UK Collaborations in Sustainability: Clarks Originals Goes Fair Trade

Earlier this month, Clarks’ Originals (a shoe company) and Thistle & Broom (a luxury fair trade retailer) released a limited edition take on Clarks’ ubiquitous Desert Boot featuring a hand-knit shoe ‘cuff’ reminiscent of an Arran jumper. The idea came from Clarks Originals’ Range Manager Rosie Macgregor, herself a Scot from St.Andrews. “Clarks has always stood for excellence in design and craftsmanship, and we’ve recently seen a huge resurgence of interest in hand-crafted products across the industry more generally. For the Clarks Originals consumer, this has a particular resonance not only as a key fashion look, but as a statement of creativity and individuality,” said Macgregor.

Thistle & Broom is an Edinburgh-based luxury commerce initiative based on the Fair Trade model. It focused on preserving Scotland’s traditional heritage and skills. 66% of the retail price of the company’s offerings is paid directly to the artisans actually producing the product, thus positively impacting Scotland’s rural economies.

Thistle & Broom blind sampled prototypes to Clarks to ensure that there was no bias to geographic origin or company. Theresa Fritschi, Managing Director of Thistle & Broom explained that the line was sustainable due to the fact that they use, “Soil Association and Certified Organic fleece from Ardalanish Farms and Weavers on the Isle of Mull, sent off to the UNESCO World Heritage Site at New Lanark to be spun and plyed using 19th machinery and processed without chemicals thus maintaining the organic status of the yarn.” She emphasized that this alone would be enough to earn the sustainable moniker but tells me that it is, “equally important is how this collaboration serves to provide a rather higher profile for ensuring the continuation of traditional skills in Britain, at once with paying above market wages for the work involved.”

The effort to produce the limited edition of 1200 pairs involved 35 hand-knitters living across Scotland from Caithness to Inverness, Fife to Kelso with a combined experience of more than 973 years!  Clarks went one step further in framing the importance of their collaboration with Thistle & Broom in hiring Glasgow-based portrait photographer Iain Clark, whose work can be found in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, to capture the knitters’ images.

“There is a creative energy found in every aspect of this collaboration that I believe owners of the boot will intuitively ‘feel’ even in absence of intellectually understanding what sets their new footwear apart from the girl next door,” said Teresa Fritschi.  “Our efforts focus upon creating economic opportunities for traditional skills through a new business paradigm which combines the best aspects of the luxury goods market and the eco-friendly/Fair Trade/sustainability one. Working with Clarks, a 186-year old British firm with a devoted, global customer base, meant we could have a more immediate positive impact both economically and in raising the profile of the Scottish firms and individuals with whom we chose to do business.”

I had a chance to speak to one of the knitters who has been knitting for over 60 years and she said that she loved working on the project that was putting “Scotland’s hand craft back to the fore again.”  The Desert Boot is an iconic piece of footwear worn by icons from Steve McQueen, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Raconteurs,  Florence Welch and the Arctic Monkeys and it is nice to see it getting a new revival through sustainability.

Photo: The limited edition take on Clarks ubiquitous Desert Boot featuring a hand-knit shoe ‘cuff’ reminiscent of an Arran jumper by Thistle & Broom.

Many thanks to Amber Wood of Yellow Door and Theresa Fritschi, Thistle & Broom for their time and patience .

Akhila is the Founding Director of GreenDen Consultancy which is dedicated to offering business analysis, reporting and marketing solutions powered by sustainability and social responsibility. Based in the US, Europe, and India, the GreenDen's consultants share the best practices and innovation from around the globe to achieve real results. She has previously written about CSR and ethical consumption for Justmeans and hopes to put a fresh spin on things for this column. As an IEMA certified CSR practitioner, she hopes to highlight a new way of doing business. She believes that consumers have the immense power to change 'business as usual' through their choices. She is a Graduate in Molecular Biology from the University of Glasgow, UK and in Environmental Management and Law. In her free-time she is a voracious reader and enjoys photography, yoga, travelling and the great outdoors. She can be contacted via Twitter @aksvi and also