06 Nov 2023

Sustainable success stories - Sancho’s Exeter

Most people working in the sustainable fashion sector come to it because they’re concerned about the harm fashion can do. For Kalkidan Legesse, founder of Sancho’s boutique and resale platform Owni, she saw the potential that fashion had to provide sustainable jobs in developing countries. While working in Ethiopia for an NGO, she saw how garment makers were able to improve their quality of life through fair, safe and equitable work.

This sparked her interest in fashion as a tool for sustainable development and she launched Sancho’s in 2015 to support brands working in this way. Today the business operates a physical store in Exeter as well as a thriving online shop selling 150 ethical and sustainable brands.

Fair treatment of garment workers and low impact materials is at the heart of every brand they stock: “When we source brands for Sancho’s we lean towards natural fibres, and organic fibres we will lean into more than natural. Then we look at the production methodology and how transparently the brand can communicate how the item was produced, where and by whom and at what pay rate. We also look for items that lean towards capsule style dressing: the idea that you build your collection of clothing and your style over time, as opposed to working towards achieving specific trends.”

Legesse says she considers brands using synthetic fibres as “short-sighted” for its use of petrochemicals and inability to decompose and says that another red flag is brands who lose sight of their garment workers as the business gets bigger.

However, while she has preferences, she understands there’s no one set of criteria that works for all brands. “As a multi-brand retailer, one criteria group isn’t going to work across everybody. There is an element of scale and scope in terms of what we look for from different suppliers. For example, we have a lot of items that are produced locally, less than 10 miles away from us. They don’t have [fair trade] accreditation, but we can go and see how items are made.”

Legesse sees independent retailers as great allies to social impact brands. “A lot of brands rely on independent retailers, especially innovative brands, or brands creating things that don’t currently exist in the market. A lot of them rely on the wholesale purchase potential of independent businesses to create, launch and master products. A lot of what we consider the most exciting sustainable products I don’t think would exist the way they do without the initial buy in from independent retailers.”

Beyond product, Legesse employs six members of staff. All are paid a living wage and the company has a sustainable pensions provider too.

The store uses a renewable energy supplier and they don’t purchase any plastic packaging. Any plastic packaging that comes to them via outside suppliers is reused and clothing tags are made from recycled paper.

The next step in the business’ sustainable journey is Owni, a resale platform for sustainable brands and retailers. Despite having only launched last year, 15% of the business’ sales now come from the platform. “In the UK there’s £30 billion of unworn clothing which is currently underutilised,” says Legesse. “It’s in people’s homes, it’s in warehouses, it’s just unused inventory. What Owni does is it helps brands and retailers recover those goods to resell them,” explains Legesse.

Owni enables consumers to buy and sell secondhand clothing but also helps businesses launch a resale arm of their business. Legesse says that, on average, the brand partners they have worked with have generated 8% of their total business revenue through Owni.

Across the seven years that Sancho’s has been open, the sustainability conversation in fashion has grown and changed and it’s highlighted new ways for the business to operate too. Legesse reflects: “One thing that I’m so clear on, having done this for almost a decade, is that sustainability isn’t an endpoint. It’s not a finish line. It’s a process. It’s about being very clear that your business is having an impact on people and on the planet. Some of the impact is negative and you need to have a conscious approach to business whereby you’re behaving equitably; so what you give to the world is equivalent to what you’re taking back from it.”

Currently Legesse is focussed on growing Owni but is also interested in potential partnerships to explore future options for both businesses and is open to fresh thinking and new ideas. “You don’t need to do what’s been done before. There’s scope for bigger steps of growth by innovating new systems. What you should do is try to experiment and see what new systems can be created. Some of them might not even be like anything we currently imagine retail to be like. The future of retail, I would say, is definitely going to be service based, much more so than we’ve become accustomed to. Repairing, resale, rental, styling, AR, those are going to be huge, huge, huge components of the future retail landscape.”

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