Fast fashion and sustainability are almost two words that you would never hear in the same sentence—unless it’s a think piece about much how the former is absent of the latter.
The fashion industry gets a bad rep when it comes to pollution due to the amount of water it takes to create textiles. But while information about the fashion industry being the second largest polluter in the world still remains unverified, we do know this: if we don’t change up our fast fashion consumption habits, we might just speed up that process.
And while completely cut out shopping isn’t the answer either (the industry IS the seventh-largest economy and employs at least 60 million women), we can alert you to the brands who are trying to make changes within their practices. One such brand is Pomelo.
As one of the leading fast-fashion brands in Southeast Asia, Pomelo is a name that is familiar to most Millennial and Gen Z women. While in Bangkok for the debut of their Fall/Winter’19 runway collection, we sat down with Cathriona Nolan, Pomelo’s AVP of Creative Operations for a chat on the brand’s latest creative direction as well as their efforts to stay green and be a part of the sustainability conversation.
With the launch of Purpose by Pomelo, we can see the brand’s effort to be part of the sustainability movement. Could you share more about the technology that you use and explain more about your sustainable efforts?
It comes right down to just really helping us to make better decisions especially when you’re working on trends. Quite often with fashion trends, you can truly be taking a risk because things can be very trendy on the runway but maybe don’t…always translate well to the high street market. But the data that we have allows us to make better purchasing decisions, right at the very beginning which generally tends to mean we have much higher sell-through and therefore less waste.
Another side of things that we are doing as well as allowing our customers to donate their old clothing through our app. Initially, we started this initiative back in May 2018 for any customers who bought something from Purpose. But since September this year, anyone who has ever made any purchase on Pomelo can now book a free clothing donation pick up—in unlimited weight and size—directly from their house.
From a creative or a design POV, what sets Pomelo apart from other retailers?
Many of these big fast-fashion retailers started as physical stores before moving online. We’re the opposite. Because that’s where we started, we’ve become very, very good at using data to analyse what our customers bought and how they navigate on our platform. We then use that data to go back to the beginning so that our designers know what to make. The design team still depends on trend forecasting but the items that ultimately make it to final production and get heavily promoted is all based on our data. Everything gets analysed—from the sort of campaigns we push out to the models we chose and how they were styled. All of this information helps us make more conscious decisions moving forward.
How many per cent of Pomelo’s inventory is part of Purpose?
I don’t have an exact number, but it’s four collections a year, which is about a few hundred pieces. The collection is only one year old, and we plan to expand on that next year. At the beginning, we started with a very small collection of basic items like cotton T-shirts and denim, but as we go on, we started making more wearable, trendier pieces. We want to show the Pomelo girl that you can be sustainable but still wear cool fashion-forward pieces. Our next collection in November is very much centred on festival wear.
But what about the rest of the collection?
We’re investing in being much more sustainable as a company, and not just on the fashion portion. It’s in sustainable practices too. Currently, the Purpose line is made from 100% sustainable materials (According to Pomelo, the fabrics are made from 27,000 recycled plastic bottles from the ocean) but our real goal is to roll that out across all our products eventually.
How we are doing that now is by [taking] baby steps, so the first one is that we have four Purpose collections a year and then by experimenting with those, we are finding new ways to develop things and find new ways to market our brand that are much less, less harmful for the environment that we can eventually roll out across the rest of the collection.
We use Purpose as a way to find out how to do things better by experimenting with recycled materials, using less water in our production process, auditing our factories and partnering with better suppliers. We work with one supplier here in Thailand for cotton who employs only all local women.
As a fast fashion label that has up to 400 new arrivals weekly, how do you intend to handle the excess inventory that doesn’t get sold?
Our real goal in terms of being sustainable in the long run is to get much better at making those decisions upfront [with the data that we have collected] so that we can prevent wastage from the start. In the future, we are looking at finding ways to recycle the excess inventory in-house.
We tend to try not to destroy any product as we believe there is a market for it somewhere. We will sell it through our various promotions or design differently for the different markets. Our goal is to not have to destroy anything.
But is having such a high amount of designs and constantly creating newness to supply the demand? Isn’t that also detrimental to Pomelo’s sustainability efforts? Because it still encourages consumer buying habits.
I mean, you could look at it that way, but the way I would look at is, is that consumers will buy if they want to buy. It’s more about being clever about how we buy things as a business, what we invest inventory on, making sure we really have what the market demands and taking fewer risks with our product.
Expanding our product line is not just about numbers but also about, you know, quality and length and breadth of the assortment. It’s not about introducing 400 new dresses even if we know that is Pomelo’s core product but introducing other categories—like shapewear, lingerie, shoes, swimwear and beauty—that consumers are buying already. We want to be the place where the Pomelo customer would come for that total look.
When customers can expect the whole line to be completely eco-friendly or sustainable?
We’re still in the discovery process right now. I think what we will do as we move into 2020 is to develop a road map that is a bit more public. Also, I think a big thing for us is we need to be able to do it and maintain the price and the quality that our customer is used to and so we are very much in that experimental phase right now.