An interview with Edzard van der Wyck, an entrepreneur challenging the standards of what fashion can do to be more sustainable.
1. Where did the idea for Sheep Inc. come from?
I started becoming aware of the impact that fashion has on the environment when I launched my previous business, Heist Studios. That, combined with the birth of my son, made me question what kind of legacy I wanted to leave behind. So, I left my business to set up Sheep Inc. with the idea of creating a new model for how a fashion business could behave. The aim was to create beautiful products, whilst still addressing the climate emergency. I also decided that I wanted to bring awareness and behaviour change to how people shop for fashion.
Our starting point was making a product that would last for life. One of the biggest impacts on the environment is that people don’t wear their clothes enough. Either because they feel they have passed their fashion sale by date, or because the quality just isn’t good enough for it to last.
So, we set out to design a classic wardrobe staple, the crew neck sweater, with the aim of slowly perfecting it. That meant making sure it felt amazing to wear, would be incredibly long-lasting and used materials with minimal impact on the environment. We chose a special blend of Merino wool that has all the softness of cashmere, with all the technical benefits of wool. Meaning it is heat regulating and doesn’t need to be washed often as it naturally repels dirt and doesn’t hold moisture or odours. On top of that, it’s 100 per cent biodegradable. We call it designed for life.
2. What was your background prior to this, and how did that shape your work for Sheep Inc.?
Prior to Sheep Inc., I set up a business called Heist Studios and worked as a creative producer in the film industry – working on a mixture of commercial and art projects. The way my initial career shaped my two businesses, is that it was all about storytelling. I believe that creating a compelling story about what you do is a crucial part of getting businesses to work.
3. What change does Sheep Inc. want to facilitate?
We want Sheep Inc. to change business behaviour — to have businesses challenge what they can do to be more sustainable. Our model of offsetting more CO2 than we create is something any fashion business can do if they dedicate enough financial resources. However, offsetting is not the solution. It is one of the steps in a long, continuous journey to improve how sustainable we are. With our view being that businesses should eventually not only be carbon neutral but also carbon-negative.
Secondly, through our sheep adoption concept, we want people to think more about the impact of the things they buy. So that when they pick up an item from the store, their first thought is: “where did this start and what was the journey it took to get there?.”
4. Through your work, are you seeing a genuine paradigm shift in businesses towards positive change?
I was hugely encouraged when both Microsoft and Sky announced last month that they were going carbon negative. To see companies committing to having a net positive effect on the environment is promising. In Microsoft’s case, they even committed to offsetting all their historical emissions. If companies, with the vast resources and visibility that these have, make those commitments it will hopefully lead other businesses to follow.
5. What has been your proudest moment thus far?
I am constantly proud of the positive response we receive from the market and our customers. They really engage with our mission and what we’re trying to do. In addition, maybe a slightly weird thing to be proud of is how much we are interrogated on what we do. People are becoming more interested in knowing which companies are actually behaving positively and which are using sustainability for greenwashing purposes.
6. How do we cope with the idea that to be in business means we are polluters and hurting the planet?
There has been a lot of talk about carbon-neutrality as the solution, but our position is that it doesn’t push things far enough. If we want to reduce the climate crisis, we need businesses to have a regenerative effect on the environment, to become carbon-negative.
First of all, we make sure that we are working with suppliers that are as sustainable as possible — e.g. naturally carbon-neutral (and negative) farms and manufacturers that run on 100 per cent renewable energy. Then, we invest 5 per cent of our revenue in biodiversity projects that offset our remaining CO2 footprint.
Finally, there was this crucial question about how you get customers to reconnect and become aware of the impact behind everything they buy. That meant making people part of the story, not just presenting information to them about what they buy. So, what we do, is to have every sweater come with its own sheep included.
When you buy a sweater you adopt a real-life sheep in New Zealand. You get updates on how the sheep is doing, such as its whereabouts and whether it’s had lambs. It’s our way of bringing customers back in touch.
7. What is one book (podcast series etc) you’ve recently read that has inspired you that you recommend?
I would like to recommend two books that I recently read and thought were excellent. The first was Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There by Rutger Bregman (a fellow Dutchman). It makes a profound case for a total shift in how we reward businesses (tax and otherwise) and general societal attitudes. Focusing on issues like universal basic income and rewarding the jobs that bring actual value to society (nurses, teachers etc.) rather than jobs that ‘simply’ move money and wealth around.
The second book I loved was Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson. As the name suggests, it’s about how Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke made 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a fascinating insight into the creative process and the genius of the people involved in creating the film. Like setting up Sheep Inc., it shows the long journey and pains of creating something that you hope will have a meaningful impact!
8. Who inspires you?
The school kids all around the world that have been striking for the climate crisis and fighting for their future. It both inspires me and makes me profoundly sad that they are the ones who have to drive so much of the conversation around change.
9. Do you have any other thoughts or wise words for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Challenge standards. Whether that means how to manufacture more sustainably, or how you behave as a business. Don’t settle for standard. Try to push boundaries!
19th April 2020