Our latest Wow Woman is the lovely Allanna McAspurn, an entrepreneur, senior advisor in sustainability, advisor and keynote speaker in ethical fashion, innovation and sustainability.
Allanna has worked with large volume fashion retailers and luxury brands on baselining sustainability and setting strategies to continuously improve. Her deep content knowledge of social and environmental issues across the business and supply chains has led to advising at governmental, OECD and UN level and she regularly speaks at international conferences and to the media.
What makes this Wow Women interview so exciting is that we are currently working with Allana to streamline the ethical supply chain and good practice of Asquith so we can continue to be leaders in sustainable and ethical yoga clothes.
Allanna has also been critical in creating ground breaking tools for the industry including the MADE-BY wet processing benchmark and MODE-Tracker, a tool which benchmarks a brand’s social and environmental performance across the 8 key areas of social and environmental performance, providing a clear roadmap on how to improve and create ethical fashion and processes.
How did you get started in your career and when did you realise that tackling sustainability in fashion businesses was such an important challenge to take on?
I came from this idea that clothing made ethically can be beautiful and could have mainstream appeal. My journey started when I was an academic teaching advertising. I took a sabbatical to set up an adult education programme for Tibetan refugees and came across a fashion designer who was training Tibetans to become tailors. I thought this was an excellent enterprise, I loved the concept and the product so I ended up setting up a distribution company and selling the product in Europe. I got pushback originally by buyers because it wasn’t created in a regular factory they thought it would be inferior and ethical fashion was a niche ‘hippy’ trend at that point so it set me on a mission to find like minded people.
In 2004 I met three amazing women and together we founded the Ethical Fashion Forum including Tamsin Lejeune who still runs it to this day. Our vision was to create a platform for brands and show that beautiful clothing can be ethical. Later I became Head of Clothing for the UK’s largest green retailer and slowly began supporting more and more businesses. In 2009 I was approached to set up the UK arm of MADE-BY and then 3 years later became the CEO.
Tell us some more about your work with the UN.
As part of the Ethical Fashion Forum we were involved in several UN projects in Africa and since then I have spoken at the UN on Ethical Fashion which was very rewarding.
What are the issues you are most concerned with right now and what can individuals do to play our part?
Landfill is a big issue, the disposability of clothes and the amount of water used throughout the lifecycle of a product particularly for cotton is very intense. Consumers can play their part in making informed choices, asking questions about where and how their garments were made and buying products that they plan to take care of and keep for a long time. It’s also important to think about the frequency they wash things and the temperature.
Tell us your favourite environmentally and sustainable businesses and why you are inspired by them?
I think the brand Eileen Fisher does a great job at communicating their journey of sustainability openly and honestly. Their website shows the story of some of their more innovative fabrics like Bluesign Silk. They have done a lot to trace every supplier and sub-supplier though their supply chain and have set ambitious targets for the future. They also have projects related to each stage of the lifecycle including the post consumer phase with a credible take back scheme where they take back old clothing, mend and revitalise the garments and then sell them again.
What environmental innovations are you most excited about?
I’m more excited about digital innovation and how that will create a positive environmental impact. For example full digitisation of the supply chain. To get full visibility of the supply chain and get this level of control we will probably need to use Blockchain which is an exciting innovation and will hopefully also lead to a better balance within the process. Unfortunately there are barriers to its implementation and this is one of the key challenges with sustainability strategy, how to move forwards and make a real impactful progress in a holistic way.
What are 5 simple steps any business should take to ensure they are doing their part in tackling sustainable and environmental issues?
- Inform yourself on the key social and environmental impacts of your product and business, either by going on a course, reading or seeking expert advice from a consultant
- Know your supply chain. Understand the key social and environmental issues that are relevant to the making of your product and work with your suppliers to minimise them.
- Think about every aspect of your business and create a bold strategy for improving efficiency and reducing impact.
- Decide on what is important to tackle for your brand and focus on that first. For example, if you have a childrenswear brand, being clear that there is no child labour in your supply chain and ensuring that you are using ecological materials are probably important to you and your consumer, more so than say carbon impact or water stewardship. Good brands want to tackle everything but you have to do it step by step.
- Make sure your communication to consumers is truthful and in line with what you are actually doing. Some brands exaggerate their claims, some do quite a bit but are afraid to talk about it in case the spotlight is put on them.
If you were to describe sustainability in three words what would they be?
Balance Future Innovation
What was your dream job when you were younger? Did you ever think you would start your own business?
I was obsessed with travelling the world and becoming a TV researcher which is quite funny considering I didn’t travel further than Calais with my family and I didn’t have a TV for large chunks of my childhood! I always had lots of jobs, babysitting, newspaper rounds, waitressing etc so having my own money and being independent was very important to me. I took a year off before university, worked and travelled around Europe which made me realise that I wanted to find a job that served my passions and I realised that working for myself would enable me to do that. However, I have worked for larger corporations along the way and I really enjoy working inside other people’s companies and helping them to solve problems.
How do you ensure you always stay true to your core?
I am clear about my values. I am often working inside big companies tackling difficult issues – sustainability is not black and white, there are no good companies and no bad companies they are all working in a spectrum of grey. Any company willing to make progress, I am happy to work with, but I go in making it clear that I’m there to make improvements and act as a critical friend.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The variety. I love speaking engagements, strategic planning with key decision makers, travel, forming strong trusted relationships with clients and most of all raising awareness of the issues and then seeing the brand really take the issues on board and tackle them. I’m also loving my new start up which is supporting women who travel for business.
What is your proudest career moment so far?
The 10 year anniversary event for MADE-BY was a big one, as well as launching the sustainability tool MODE-Tracker which took over three years to develop, with prestigious brands like Ted Baker and G-Star.
What would you say to young women who want to start their own business?
Go for it if you think you’re ready but also consider working inside other (value driven, well run) companies first and get to know how various parts of a business work. Look for inspiration from successful entrepreneurs, go to talks and network!
What’s the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Take your work seriously but yourself lightly
Everyone practices yoga or Pilates for different reasons. When did you start and why?
In 2001 I was in the Indian Himalaya for 6 months and it was difficult to go running and do my normal stuff that’s when I met Vijay who has an Ashtanga school up there and I started to go 5 days a week. Unfortunately I didn’t keep it up when I got back and I’ve only started a regular practice in the last two years. I do 10 mins every morning as a kind of stretch after meditation.
Favourite yoga or Pilates pose and why?
Downward dog clears my head makes me feel energised
Mindfulness or Meditation?
What do you do in your downtime?
Read, walk in the park, hang out with my toddler.
Where do you go to ground yourself?
Take deep breaths and meditate
What are your favourite London hotspots?
British Library, The Wolseley, Regents Park
Where is your favourite place in the world?
Regents Park, it’s my home and close to everything I want and need.
What are three things you can’t live without?
Earplugs, tea, passport
What is your quote of the day every day?
I set an intention each day normally just one or two words, like compassion, focus, energy etc. An ongoing one would be – ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway.’
What is your single piece of advice to the next generation of women?
Support each other, take care of your mental and physical health and try to figure out what brings you peace and joy and move in the direction of that.
Who is your ‘Wow Woman’?
I can’t pick – I am equally wowed by Maya Angelou’s sage advice and have been a student of Pema Chodron an American Buddhist nun for many years. I love the way she translates Tibetan Buddhism for a western audience.
If you could only live in one item of Asquith clothing what would it be?
Harem pants in charcoal – love love love – so comfortable, so versatile