Posted: Mon 23rd May 2022
Enterprise Nation has created Plan it with Purpose, a programme to help 20,000 businesses implement sustainable best practices that have a positive impact on the planet, society and the economy.
Through the programme, we like to showcase role models other business owners can relate to. Here, we talk to Ismay Mummery, founder of sustainable childrenswear brand Boy Wonder. Ismay discusses her passion for sustainability and how it lies at the heart of her business.
Before you set up your business, you'd studied fashion design and then you were working in the industry. Was that always the dream?
I'd wanted to be a fashion designer since I was a little girl. It was a long process to get there. I did my degree in Manchester and then moved down south and worked in graphics for a few years. Then I did my master's degree at London College of Fashion and found work in the industry, as a freelancer at various places. Setting up my own business came later.
You've always wanted your own business. Now you're some way into it, has it met the expectations you had at the beginning?
Well, I'm not rolling in money yet, which I hoped I would be! I've worked for myself for over 10 years now. Both my parents were self-employed, so I knew what it was like in some ways and could anticipate the experience.
I really enjoy the flexibility and having complete control over what I'm doing in terms of my mission and goals. It's my own dream and I don't have anyone else saying, 'Well, I think you should do it like this'. I can really approach things in the way that applies most to what I'm trying to achieve.
Have you considered bringing other people on board?
I'm not there yet. It'll probably be a while. I've had people in to help with various tasks but I'm not ready to take on staff.
Being a sustainable business, I'm not about high profit and high growth. My model is to make just enough money to cover my needs and put a bit of profit back into the business.
That said, it does make it more difficult in terms of trying to get investment. Investors generally want a good return on their income. I'm looking into that at the moment.
Is there a way for a sustainable business to generate lots of profit?
It comes back to how much you're producing. We have enough clothing to clothe nine generations or something ridiculous like that. And kids obviously grow out of things quickly.
So I don't see any kind of model where you're producing massive amounts of product and still being sustainable, because we've got so much stuff already. IKEA said we reached 'peak stuff' a couple of years ago.
In terms of the high profits, generally people who have a very high income are the ones who have the highest carbon footprint. So the more money I have, the more I'm likely to spend it on bigger things, like cars and big houses and stuff like that. That's my philosophy anyway.
Has the landscape of sustainable clothing changed since you first started?
Since I set up about five and a half years ago, I've seen a massive amount of change. It was very niche back then, especially trying to find sustainable fabrics. I wanted to use British-made fabrics as much as I could, so my cotton is knitted in Leicester, the wool comes from Yorkshire. There's so much choice now – it's more mainstream.
At the start, I struggled to get suppliers on board. They didn't really understand what I was doing, why I couldn't just use normal fabric rather than organic. In the end, I found people who did understand me and supported what I was doing.
Because that's very important as well – having an ethical and sustainable supply chain. Much of the fashion industry, particularly the manufacturing side, is still entrenched in the old ways. A lot of manufacturing has literally not changed for hundreds of years.
What are some of the elements that make your clothing sustainable?
Sustainability runs throughout the core of my business. For the product itself, I follow circular design principles. Keeping garments in use for as long as possible, making sure they're made of low-impact materials. And then thinking about the end of life and being able to reuse or recycle them or let them biodegrade.
I only use natural fibres – mixed fibres can't be recycled. Organic cotton is much lower impact than conventional cotton. And because the fabric is knitted in the UK, that has a lower impact too. Plus the garments obviously travel a lot less because all the production is hyperlocal.
In the design, I incorporate extra growth room into the garments. There's extra length in the body and the sleeves. I use digital printing that doesn't use any water, doesn't pre-treat, doesn't steam or wash afterwards. It's really low-impact. That's a big leap from screen printing, which is incredibly wasteful.
Garment care has a really high impact, so each order comes with a repair kit. A lot of clothing ends up in landfill because it's ripped or torn. If you have a garment care guide, you know how to wash the item and keep it looking nice, and how to repair any damage.
And then we have a take-back and resale area on the website to try and keep old garments coming back into use. That gives a lower price-point product for people who can't afford the items brand-new.
Did running a business come easily? Where did you go for support?
Lots of people gave me support. I'm part of Make it British, which is run by a woman called Kate Hills and supports and champions British manufacturing. That's been brilliant because I'm part of a community of people who are doing very similar things and really understand what I'm going through.
Enterprise Nation, Small Business Britain, anything out there that I can find. Because I work on my own, at home, it's quite lonely. I try to have lots of connections and networks so I can reach out to people when I need that bit of advice.
How did you find the Plan it with Purpose tool and how has it helped you?
I found it through Enterprise Nation and going through the tool and its different stages pointed out a few things. It made me look at my shipping – who's doing it and what they're doing in terms of reducing their impact.
It also suggested putting together a wellbeing plan, which is something I hadn't really thought about, because the business is just me. And the tool led me to the climate hub, and some net zero training. I've nearly finished doing that, and it's really, really useful.
Although I know quite a bit about this kind of stuff already, it's really good to dip in and find the things that I might be missing.
Finally, what advice would you give to someone who's thinking about starting a business?
I'd say trust your instincts. I had a lot of advice from people who I thought were experts, which I followed because I figured they knew more than I did. Even when some of it, instinctively, I didn't think was right for me or my business. That ended up costing me quite a lot of money, time and hassle.
So believe in yourself and don't assume other people know more than you. Because it's your journey, your business, you know where you want it to go and what you want it to be.
On the sustainability side, if you're a product-based business, consider what's going to happen to the product at the end of its life. How can you make it last as long as possible? How can you encourage people to reuse it? How can you make sure your customers know how to look after it and care for it and make it last?
Plan it with Purpose
A programme designed to help owners of small and medium-sized businesses develop a better understanding of environmental and social issues in the UK. Visit the Plan it with Purpose hub