually the first ones to do it. Oxfam is a very big charity and has shops across the UK so it makes it easy for our customers.

It’s the only charity in the UK that has its own sorting facility. We knew Oxfam was going to do a lot of good things with the clothes we collect. The problem is really big in the UK. Thousands of tonnes of clothes go to landfill every year. We collect about three million garments per year. That’s 770 tonnes – a LOT of clothes. Since we started in 2008, we’ve collected 33 million garments raising £21 million for Oxfam. Please tell your friends never to put anything in the bin!

Getting the hanger of plastic and recycling

The experts: Sarah Rose Price – Clothing & Home Head of Packaging , Roger Wright – Technical Lead, Packaging

We’ve reused or recycled more than a billion hangers

Billy: How do you reduce the plastic and waste in packaging?

Sarah: We were one of the first retailers to introduce a programme to recycle our hangers.

Roger: This was 12 years ago and to date we’ve reused or recycled more than a billion hangers. We’ve diverted all these hangers from landfill. You’ll know all about landfill and how that’s a big deal for us. It saves carbon as well. We’re still trying to introduce innovations that mean we can do even better.

Ella: If you’re recycling plastic, do you know where the plastic comes from?

Roger: About 90 to 95 per cent of that hanger is recycled plastic from old M&S hangers. We don’t use much new plastic.

M&S sustainability
M&S drop-in
Young environmentalists Ella and Ava examine M&S's recycled hangers

Ava: Does there ever come a point where the plastic’s been recycled so much it can’t be done any more?

Roger: Yes, there does. So that’s why we always have to add in a little of what we call virgin plastic, so it’s 90 to 95 per cent recycled, with a bit of new plastic to make sure we can continue to recycle over and over again.

Sarah: We try not to give hangers out. So if you came into our store and really wanted the hanger, we’re not going to wrestle you for it, but what we’re telling our customers is – we can recycle them.

Eviva: You see hangers where there’s wood with metal on top – will your hangers turn into that?

Sarah: Our plastic hangers are lightweight and reusabe. Every time we look at changing something it affects the whole supply chain. If we start transporting wooden hangers they’ll be heavier, which means we need bigger containers, more lorries, more fuel.

Why sustainability is a hot topic

Expert: Carmel McQuaid – Head of Sustainability

As well as wearing tigers on your shirt, we are saying let’s make sure your shirt is made in the best way to protect tigers

Ella: How do you predict what the trend will be the next year?

Carmel: That’s what we have to be very good at, because if we get the trends wrong, not everyone will be interested. If we get the trends right, more people buy our clothes. There are clues. We look at what films are coming out. We knew that Our Planet was going to be on Netflix this year and people would be talking about the environment. Knowing that you guys are going out there marching and really interested in nature and the planet, that is what you start to see come through in designs.

Ava: One of the reasons I really like fashion and think it’s important is because it’s not just something you can wear, it also shows your personality and it’s also about how you feel about yourself…

Carmel: Yes, fashion is great because it lets everyone say ‘this is who I am’. So as well as wearing tigers on your shirt because you love animals, we are saying let’s make sure the shirt is made in the best way to protect tigers.

Ella: So you try to influence sustainability with what you put on
your clothes?

Carmel: Yes. And every clothes item will have a little tag in it that tells you what temperature to wash it at. We rewrote these instructions for our customers to say, ‘Think climate, wash at 30 degrees’.

Ella: If you wash it at a higher temperature it’s worse for the environment…

Carmel McQuiad from M&S
M&S head of sustainability Carmel McQuaid talks with Billy and Eviva

Carmel: Yes, and I remember doing the sums on this 11 years ago when we were asking whether we could prove this before we wrote it on all our labels. I had a lovely spreadsheet and worked out how much energy you’d save and how it would make a difference. Then we had to do tests with stains because people were worried their clothes might not get clean.

Eviva: Now you are trying to be 100 per cent sustainable, do you have more customers?

Carmel: One of the things we want to do more about, which is why we are happy to have your help, is tell people. We have done a lot of good things and we’re telling our customers a lot more.

Images: Orlando Gili