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Carbon-Negative Knitwear: Sheep Inc.

At a time when many brands are vying to carve out their space in a more sustainable future, we spoke to Edzard van der Wyck, co-founder of Sheep Inc., on driving change and founding a brand with sustainability at its core. On what inspired the founding of a carbon-negative knitwear brand just over a year-ago, Edzard said he, and co-founder Michael Wessely, first asked asked themselves, in the current environment “how do we justify setting up a fashion business?” Their answer: Sheep Inc., a brand with product, transparency and sustainability at its core. Knowing the impact fashion can have on the wider production industry and the cultural conversations it can provoke, the founders wanted to create a product that could stand alone in terms of quality. But, still had sustainability woven into every step of the production cycle; from farm; to finished article; to its wearer.

Looking at the forefront of innovation in sustainable production, Sheep Inc. began to look at regenerative farming efforts in New Zealand, where farmers are establishing methods to naturally sequesters carbon, making the wool they produce very sustainable to use. While keeping product paramount, the founders landed on merino wool, “natures technical material”. With its thermo-regulating properties, the fact it does not retain odour and is naturally stain repellent, merino wool was a choice that fostered quality and sustainability in equal measure.

Partnering with three sustainable farms in New Zealand, the founders then set about creating a product that was as sustainable in its function as its form. They settled on the long-loved wardrobe staple: the crewneck sweater. Classic in cut and versatile to style, Sheep Inc.’s merino-crewneck has sustainability in-built “because of its permeance” in any wardrobe, Edzard says.

A question the founders often face is why the wool is not produced here, in Britain. The answer is three-fold; it is much harder to breed the same quality of merino wool in the UK; regenerative farming efforts are not as advanced; and the CO2 emissions resulting from the product journey are vastly outweighed by farming. There is a common misconception that transporting the merino wool from New Zealand might offset some of the carbon sequestering achieved through its production. While the brand continues to look at decreasing its carbon footprint across the production cycle, transport accounts for a much smaller proportion of the overall carbon emissions relative to conventional farming, accounting for an estimated 0.56kg of CO2 emission pa for the brand.

Knowing the customer also has an important role in propelling the shift to sustainability. The founders have created some ingenious ways of connecting the wearers of Sheep Inc. to its sustainable production cycle. With every purchase of a beanie, cardigan or crewneck, the customer is “adopting a sheep” on the farm (one of our personal favourites, a sheep called T.Andromedon). The brand also invests 5% of each sale into global biodiversity projects, broadening Sheep Inc.’s sustainability efforts beyond the sustainable suppliers and regenerative farms they work with.

“This not only creates a sense of narrative and story-telling” beyond the garment itself, says Edzard, but is something customers really engage with. Any Sheep Inc. purchase is followed-up with a story of the garment and updates from the farm. There is a small NFC tag on the hem of each garment, detailing the provenance of the product, product journey, carbon footprint and you can even track your adopted sheep on its farm. While the brand has enjoyed explosive growth since its founding and through the pandemic, this is just the beginning. When asked if he could dress anyone in their collections, dead or alive?, Edzard said he’d pick “someone like The Rock, who could really champion the brand to bring attention to what’s happening to drive change in the industry” – Dwayne Johnson, here’s your official Sheep Inc. endorsement!

Orla Lavery

Orla is a London-based fashion, arts and culture journalist, with a personal and professional habit in menswear. Having worked in the industry for over 10 years, she now specialises in the fashion business space, consulting to a number of brands on their business strategy and optimising for sustainable, long-term growth.

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