Q&A: Sheep Inc.’s Edzard Van Der Wyk and Mark Maslin

The fast-fashion industry is one of the world’s largest polluters, and has faced tremendous critscism as consumer attitudes and purchasing habits shift towards shopping for planet health. Sheep Inc. has made its mission to not only challenge the current industry standards but go one step further in its attempts to re-define what sustainability means and set new standards for environmental accountability.

Sheep Inc.’s sweaters are made of ZQ-certified, Merino wool and are designed to last a lifetime. What’s more is that you can scan the tag on the hem of the sweaters, each with a unique serial number, and unlock details of your sweaters carbon footprint and manufacturing journey – inclusive of updates of the very sheep the wool originated from. Edzard Van Der Wyck, founder of Sheep Inc. and Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London and a member of Sheep Inc’s Advisory Panel of Climate Scientists and Experts, weigh in on the science surrounding climate change and the undeniable need for brands to do more to repair and restore the environment.

How important is it for emerging brands to factor sustainability into their practices and ethos?

EDZARD: The conversation around sustainability is really picking up, consumer attitudes are changing and people are becoming more aware. The short answer, of course, is that it’s crucial for brands to try to be more sustainable but I think that the big problem, and one of my main concerns, is that ‘sustainability’ has become a blanket term for how you can behave as a business. It gets to a point where it starts to lose its meaning. One of my main reasons for starting my business was to think how can we take sustainability and make it meaningful again? At the moment, the minimum that any business should be doing is having an eco-friendly supply chain and that your set-up is as environmentally friendly as possible, doing the best for the planet should be engrained into the mindset of businesses and brands. We need to be careful not to flaunt our sustainable milestones as if they are a mark of great achievement – don’t get me wrong they are, but it should be the norm.

The science behind sustainability and climate change is often met with critiscism and denial, what is your response to this? 

MARK: I have always had a deep interest in the origins of our species, but it wasn’t until about 15 years ago that I got the opportunity to work in East Africa with great colleagues of mine reconstructing the climate and environment in which our ancestor evolved. As a climatologist my first thought is always what is the climate doing and how is it effecting the landscape and the vegetation of an area – as this will drive the evolution and dispersal of species. The science of climate change is very old with the original defining experiments done 150 years ago; it’s very clear that human produced greenhouse gas emission are causing the Earth to warm up and this is changing our climate and melting our ice sheets.

What inspired you to launch Sheep Inc?

EDZARD: I co-founded a business called Heist, where I first started to see the impact on fashion on the environment and an understanding of how this might affect our future. On top of that I had a son and I started thinking, what do I want to leave behind. I wanted to create something that I was proud of and that would help fix this enormous problem that we’re all facing. The one thing that I really believe in is that people need to think more about where things come from and I am not blaming consumers. Fashion has been such an opaque industry for so many years, so consumers are not used to receiving transparent information because they have never had access to it. With Sheep Inc. I wanted to get people engaging more in the story behind the things that they buy, I want them to pick something up and think. ‘Where did this come from?’ It’s more than just being transparent – getting people involved with the creation and evolution of their sweaters. We have access to a number of farms in New Zealand that meet our sustainable criteria and when people purchase a sweater, they are also adopting a sheep that they can keep track of and receive updates on. This exists as a way to remind people that there is a story behind everything that you buy, it’s a fun experience that engages consumers in that process and will hopefully incite change in purchasing behaviour.

There is a myriad of issues around climate change, what is Sheep Inc trying to tackling?

MARK: Sheep Inc. is trying to tackle two main issues. The first is the reduction of greenhouse emissions from the production of fashion – many of these are difficult to tackle directly so they are using carbon emission offset schemes which are directly related to their product, which are open and transparent and can be fully verified. The second issue is to tackle the fashion industry itself and to show it that extremely high quality clothing can be produced in a sustainable way and that the fashion industry can lead the way in creating a new awareness and positive relationship with our environment.

How tricky is it to maintain an eco-friendly supply chain, is it something big businesses can do?

EDZARD: Yes, it is tricky, but it is about setting red lines as a business. It is a process to find what is right for you, but you can very quickly eliminate options that don’t meet your criteria and find different and new ways to meet your standards. A great example of this within Sheep Inc. is the tag that you can scan with your phone. That tag is made out of caster beans because we didn’t want to use any virgin plastic anywhere in the sweaters. The problem is, that even though it is a sustainable material it’s really hard to have it laser engraved with all the information, but this had never been done on this material before. Figuring out material alternatives and how we make them do what we want them to do are what we have found most complex and difficult. Sometimes the small details are the trickiest, not just suppliers and manufacturers.

Can you explain Carbon Negativity and how Sheep Inc is inclusive of this?

EDZARD: Carbon neutral is by no means enough and for Sheep Inc. it’s not good enough. The idea with carbon negativity is offsetting more than you produce. This goes hand in hand with making sure you work with the most sustainable supply chain that you can, for Sheep Inc, for example, that means working with farms that are aiming if not hitting carbon neutrality or negativity. We also invest in biodiversity projects around the world that means we are at a minimum offsetting 10x the amount that the creation of the sweater has. We need to allocate part of our earnings to invest in these projects, to do more than just be a sustainable business. Sheep Inc. allocates about 5% of its revenue back in to offsetting – it’s a mind shift that allows us to work in a negative and it’s something that all businesses, whatever stage they are in their journey to sustainability can be doing right now to make a positive change.

The innovation behind Sheep Inc is a promising change to that industry of fashion, do you think that if more businesses adopt this practice that the fashion industry can evoke positive changes and influence?

MARK: At the moment it all seems very negative. At the moment the fashion industry is seen on the same level as the fossil fuel industry – unsustainable, high wastage, fast fashion, throwaway society etc. The new generation of customers are those young people who are regularly going on strike to save the planet. So those companies within the fashion industry that adapted and embrace this new sustainable agenda will survive. Others will just be lost like “Blockbuster”. Please remember one of the most sustainable companies in the world is L’Oreal – so being sustainable and caring about the planet does not mean being less profitable or successful.

What is up next for Sheep Inc.?

EDZARD: Sheep Inc.’s approach to carbon negativity pushes the conversation around sustainability further. What we want to prove is that we have a product that can go toe-to-toe with the fashion houses with a product that is designed for life and that, as a fashion brand, we have a replicable model that shows it is possible to really be sustainable in this industry.

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