Laura is the Creative Director of London based change agency, Futerra. Through strategic storytelling, she has helped the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, Stella McCartney and C&A Foundation share their vision for the future.
How have your personal values and life experience shaped your work?
I grew up in a coal mining village in the north of England. In the mid-1980s, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher embarked on an aggressive process of de-industrialisation, closing coal mines across the UK. Some have dubbed this as an all-out class war, and I’d concur with that assessment.
While the end of coal mining in the UK was, of course, a wonderful move environmentally, it caused massive social and economic devastation that still reverberates today. With the mines—cornerstones of cultural identity for many communities—gone, bustling markets and local business disappeared, and rising inequality took their place. De-industrialisation marked progress for some, but not everyone. I’ve always been drawn to figuring out how we can create fairer societies and a prosperous future that’s more equally distributed.
As someone working in a creative role and trying to connect people to social and environmental issues, what shapes my work the most is a sensitivity to the unique situations of different people, and an eagerness to understand their different hopes, fears and motivations. Without that, we create work that only speaks to ourselves. Humanity has a lot to fix, and climate change and raging inequality are just a couple of the items on our to-do list. We need to get everyone involved, not just those in the sustainability bubble.
Tell us about Futerra: the company’s mission, your role within the company, which clients you have worked with..
Futerra is a change agency with a mission to make sustainability so desirable, it becomes normal. That means everything we do is focused on creating positive change. We work on issues ranging from climate change, women’s equality, human rights, to supply chain transparency. And we do that across all sectors, from fashion to food.
As an agency, we offer a wonderful combo called ‘logic and magic’. Logic refers to sustainability strategy, which involves helping companies figure out their role in creating a more sustainable world, and defining a roadmap to make sure it happens. Magic is all about creativity. In terms of the creative work we do, it’s everything you’d expect from a traditional creative agency: branding, campaigns and defining of social purpose. This combination is how we create change. If you don’t have the sound logic of sustainability, creative communications risk being mere greenwashing. And without the magic of creativity, sustainability communications are at risk of being dull and boring, and confined to a green niche.
As a creative director at Futerra, I work on the magic side. I’ve focused a great deal on fashion, with my clients having included Kering, C&A Foundation, Fashion Revolution, Stella McCartney, Tommy Hilfiger and GEOX. The work itself has ranged from branding sustainable products and creating the campaigns to sell them, to assisting a company define and articulate its vision on sustainability and how to connect that vision to customers.
Sustainability is a broad umbrella term that encompasses many things. How does Futerra define ‘sustainable fashion’?
Futerra’s constitution defines sustainability as meeting the needs of today while also enhancing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. A more casual definition, which I love, is treating the world as though we plan to stay. We also define sustainability as dealing with the impact of consumption while accepting the desire to consume, and inspiring sustainable substitutes rather than simply sacrifices.
If we apply that definition to sustainable fashion, it’s about creating alternatives that allow people to enjoy the amazing feelings fashion inspire in us—the joy, the escapism—without the negative impact. Our mission is to make sustainability so desirable, it becomes normal. And so, ultimately, we aim to make sustainable fashion just fashion.
“The garment industry isn’t part of the natural order, we created it. So that’s actually what excites me the most. The system is human-made and can therefore be re-made.”
“We work with people who believe they can turn the sustainability imperative into the greatest entrepreneurial opportunity for a generation.” – Businesses often view sustainability as a hindrance to growth. How do you encourage people to focus on the opportunities posed by the world’s current environmental and social challenges?
Often, it’s by demonstrating the business case. To echo the sentiment of Freya Williams, Futerra North America CEO, sustainability is a billion-dollar business opportunity. She wrote the book on this concept, Green Giants. Conventional business wisdom says that purpose and profit are opposing forces. Green Giants turns that notion on its head by profiling the businesses, ranging from Natura to Nike, that have generated a billion dollars or more in annual revenue from a product, service, or line of business that features sustainability or social good at its core. If you ever need to convince someone of the business case for sustainability, give them Green Giants.
Your work can relate to complex social and environmental issues; how important is your approach to storytelling when working with clients? Talk us through some of your successful case studies.
It’s fundamental. Creating new narratives that inspire people to take action is key to creating change. So our main approach to storytelling focuses on avoiding the trap of telling a story that only sustainability folk want to hear.
When people shop, different motivations are at play. It could be finding a bargain, or showing their friends they’re at the forefront of the latest trends. Effective stories tap into those motivations and desires; we need to have empathy and humility in order to meet people where they’re at, rather than where we want them to be.
We worked with Aquafil recently to develop a brand identity and messaging for their breakthrough product, ECONYL regenerated nylon. Through a regeneration process, they take waste nylon like old fishing nets, carpets and clothing from landfills and oceans, and turn it into new nylon. It performs exactly the same as virgin nylon, and the beauty is that it can be recycled infinitely without ever losing its quality.
Rather than tell a technical, circularity story that only policy wonks and environmentalists would love, we told a story that focused on the idea of imagination, creativity, and endless possibilities. This allowed ECONYL to share its story with a much wider audience, including new brands and consumers.
Who do you see as leaders in responsible business (notably in the garment sector) and why? Are there any particular business models that impress you?
VF Corporation’s (the holding company of various brands including The North Face, Timberland and VANS) new sustainability and responsibility strategy, Made for Change, puts them high on the list for me. It’s exciting to see a company of that size and scale with the ambition to advance social and environmental improvements across their business, and to support customers to make better choices, too. Commercialisation of circular business models like rental, recommerce and design for circularity, is a key part of VF’s strategy. We’re seeing that commitment come to life at brand level with North Face’s refurbished line.
I also love the For Days tee shirt subscription and recycling model. It’s a great example of a positive environmental product solution that offers customers a tangible, functional benefit.
“Ethical fashion doesn’t have to mean buying from niche brands. It can be about keeping clothes for as long as possible, buying secondhand or exchanging clothes for free—viable options no matter the size of your wallet.”
The ethical fashion movement is often labelled elitist and inaccessible for the everyday consumer. What are your thoughts on this?
When I chat to my friends about ethical fashion, they sometimes think I’m trying to pedal hemp dresses reminiscent of something you’d see on Little House on the Prairie. Or their other reference point is Stella McCartney. I think that ethical fashion has suffered from the perception of being undesirable, or expensive when it is desirable. I not only believe that this will change, but that it’s already changing. C&A has launched its Cradle to Cradle gold certified tee shirt for €4 and its Cradle to Cradle gold certified jeans for €29—certainly, accessible pricing from a mainstream brand.
And ethical fashion doesn’t have to mean buying from niche brands. It can be about keeping clothes for as long as possible, buying secondhand or exchanging clothes for free—viable options no matter the size of your wallet. Swishing the clothes swapping party devised by Lucy Shea, Futerra global CEO, is a great example of making clothes swapping fun, exciting and aspirational.
Do you see scope for fast fashion businesses to drive positive change in the garment industry without changing their overall business model?
Pilot projects and capsule collections can be seen as a distraction, to avoid tackling issues at the heart of the business model. On the flipside, it’s positive that fast fashion brands are engaging with sustainable fashion— I see both sides of the argument, but the reach of fast fashion brands is huge. I see it quite simply: they just have to be part of the solution. These brands provide much-needed employment to millions of people and serve millions of customers. We need to support them to provide better jobs, to make a better impact on the environment and to help their customers make better choices. If we do this successfully, I think we can really move the needle in driving positive change throughout the industry.
When looking to the future of the garment industry, what systemic change would you like to see take place and why?
I’d love to see a new narrative around consumption. We as customers are fed a story that we constantly need to buy and own new things to stay on trend, to make us happy or to feel confident. It’s such an empty promise and ultimately feeds the beast of over production and consumption.
What excites and/or daunts you about the future of the garment industry?
What daunts me is the scale of the challenge ahead. The current system is broken, and the impact this has on the environment and millions of garment workers’ lives is frankly overwhelming. But the garment industry isn’t part of the natural order, we created it. So that’s actually what excites me the most. The system is human-made and can therefore be re-made. Rather than accept what’s happening as a tragedy and blindly continue, we should seize the opportunity to build an industry that’s based on fairness, respect and integrity. Fashion has always been about reinvention and challenging the status quo so if any industry can reimagine itself, it’s got to be fashion, right?