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Sustainability, Shopping, and Running an Ethical Business

Roberta Lee Interviews, Sustainability & Ethics Leave a Comment

I’m often asked what does a sustainable fashion future look like Roberta? I get journalists reaching out and asking me questions about consumerism, Ethical Brand Directory and my styling work all the time, and sadly not all of it gets published. So I’ve selected some questions I was asked last year and shared my answers. I hope you enjoy reading them!

Why isn’t shopping sustainably the number one priority for average consumers?

For a lot of people, it’s not a priority because broader issues outside of their everyday routine do not feel relevant to them. It’s easy to forget there is an environmental crisis happening when you walk down Oxford Street in London – there’s not a single message encouraging consumers to buy less, buy better and think about the planet.  Our lives are saturated with the media showing us happiness is a result of buying new things, particularly fashion and beauty brands. We are told that spending money can fix our problems, make us more beautiful and feel happier.


Are we entering a new phase of being an ethical shopaholic?

Like anything in life, it’s possible to get addicted to the feeling associated with repetitive action. For a lot of bloggers and ethical fashion advocates out there, that’s exactly what they’ve done. They’ve replaced the dopamine hit formerly associated with buying something new from the high-street with ‘ethical shopping’ instead. That includes shopping vintage and pre-loved too – it’s easy to get hooked on something and rationalise it because it’s ethical’ or ‘sustainable’.

It’s easy to see how being an ethical shopaholic can manifest though. For bloggers, it’s a thankless task building up your online presence only to be paid in product and not for your time. When starting out you feel excited that you’ve been picked to write a review and been given a free item.

You feel good about your accumulation of new things because you believe the product fitted your criteria for being an ethical purchase. Actually, the more you accept the easier it becomes to rationalise accepting more ‘stuff’. And that right there is the problem, none of us ‘NEED’ new stuff we ‘WANT’ new stuff and we want to be seen in our ethical and sustainable clothes – and tell the world about it.

The challenge we still face though is overconsumption. Dare I say it, that includes ethical shopping too. We should only buy what we need and look at other ways to get our ‘feel good’ hits. I can relate so much, as a former fashion junkie – shopping used to be my cardio, something I’d do if I was bored, a reward, shopping was a destination, buying new items never really involved a truly conscious decision-making process.  I just loved that feeling of having something ‘NEW’.

What should the ‘big brands’ be doing to make it easier for consumers to make an ethical choice?

Transparency is the easiest and scariest thing for the big brands to transition into – but it’s necessary. We have to empower consumers to take responsibility for their actions and purchases, but how can we as a consumer make proactive decisions without sufficient information?

Consumers have a right to know how much clothing production costs and how far each piece of their garment has traveled, who made it and at what environmental cost. I think this should be on the label. Consumers may start to wonder how a T-shirt can be sold for £4 then…

I’d also like to see the company’s adopt the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and show which of the goals they are working towards. Showing progress and targets is really important, unfortunately, we are presented with a lot of greenwashing.

This is why I interview every brand that joins our Ethical Brand Directory. I want to know everything about them.  I also appreciate that not all brands are created equally and we all live by different values. I wanted to have very strict criteria for every brand, but I realised that each brand had their own set of values and mission to do good in the world, if I shoehorned them into ‘my criteria‘ I would miss out on supporting a wide range of brands who are all working towards great causes.

On Ethical Brand Directory we have simple system where a brand is tagged with the values they meet within the EBD list of values, this helps consumers shop and filter by the issues that matter most to them (rather than what matters most to me). Above all else, I wanted Ethical Brand Directory to be inclusive, non-judgemental and a platform for everyone who appreciates style but not at the cost of people and planet, or animals.

What was your motivation to start Ethical Brand Directory?

As stylist and a conscious consumer, I struggled to find brands that were ethical but didn’t compromise on aesthetics. My clients would often ask what brands I recommended, back in 2016 I only knew a handful of brands that met my criteria. So I would spend hours googling only to find the type of clothes you’d expect your mum to have worn at Glastonbury in the 70s.

Don’t get me started on ethical shoes! We have a major gap for an ethical Jimmy Choo, too many ethical shoes are practical and frumpy. As a stylist, I love how clothes can be an extension of your personality and values, so I really wanted to showcase indie ethical brands that were super stylish – not just ethical. My style criteria become simple – would I wear it? Would it work in a capsule collection? Would it pass #100wears? Could my busy clients replace shopping with highstreet retailers and buy from the brands I had selected?

I knew the price point would be a sensitive issue so I didn’t go straight for high-end designer pieces, but simple everyday brands.  It seems to work well having a balance of price points. Every month we get thousands of visitors checking out the brands on the directory.

My mission with Ethical Brand Directory

I want to make it easy for conscious consumers to find the brands that care, and at the same time enable the ethical brand community to thrive. 

Ethical Brand Directory has been navigating the complex processes involved in facilitating the transition of sustainable and ethical consumerism from a nice to the norm since 2017.

We do this through research, making it easy to find ethical brands via our online directory for consumers, and last year we launched the Ethical Brand Academy in beta to help our brands with training and resources to run their businesses. We will launch officially later in 2020.

What are the challenges with running Ethical Brand Directory?


It wasn’t created to be a money-making machine. In fact, it all blew up unexpectedly. It is, however, resource-heavy and requires a lot of time, energy and money to run. As a result, it has dominated my life and left very little room for work-life balance.

In 2017 we had 3 people on the team, by the start of 2019 we had over 21 people who volunteered their time. Sounds great right? It wasn’t though – it was an internal nightmare. We had so many people wanting to volunteer but nobody really rolled their sleeves up and did the work that needed to be done when I needed them most.

After delegating tasks, creating new roles and delivering training – I thought I would be able to step away and focus on growing the business. Instead, I got pulled into the operational side of things and was working 24/7 to pick up the pieces and deliver on the work the volunteers weren’t doing.

By the summer of 2019 I realised that it was no longer possible to run EBD with a volunteer team, despite all the volunteers having the best intentions. It pains me to say it, but I wasted a lot of time training them (they didn’t deliver due to personal issues) and the cycle continued, we kept attracting great people but they all seemed to be unreliable, this went on for about 6-months until it had taken a serious toll on my health.

I had to take a real look at the impact the volunteer team was having on our overall mission – and sadly, the team were holding us back rather than moving us forward. So I had to ask the team to review their contribution and do a self-review which prompted most of them to step down.

We even had to close down our trusted partner’s programme as our partners didn’t deliver on the agreed targets either. It was a really sad moment for me as I had spent so much time building the partnerships from the ground up. It felt like a lot of effort in 2019 for very little reward. So yes, the challenges are very real – and it all comes down to the project being under-resourced and not enough capital to invest in the things we need to scale.

By the start of the last quarter of 2019 – the team was whittled right back to me and 2 interns. And would you believe it – things have been much easier to manage since and we’ve achieved some amazing things as a result, such as our first pop-up at the Spirit of Christmas Fair at London Olympia.

Ethical Brand Directory Pop-Up at Spirt of Christmas 2019

The goal for Ethical Brand Directory in 2020

Right now we are looking for investors and funding options so we can scale our efforts and employ a full-time team. We will launch the updated Ethical Brand Academy later in the year too. I’m just about to welcome a business partner to EBD on a trial basis to manage our digital presence – so that’s exciting and more to be announced on that soon!

I want to return to doing more of my personal styling – and focus on flying the flag for sustainable fashion and promoting the brands on Ethical Brand Directory by increasing my appearances on the TV and in mainstream publications.

This has been adapted from an interview in 2019 with a journalist for a Guardian piece that was never published.

For more information on booking me for TV and live speaking gigs please see my Press Pack Page