”The more customers learn about sustainability — the more they demand accountability”
On why — and where — to start with local production
May 16, 2021
Growing up in the north of Sweden, Lisa Bergstrand lived a simple life guided by a respect for nature. Creating a passion for textile and fashion, she designed for eight years in Paris at leading houses including Saint Laurent and Givenchy.
— I was aware of the environmental impact the industry was having, and seeing it from within made me decide to focus on making the industry greener, she tells.
She now runs her own consultancy, guiding brands and retailers on their journey to being sustainable, and put the mentioned beliefs into action through her own brand A NEW SWEDEN.
Tell us about A NEW SWEDEN and how you’ve disrupted the industry.
— You say disrupted — we’re flattered. We’d like to think we’ve had an outsized impact, but we still have a long way to go. The question I wanted to answer with A NEW SWEDEN was, what does a brand that does everything sustainably look like? And then I followed up by asking myself: How do you tailor a garment that isn’t designed to be out-of-fashion? What materials have the smallest impact on the environment? What construction techniques do you use when you offer a lifetime warranty? What choices do you make so your products leave no trace at the end of life? Is it possible to build an independent brand without giving money to disinformation-spreading platforms like Facebook? And are customers willing to pay for something that’s been lovingly made by their neighbours?
— We’re slowly learning the answers through A NEW SWEDEN, and these learnings in turn guide my consulting work. It has been maybe 95% challenge and struggle and 5% reward, but that 5% makes it worth it!
What’s been the biggest challenge and reward?
— I won’t lie — absolutely everything has been a challenge. From making the fabric to the product to the marketing and sales. To put it into perspective: the majority of brands start with fabric off the roll. We start with wool that we source directly from the farmers, and we see it every step along the way until it becomes a garment sitting on the shoulders of a customer, says Bergstrand. She continues:
— Despite this huge work in making our own fabrics, the biggest challenge for us has been getting the message out. Attention spans are short, and the social media hype cycle makes it difficult for a brand that launches one product a year to make an impact without having deep pockets to buy the attention. But we’ve managed to cut through the noise with an unwavering dedication to our principles, and we’ve managed to build a passionate community of customers and supporters who love what we are doing.
— The most rewarding moments are when we get emails from customers who tell us they are sad they have to put away their A NEW SWEDEN garments for the warmer weather. That makes it all worth it. And all the inspiring and passionate farmers, craftsmen, and manufacturers we have met on our journey.
What’s so special with Swedish wool, compared to, say, Merino?
— If you compare those two in the dimension that wools are usually valued — its microns, or width of a fibre — Swedish wool is coarser than Merino and often valued less. If we look at other dimensions, such as animal welfare, then Swedish wool is very special. Swedish sheep aren’t bred for the wool, which means that they aren’t overbred with mutations like wrinkled skin that make for more wool, but uncomfortable living. Sweden has one of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, and cruel practices allowed in other intensive wool farming countries such as mulesing, chemical baths, or tail docking are illegal here. Another benefit is that the sheep farms that we buy our wool from are small — 300 sheep compared to some farms I’ve been to in Australia who have over 30,000. The way Swedish farmers let their smaller flocks graze contributes to healthy soil and biodiversity.
— In terms of functionality, durability, and environmental benefits, wool is one of the best fibres to make clothes from. But its downside is that it is usually industrially farmed, making it problematic from an animal welfare perspective. Swedish wool is special because all Swedish wool is farmed responsibly.
Except for the obvious environmental aspect, how can the use of local fabrics and production become a competitive advantage for brands?
— We’ve seen brands make a single line of products, either locally or with local materials, as a marketing driver, but for us, the strongest advantage is being able to be accountable for each step of the production chain. The more customers learn about sustainability, the more they demand accountability. And it’s difficult to be accountable for a factory that’s a 10-hour plane ride away. I would say that not building a traceable and more local supply chain can become a problem in the future, Bergstrand claims.
— Generally, I think more people — read: customers — are gravitating towards thinking about the provenance of the things they buy. There’s a movement towards owning less, better things, and understanding where they come from.
If you’re working for a brand that aims to begin with local production or fabrics, where is the best way to start?
— Start with the material. Ask what it can do. Let its possibilities guide what it can become.
You’re also trying new techniques and innovations, such as non-woven. Can you tell us more about this work?
— Creating genuinely sustainable products, from the outset, is expensive, and those costs are passed on to the early adopters. But over time, with new techniques and innovations, these costs decrease, allowing more people to afford better. You can see this in action with Tesla. Their first models were expensive sports cars, and over time they became more affordable. We are looking at using new, natural techniques that will allow us to reduce the overall cost of each piece, allowing more people to buy quality garments, made in Sweden from well-farmed Swedish wool, together with a London/Berlin-based startup.
And why is it so important to add technology and innovation to a business?
— It’s always important to try to improve the way things are done, but I am not a big driver for innovation of new textiles. We’ve seen that many new materials end up creating more problems than they solve. This is because they usually start with the problem: ”We have this fossil fuel. How can we turn it into something of value?” Instead of: ”How can we ensure that our choices today make for a better life for all of our children tomorrow?”
— I am more old-fashioned and believe in using the natural materials we have, but do it in harmony with nature. Use less and produce better.
— Sometimes, the innovation happens in the mindset of the customer.
What else do you have coming?
— Restricting ourselves to using and making locally makes the creative process very exciting. We have a lot of ideas for many other garments that can be made in Sweden from all Swedish materials in an all-natural way. One of the things we are hoping to tackle soon is making all-natural dyes in Sweden, Bergstrand concludes.
Once a month, A NEW SWEDEN highlights other entrepreneurs who share the same principles, working with local production or in other ways challenging industry norms, in their newsletter, called The Hard Way.