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More than a trend: how Lithuanian brands contribute to sustainability in fashion

More than a trend: how Lithuanian brands contribute to sustainability in fashion

In a world battling climate change, rising environmental concerns have spurred the fashion industry to embrace sustainable practices. And when it comes to sustainability in fashion, Lithuanian brands do not simply keep up with the trend – they often lead the pack. Changemaker companies such as Vinted and Utenos Trikotažas are pioneering solutions that reduce the vast environmental impact of fashion, making it more ethical and sustainable. Here is how.

Good clothes should live longer

The fashion industry is one of the largest polluters in the world. Much of its negative environmental impact is due to clothing overproduction, which generates millions of tonnes of textile waste each year. Besides filling up landfills, the fashion industry also accounts for 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions, consuming more energy than the aviation and shipping industries combined.

As the fashion business comes under growing scrutiny for these unsustainable practices, many consumers are looking to adopt a slower approach to fast fashion. This is where Lithuanian tech company Vinted comes in – its second-hand fashion platform allows people to sell items they no longer wear, extending their lifetime.

Vinted was born in 2008, when its co-founder Milda Mitkutė found herself moving to a small apartment with too many clothes in tow. To give them away, she asked a friend to help her build a website. What started as a modest project turned into Europe’s leading online peer-to-peer fashion platform with over 100M members across 20 markets and around 800M items listed on its sites over 2022.

According to Marianne Gybels, Senior Director of Sustainability at Vinted, making second-hand items customers’ first choice is at the heart of Vinted’s mission “Since Vinted’s inception 15 years ago, we have been making second-hand easy to access and good value for everyone. This helps people to transition to more sustainable ways of consuming, ” says Marianne.

This positive impact is backed up by data. In March 2023, Vinted published its first Climate Change Impact Report, in partnership with carbon-tracking platform Vaayu Tech. Insights from over 350,000 Vinted users and the detailed delivery footprints of over half a billion transactions were used to create the largest-ever primary dataset on the climate impact of shopping second-hand online and at scale.

 “The report confirmed that buying second-hand on Vinted is a better choice for the climate than buying new,” Marianne explains. “We found that on average, shopping for second-hand fashion on our platform saves 1.8 kg of CO₂ emissions per item. The report also revealed that 20% of buyers choose Vinted because they are motivated by environmental and social issues, highlighting consumers’ increasing awareness of the impact of their purchases.”

In a world that is falling ever deeper in love with pre-loved fashion, Vinted has become a popular and trusted way to buy and sell things for millions. Backed by some of the world’s leading VC firms, including Accel, Lightspeed, EQT Growth and Insight Partners, the company became Lithuania’s first billion-dollar startup, reaching unicorn status back in 2019.

Clean production at industrial level

Another Lithuanian frontrunner in sustainable fashion is Utenos Trikotažas. Over the past decade, one of the largest knitwear producers in the region has put sustainability at the focus of its operations, becoming the first garment maker in the world to meet Greenpeace’s strict environmental standards for textile production in 2020.

Jurgita Stankūnienė, Sustainability and Certification Director at Utenos Trikotažas, explains that the Greenpeace Global Textile Procurement Standard covers a wide range of environmental and social responsibility requirements, from using organically farmed natural fibres and non-toxic chemicals to fair pay and absolute transparency in production processes. All of this is ensured by stringent testing. “The Greenpeace standard required us to test the wastewater produced after bleaching, dyeing, washing, and printing the cotton. We had to make sure to avoid hazardous chemical use and contamination across the entire production chain, from processing raw materials to dyeing and printing and, finally, to sewing and packaging,” says Jurgita.

But becoming a Greenpeace standard-conforming company is not a one and done deal, and Utenos Trikotažas continues to demonstrate its commitments to sustainability.

“No certification is granted indefinitely, and we continuously put in the effort to prove that we meet the criteria,” says Jurgita. “We don’t choose the easiest paths and often set higher standards than the regulatory authorities demand. For example, we are one of the few vertically integrated – that is, carrying out all production processes under one roof – manufacturers globally that hold the strictest Social Accountability Standard SA8000.”

In addition to making ready-to-wear garments under its own label, Utenos Trikotažas also supplies international brands with textiles. Jurgita says that most of the company’s export customers consider sustainability among the top three criteria when planning new clothing collections, which is evident from their significant interest in innovative materials made from organic fibres such as soy, milk protein, and seaweed.

“We’ve started calculating the CO₂ emissions associated with the materials we manufacture. And when it comes to developing new manufacturing technologies, our focus is currently on synthetics – fabrics that are widely used but have not been very climate-friendly up until now,” the company’s Sustainability and Certification Director explains.

Yet according to Jurgita, Utenos Trikotažas is particularly proud of its innovations in wool. The fabric world is experiencing a wool renaissance, she says, and Utenos Trikotažas is actively transitioning from cotton to wool as a more sustainable choice for textile making: “Compared to cotton, wool fibres require significantly less energy and water to produce. Wool is also biodegradable, easily recyclable, and very versatile. With decades of experience in knitwear production, we have been able to develop wool blends suitable even for underwear production.”

Funding sustainable fashion

The sustainable fashion movement is penetrating the technology sector, too. With more and more environmentally-conscious fashion startups springing up, investors are paying attention – a growing number of VC funds choose to back innovators that are looking to create more ethical production processes, more sustainable materials, and better fashion brands for the future.

Among them is &Beyond, a new Lithuania-based fund investing exclusively in sustainable fashion technology businesses in Europe and elsewhere. Among the first such funds in the region, &Beyond believes that when it comes to funding startups, positive impact is as important now as financial returns, says the fund’s co-founder Ieva Zubavičiūtė: “Business as usual doesn’t make sense anymore. So while we assess investment opportunities from the financial standpoint, the impact perspective is equally decisive. However, it is easy to spot trend-driven, opportunistic concepts – that’s why the ambition to solve real problems is important, too.”

Startups that have captured &Beyond’s attention are not always about high technology. Sometimes they are based on the oldest crafts in the world – like the Lithuanian sustainable fashion brand The Knotty Ones, in which &Beyond’s co-founders have invested even prior to the official launch of the fund. Specialising in luxury knitwear crafted by female artisans and garment workers in rural areas of Lithuania, The Knotty Ones not only produces sustainable clothing, but also empowers less privileged women.

“The Knotty Ones takes sustainability seriously and has a fantastic socially responsible approach to business. Already a 90% export business, it is a great example of impact-meets- growth potential,” says Ieva.

Generating a million-dollar turnover, The Knotty Ones continues to grow rapidly in its core market, the US. There, its brand ambassadors include a number of Hollywood stars such as Hilary Duff and Nicola Peltz Beckham. And Lithuania is likely to witness more such success cases – as new specialised VC opportunities emerge and the local startup sector continues to produce sustainable fashion success stories, the country will carry on doing its part to change the fashion industry for the better.