Anya Hindmarch: Fashion Must Shift Towards Circularity

For London Fashion Week, Anya Hindmarch CBE flipped her cult ‘I’m Not A Plastic Bag’ slogan on its head in the name of circularity. We speak to the acclaimed designer to find out more about how the new campaign reflects her changing sustainability priorities.

Anya Hindmarch CBE has long been proving that accessories and activism can go hand in hand. Born out of a fascination with craftsmanship and personalisation, her eponymous label has shown the social impact that fashion can have – from raising money for breast cancer to helping to rehabilitate female prisoners. But her most famous feat of all came not in the form of a high-end handbag but a £5 canvas tote carried by everyone from Keira Knightley to Lily Cole and emblazoned with an unmistakeable message: ‘I’m Not A Plastic Bag.’ 

Created in response to the growing environmental challenge of plastic bags, the reusable tote was made to inspire people to change their everyday actions. In the two years that followed, Sainsbury’s cut the number of carrier bags given away by 58%, saving 13,200 tonnes of virgin plastic. A clear example of how the cultural licence of fashion can be used to promote change, the campaign marked a monumental shift in the public attitude to single-use plastics.

Fast forward 12 years, and the importance of reusing has now become widespread knowledge among both individuals and businesses alike. But as the climate question turns into a crisis, Anya Hindmarch’s priorities have also evolved to reflect the changing times. As the fashion industry begins to wake up to its environmental responsibility, London Fashion Week saw the designer turn her famous slogan its head in the name of circularity. The newly released capsule collection is created from recycled plastic bottles and windshields, preventing surplus plastic from going to waste and declaring so with a proud new slogan: “I am a Plastic Bag.” Anya Hindmarch herself tells us more. 

You were one of the first to raise awareness about the plastic pandemic through your ‘I’m Not A Plastic Bag’ tote. What made you first want to use fashion to advocate against single-use plastics?

I knew that fashion could be a great communicator, and the project reflected this. According to the British Retail Consortium, the consumption of plastic bags in the UK reduced from 10 billion before the project to around 6.1 billion after the project. We worked with Sainsburys for the project, and they saw a 58% reduction in single use plastic bags in just one year. It was a mad project – 80,000 people queued on the opening day in the UK and in Japan, New York and Hong Kong all night. But the ‘noise’ got the message across.

How have your sustainability priorities changed over the last 13 years, since the ‘I’m Not A Plastic Bag tote launched?

At the moment, the conversation is still about reducing, reusing and recycling, but with eight billon tonnes of plastic on this planet it now needs to shift to circularity. How can we keep reusing what us already out there rather than making more? Plastic is in many ways a brilliant material, it’s light, cheap and if not put into landfill, the manufacturing can be less costly to the environment in its manufacturing than plastic alternatives. The real problem is single use – when you throw something away, we need to remember that there is no ‘away.’ These words have rattled around in my head since 2007. We need to find ways to go closed loop and to use this excess plastic again and again. I believe that innovation will be a huge part of solving this problem.

How does the release of the new ‘I Am A Plastic Bag’ line reflect these changes? 

The project is about circularity and recycling old materials into new. We have made an amazing canvas-feel fabric from recycled PET plastic bottles (32 per bag) and then coated it in a recycled PVB (which comes from the plastic in windscreens). It uses leather that is gold standard Leather Working Group Leather which assures traceability and no deforestation. We spent a long time looking at recycled leather and vegan leather, but this had a high PU content. It is hard work and often expensive to make these projects happen; in fact this bag is a work of real combined craftmanship and engineering. It is about progress not perfection, but I hope will encourage other people to reuse existing materials and to keep them out of landfill.

The new bags are made from recycled plastic bottles; do you think reusing materials that are already in existence is key to building a more sustainable future for the fashion industry? 

Yes. It’s about designing processes into the supply chain and creative work that makes sense for the environment. How have you worked to make your supply chain as transparent as possible? I also think it is important for all of us to praise positive actions from others, and not to be scared of not being perfect ourselves. If we all make a small difference that adds up to a lot.

The Anya Hindmarch brand has long been supporting charities – why was it always so important to you to use your business for good?

I have always felt that business is an incredible platform for raising money and awareness. We have done many projects, from The Ever After Garden last December that planted 27,00 illuminated roses and raised £100k for the Royal Marsden to many international breast cancer charity projects when we launched Be a Bag. We also have worked with Blue Sky – a rehabilitation organisation for female offenders – where we set up a workshop inside a prison to help get women back into work, both on the inside and when they leave. We have also employed ex-offenders. I like to be able to use my company to make a difference. 

You have been awarded a CBE for your contribution to the British Fashion industry; what are some of the most important lessons that you have learnt along the way? 

Follow your gut, do what you believe in and don’t give up when you get a no. Passion for product and a good cause resonates and you get there in the end. I am also a big believer in kindness. There is no point trying to do something ‘good’ if you don’t have a happy family, happy team and an inclusive workplace.

So much has changed between the launches of these two parallel campaigns, in 2007 and 2020. What changes do you hope to see in the next 10 years?

I think everyone (including myself) needs to make massive changes in their supply chains in terms of material sourcing recycling efforts and consumer choices. But most of all, we creatives need to offer alternatives that work and that are exciting. Creativity and innovation will be a big part of the solution.

What is one piece of advice that you would give to fashion brands both upcoming and historic, looking to carve out a more sustainable future for the industry?

Start by making one small change and build on that. Mine would be to recycle well – if you saw what went in to landfill and how much can’t be recycled, you would behave differently. If you had to bury all the stuff you consume that can’t be recycled in your garden, you would stop acquiring so much stuff really quickly. At the moment, as soon as it is out of sight then it is out of mind. This is why we are closing our London Stores over fashion week and filling them with 90,000 used water bottles – the amount we consume worldwide in six seconds. I want to connect people to how bleak this reality is so that they change the way they behave.