For the first in our series of interviews with fashion brands doing things differently, we spoke to Emma Gillespie, founder of Belles and Babes, a maternity and baby clothes rental service for mums across the UK. Belles and Babes offers high quality and ethically made clothes to rent rather than buy for this joyful, but short, period of our lives.
The idea behind the business
Belles and Babes put together either a personalised maternity capsule collection, with items that you can change out at any time depending on your size, tastes and the seasons; or an organic baby clothing subscription tailored to your baby’s gender, age and time of year, from 0 to 2 years. When they grow out of it Belles and Babes send you the next bundle and you send the previous one back, easy!
Being pregnant myself for the second time I can see what a genius idea this is; we go through baby clothes at a rate of knots and it can feel like a full-time job just sorting them out, deciding what you need next and what to do with those you no longer need. Not to mention the space they take up!
Meanwhile, you can get bored very quickly with your maternity clothes, and if you are pregnant (like me) successively at different times of the year, you may well need completely different outfits each time.
If you consider on top of this the waste involved in owning clothes for such a fleeting period, and the cost of buying high quality, ethically made clothes that you won’t need for long, rental makes sense in every way!
Belles and Babes in the press
Sustainably-minded blogs have also recommended them including Eco Age and The Vendeur and they are even featured in a book: The Sustainable(ish) Guide to Green Parenting by Jen Gale. We’ve also featured them on Good Maker Tales in our articles on clothing subscription services and ethical maternity wear.
Before founding her business in baby and maternity clothing, Emma, who is a Chartered Environmentalist with a Masters in Sustainable Development, had an impressive career in environmental management and corporate sustainability.
She is and was driven by “a life-long interest in living self-sufficiently” and a desire to “deliver value to all stakeholders, including society as a whole”. And therein lies one big difference, in my opinion, between those that operate for the social good and those that don’t – who they class as their stakeholders.
As a mum of two herself, it made perfect sense to her to found her own business in baby and maternity clothing rental, and she has grand ambitions to go further, as you can read below:
Firstly, you have a really interesting background working in sustainability management in the corporate world. What made you take the leap into the clothing and fashion world and how many similarities did you find?
It was in my corporate role that I first became really inspired by the idea of the circular economy and keeping resources in the loop for as long as possible.
I suppose it was always a dream to have my own business and I had a list of ideas the length of my arm, so when I was offered voluntary redundancy I saw it as an opportunity, and baby clothing rental just stood out as the most logical business to use the circular economy model.
In terms of similarities, I’d be hard pushed to find any! Being my own boss and making my own decisions is just a world apart from where I was. Although obviously the fashion industry as a whole has a lot of work to do to become more sustainable, but I think that is true of most industries and corporations at the moment.
Lifecycle of products:
I love the idea of the clothing subscription model, especially for such temporary periods of our life such as the maternity and baby period. More than anything it enables us to simplify our lives and rid ourselves of having so much “stuff” that we then have to get rid of after hardly using them! What is the lifetime of your products? How many times can they be used and how do you make sure that their lifecycle is maximised?
It just makes such perfect sense doesn’t it?! That is a great question. We keep an inventory of every single item of stock, and record how many times it has been hired out and for how many months.
But it can be hard to put a figure on these things because some items are rented again and again, and others may come back with stains after the first rental, so it does vary a lot.
Looking at my inventory though, the baby clothes have been rented out an average of 3 times, for 8 months in total, and most of those items are still in circulation so that doesn’t show the full picture yet. I expect maternity clothes to be rented out for a longer amount of time as most items don’t get stained!
To maximise their lifecycle we remove stains, or use lightly stained items for our ‘nursery’ bundles, and repair items where we can. We also debobble everything so that it looks its best when it arrives with the renter, and this makes a huge difference to how ‘tired’ an item can look, as well as being something that really sets us apart – it’s a time-consuming process so I don’t believe many other rental companies would do this (if any).
Finally, I am quite creative and will do anything I can to make the most of these precious resources, so I have started making a slow cooker bag which is stuffed with all of the baby clothes that are too stained or worn to be of any use! I hate the idea of putting them in a recycling bank and not knowing if they will be shipped abroad, so I am doing my best to recycle them myself if possible.
Can you tell us about some of the brand’s sustainability initiatives, apart from the fact that the business model is inherently sustainable, from the packaging to the choice of brands and styles that you work with?
Every single thing that we do, or buy, is a decision with sustainability at its heart. For me, and for Belles and Babes, sustainability isn’t just a buzzword.
Whether it’s looking for packaging, or sourcing clothes, I will always do my research and attempt to find the most sustainable option (within the limits of affordability – because my business has to be sustainable too!).
For the baby clothes, the reason that I decided to only offer organic cotton, is that … I can be sure that the clothing has been produced with the lowest impact on the environment, and that people throughout the supply chain have been paid a fair wage and treated ethically.
For the baby clothes, the reason that I decided to only offer organic cotton, is that whilst ‘organic’ may not be the answer to everything, I can be sure that the clothing has been produced with the lowest impact on the environment, and that people throughout the supply chain have been paid a fair wage and treated ethically. The brands that I use have processes in place to ensure that this is the case, and they care about these issues just as much as I do.
For maternity clothes it’s a lot harder, but I try to find the most sustainable clothes, and when that isn’t possible, clothes that are well designed and good quality so that they will last, and from reputable companies.
A lot of the decisions I make in my personal life spill into Belles and Babes too; for example, our electricity supply is 100% renewable, and we’re looking at getting solar panels too, which will also help to power Belles and Babes.
plans for the future:
Are there any more sustainability/ethical initiatives that you’d like to take up in the future?
It has always been my dream to design and manufacture the clothes myself, and this is something I’m hoping to progress this year.
It is such a minefield trying to choose and source the right fabrics and find a manufacturer who is ethical, but I finally feel that after years of learning which fabrics and styles perform best, I’m in a good position to design something that will last and that my customers will love.
This will really help with the problem of not being able to source good quality, sustainable maternity clothing, particularly that has been designed and ideally manufactured in the UK. I think this is where Belles and Babes can have maximum impact, as it is so core to our business.
learnings for fast fashion:
From your experience showing that ethical and sustainable fashion can be successful, do you think there is one thing that fast fashion brands could easily do to reduce their impact on people, planet and animals?
Another great question! I think the problem at the moment is that many of the big brands just don’t care, and when you get to such a big size there is a disconnect between the individuals who make up the organisation and maybe do care about these things, and the corporate identity as a whole.
As a fashion brand, you can’t just turn a blind eye or hope that your suppliers are doing what they should be doing…
The recent Boohoo scandal revealed the kind of failings that are going on in the fashion industry – and right on our doorstep too.
As a fashion brand, you can’t just turn a blind eye or hope that your suppliers are doing what they should be doing but, if you want to enact a change, you need to lead one. So I think the answer to your question is just to care! And from that position, we can all improve and reduce our impact.
I think the answer to your question is just to care!
It’s not about being perfect, sustainability is a journey, but brands need to fully embrace it, and not just pay it lip-service.
It’s not about being perfect, sustainability is a journey, but brands need to fully embrace it, and not just pay it lip-service. I think what is really inspiring at the moment is the number of small independent brands who are leading the way on the sustainability front, and also the growing awareness that consumers have, and a desire for something better.
Most of my customers choose to rent from Belles and Babes because they are already mindful of what and how much they buy, already choosing to shop second-hand where possible, so they really feel how much of a waste it would be to buy maternity clothes, many of which are cheap and poor quality, and not ethically made.
We hope that you’re as excited as us that Belles and Babes are looking to design and make their own ethical maternity clothes at home in the UK and we wish them the best of luck in this next exciting journey!
Thanks to Emma for taking part in this interview and letting us in on the fascinating and challenging world of running an ethical and sustainable fashion business.
Meanwhile, if you are pregnant and need help finding some beautiful maternity wear, or have a young baby and are tired of rattling through clothes, consider renting them from Belles and Babes. You won’t be sorry you did!
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