Maggie Hewitt is taking her fashion label, Maggie Marilyn, on a bold sustainability journey. She speaks to Melinda Williams about it as part of Britomart's Seven Plans for a Better Planet interview series. 

Melinda Williams: Maggie, you’re shifting from a model that distributed your clothes through wholesalers to a direct-to-consumer model that sells only through your stores and website. Talk me through why you decided to make such a giant change to what was to all appearances a highly successful business model.

Maggie Hewitt: We’d been on a journey for a while of seeing the challenges of educating our customer but not having a direct line of conversation with them because [of] wholesaling internationally. To be honest, we were moving in the direction of wanting to reduce wholesale and increase direct-to-customer for about 18 months, but we really didn’t see ourselves becoming a full direct-to-customer brand.

MW: What does that mean, to educate your customers?

MH: We’ve always tried to be incredibly transparent and vulnerable with our journey and taking the customer on that journey with us. I think that’s built incredible consumer loyalty and brand trust. From on our Instagram being very candid about the challenges we face to being transparent about where our garments come from and how they’re produced, I guess there are lots of different touchpoints for that education. But it’s incredibly challenging to educate a customer on what we actually do as a brand through, say, a department store in Kuwait.

MW: Your flagship store has been open now for six months at Britomart and operating under your new business model – how has it been working out for you?

MH: Anyone who has built a business knows the challenges you face in the early years – there’s a crazy statistic that between 50-60 percent of businesses fail within their first five years, so that’s how challenging things can be. The first six months of Maggie Marilyn were an absolute whirlwind, a dream come true, and then the four years that came after, really sometimes it felt like an uphill battle, Groundhog Day. It’s been challenging and we’ve had our fair share of mistakes made. But in the last six months since we’ve made the shift to say goodbye to our retailers and sell directly to our customers, it’s really been the best decision we could have made. It’s felt liberating, to be honest. And we’re about to launch our new sustainability roadmap. 

MW: What are the key elements of your new plan?

MH: Our first roadmap built us up to the one we’re about to launch, which was really embedded in supply chain transparency. And that seems like something you shouldn’t really get a gold star for, but at the time it didn’t really exist in fashion, for a business to know every single person involved in the chain of making a garment. There was no framework or certifications for that, but we needed to go down that path, to know the farmer, the spinner, the weaver, the dyer, right up the chain. So with that in place, it’s really exciting to build this new strategy based on circularity and regeneration.

MW: Could you explain what circularity means in specific terms for your business? 

MH: So, circularity – we live on a planet with finite resources and our economy is based on a very linear model, but the way nature is designed is much more circular. In the fashion industry, what we take from our resources we give back, so ultimately nothing ends up in landfill. And we have a plan to make a regenerative impact. I think that’s a key element – our planet is so sick that it’s not enough to be circular, we have to actually give back. 

Within our business, we are opening up a take-back scheme, so that people can bring back product that’s designed to be recycled or composted so there’s an end-of-life solution. For, us, it’s about taking full accountability for every product we put out into the world, making sure that there is an end-of-life solution instead of acting like once it’s in the customer’s hands, it’s no longer our responsibility. And with our Forever line, those more special pieces that are produced in limited runs, we have a free repairs scheme and sell repair kits on our website.

MW: And the regeneration aspect? 

MH: So our goal there is to transition all our raw materials to be sourced from regeneratively farmed sources. Primarily we’re talking about cotton and merino, which are the two main fibres that we use. We’ve already made exciting headway with a farm in the South Island that’s farming in a regenerative way and a farm in Queensland that is producing the first carbon-negative cotton in the world. So, we want to give back more than we take, and the simplest way to measure that is through carbon. We’ve been measuring our carbon for the last two years, working with Toitū carbonzero to be certified. The first year was about measuring and the second year was about reducing, which we did by 30 percent. The goal is working down through our supply chain and working with our suppliers to sequester more carbon through regenerative agriculture projects on those farms, increasing biodiversity and increasing soil health.

MW: One aspect that is really important to your social sustainability model is community events. 

MH: Yes! Something we were tabling as a team was that we do really beautiful events for product launches, but what if we heroed our sustainability work in the same way? So we decided that instead of just putting this roadmap on our website, let’s start a discussion in our community and find out what other like-minded businesses are doing and where the parallels are and how we can work together. We realise that as one business we can’t solve all the massive changes that our society faces so we need collaboration. As a brand, we feel like so much of our power comes from being a conduit for connection, bringing like-minded individuals together and creating community. At the end of the day, as humans, that’s what we crave the most. 

Illustration by Lucy Han

Below: Maggie Hewitt, founder of the Maggie Marilyn label, sources merino from a South Island farm that works according to regenerative principles. Photograph by Jordan Stent of Motion Sickness.