We recently had the pleasure of catching up with Anneli Hallik, founder of UK-based sustainable activewear brand, nuud activewear.
In an explosive fast fashion market that continually exploits people and the environment, finding sustainable solutions is by no means a straightforward task. Still, Anneli has unequivocally risen to the challenge, addressing some of the most complex environmental and ethical issues surrounding the activewear industry today.
Join us as we learn about Anneli’s incredible journey, her impressively scrupulous and comprehensive approach to sustainable fashion, and her exciting plans for nuud activewear.
Interview With nuud activewear Founder, Anneli Hallik
Hi Anneli, it’s so great to connect with you! Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
Hi! I’m originally from Tallinn, Estonia and I have been living in London for 7 years now. I have worked in the fashion industry for nearly 10 years, working in production, resource and sustainability management for brands including: Agent Provocateur; Boux Avenue; Kylie Minogue at Home; House of Fraser; Karl Lagerfeld; and Vivobarefoot.
My mum worked as a seamstress when I was a kid, my grandmother was a textile chemist and my other grandmother was always knitting or crocheting. Textiles were always around me, and when my mum was sewing something, I used the scraps to make clothes for my dolls. I only learnt how to properly construct and make garments when I went to study it later, but the love for it definitely came from my family.
Working in the fashion industry though, I felt increasingly uneasy with the unsustainable and unethical value chains. I decided to earn a master’s degree in sustainability to gain a deeper understanding of the complex system. I created nuud activewear out of a desire to tackle some of the biggest issues in this industry by designing out waste; treating all stakeholders with respect; encouraging diversity; and empowering women.
I’m also a keen pole dancer and yoga practitioner. I enjoy camping and hiking – even though I have very little time for it at the moment!
So how did the idea of nuud activewear first come about?
When I was doing research for my master’s degree in corporate responsibility and sustainability, I also started creating a business plan for this brand. It all started with finding my main fabric actually; I found this Q-NOVA® and ROICA™ fabric that felt so good that I bought a few metres just for my own use. My research was about challenges and opportunities for fashion SME when implementing sustainability initiatives, so I kind of started thinking how I would do it.
Did your love of pole dancing have a role to play when founding the company?
I discovered pole dance about 5 years ago. I think my story is similar to many others: I used to struggle with my body image. Pole dancing helped me to realise how incredible, strong and beautiful our bodies are, regardless of the shapes and sizes – it’s extremely empowering! Pretty soon after starting my pole dance journey, I had started making some of my clothes myself. So when I officially founded the company, I already had a few initial designs and patterns to work with.
This brand is really born out of my passion for dance and yoga, experience I’ve gained from working in the fashion industry and desire to create a positive impact.
What was it like working at the “fast” side of the fashion industry?
Working in the industry, I experienced it first hand that for most of the companies, profit is much more important than environmental footprint or fair treatment of the stakeholders. The whole fast fashion industry is built on overproduction, exploitation of workers and natural resources, and it has resulted in incredibly negative consequences for the environment and people.
What is nuud activewear’s mission?
nuud activewear aims for complete circularity. We do this by utilising all production offcuts, offering free repairs, and redesigning worn garments into new products. I start small but I aim to create solutions that could be widely used in the fashion industry. At the moment, I’m working on prototypes using scraps from production; these are very time consuming individually tailored products, but I’m constantly thinking how I could simplify and optimise these processes to also make it scalable for manufacturing.
Tell us a bit about what sort of products and styles nuud activewear designs.
We create timeless garments that are designed for longevity; they hug the body in all the right places and allow free movement. Our first collection focuses on pole dancing and yoga but these are suitable for any other activity too: climbing; aerial hoop; hiking; or lounging on the couch.
Let’s go back to basics for those who are not familiar with the environmental implications of fast fashion sportswear; an industry that is currently the second largest polluter in the world. Why is the way a lot of activewear made so bad for the planet?
The fashion industry is an incredibly complex system and it has such a negative impact on both the environment and people working in its supply chains.
What is particular to the activewear industry, is that even if the garments are made from recycled materials, they often lack an end of life solution. Most of the materials are a blend of polyamide, polyester and elastane which cannot be widely recycled. It could be recycled if it was 100% polyester or polyamide but elastane kind of ruins it. The reality is: elastane makes the garments fit better, last longer and potentially prevents returns. Our way of tackling the issue is by taking all of the worn garments back to be either repaired or redesigned.
You describe nuud activewear as a brand that makes “high quality circular clothes”, can you tell us what you mean by that?
By circularity we mean that we take into consideration the whole life cycle of the product: using sustainable recycled materials; fabric suppliers that implement sustainable technologies and have REACH and OEKO-TEX® certifications; utilising production waste; offering repair and redesign; and aiming to keep any product or materials ending up in landfill.
We’ve made the first samples using production scraps, which are now being tested by dancers. For these products I basically deconstructed a pattern so that I could use the smaller irregular shape fabric scraps; there will still be even smaller pieces which require a bit more creativity. I’m working on these prototypes now, and hope to share some of this process soon.
High quality means that we’ve considered each process and material in the product to make a functional garment that will last long. It starts with the choice of materials – including high quality threads that won’t break easily – and design that won’t restrict the body movement. It then continues with the technology used for making garments; for example, double stitching in points of stress on garments where extra strength is needed so as to make the garments look good inside.
The problem of greenwashing in the fashion industry makes it challenging to identify which brands are following slower processes. How can you tell if a brand is sustainable?
It is very difficult! Especially as most of the fast fashion brands also claim to be sustainable; however, in most cases it’s often the work of a very talented marketing team. Genuine sustainability should take into consideration the whole supply chain, not only picking one aspect like sustainable materials. When using better materials but increasing the total production quantities, the negative impact still increases!
Sustainable brands are transparent about their business practices throughout the whole supply chain, and think of product end of life solutions. Plus, they treat their stakeholders with respect.
We’d love to know more about the materials you use to make nuud activewear, and why.
nuud activewear fabrics are soft, opaque, moisture-wicking and breathable – making them perfect for sweating and staying cool.
We only use premium recycled fabrics that are made in Italy. The main fabric is a blend of Q-NOVA® (sustainable polyamide made from more than 50% regenerated pre-consumption waste) and ROICA™ (recycled elastomer, with more than 58% deriving from post-industrial waste), and has GRS (Global Recycled Standard) certification at yarn level. The fabric has STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® certification that verifies that the fabric does not contain and does not release substances harmful to human health.
Our fabric manufacturer holds REACH and OEKO-TEX® certifications and is committed to sustainability by using renewable sources and dyeing technologies that reduce water and energy waste, as well as solar panels across production and administrative sites.
Aside from the natural rubber elastic I source through a wholesaler in the UK, everything else I directly obtain from the factories, meaning that I know who they are and how they work. Ideally I would get all of my supplies from Europe.
What about your threads, elastics and sliders?
Our threads are made in Portugal and are 100% recycled polyester, and have GRS and STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® certifications.
The fold over elastic, which we use on our Strappy Set, is made in Japan. It is 90% Polyester, 10% Polyurethane and has STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® certification. The elastics manufacturer has ISO 14001: 2004 certification for designing and implementing an environmental management system.
Our sliders used on our Strappy Set are sourced from China, made of Zinc Alloy, and have STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® certification. The manufacturer has ISO 9000 certification.
Wow – you’ve really considered every aspect of your garments, including labels and care instructions!
Yes! Our woven brand labels are made in Belgium and are 80% recycled polyester, 20% polyester and have STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® certification.
The care instructions are heat printed directly on the fabric in Estonia. The ink is produced in Japan and has a ECO PASSPORT by OEKO-TEX® certification which verifies that there is no harmful effect on the human and environmental health of the textiles treated or finished with the certified product.
Sadly, a 2019 Clean Clothes Campaign report found that the average wages in the garment industry are “2-5 times less than the amount a worker and her family would need to live with dignity.” How does nuud activewear work towards ethical manufacturing?
I spent quite a lot of time looking for a manufacturer who would be based in Europe, work with small order quantities and have ethical business practices. I was lucky to get a recommendation from my coursemate who used to work at this company in Estonia; it’s always more trustworthy when people recommend a place even if they don’t work there anymore. I work closely with them to ensure that all people involved have a dignified workplace and are paid fairly.
The global scale of fast fashion production often means we are disconnected from the people who make our clothes. Can you tell us a bit more about nuud activewear employees and the conditions they work in?
There are 14 women working in production such as constructors, technologists, seamstresses and ironers. Employees can choose to start their day between 7-9am and a full day is 8 hours plus 30 minutes for lunch. The rooms are very spacious and are clean and tidy with a dedicated room for lunch breaks.
Synthetic materials are ubiquitous in the fashion industry, with approximately 60% of our clothing made from the stuff! Some brands would argue that synthetics are crucial to apparel performance. Do you think there is a place for them in sustainable fashion?
I think that currently we need a multi-material approach as each fabric has its pros and cons. There are some fabrics made out of natural materials that we’re testing out; but, at the moment our recycled synthetic fabric was the best one we could find for our products.
It is a constant learning process! Until recently, it seemed like a sustainable option to use PET bottles for recycled fabric; however, now we know that these bottles should stay in the food industry. The resources for recycled fabrics should come from other places such as pre and post consumer waste.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of running a sustainable activewear brand?
As a one woman brand things take longer than they would in a bigger company so it really is a slow fashion business! I do pretty much everything myself so it can be quite challenging to be in charge of so many different areas: design; pattern and product development; marketing and PR; and accounting and tax returns. I really enjoy it though, the process as such, and I love learning new things.
What advice would you give someone looking to make more sustainable fashion choices?
My main suggestion is: buy less, use more. If you buy something, make sure that the garment is made well so it will last longer; you can turn the garment inside out and look at the stitches. Also, don’t throw it away if it breaks; there are so many ways to repair things.
Do you think the future is sustainable for the fashion industry?
It is such a complex system influencing so many stakeholders in the value chain. I think a real responsibility lies with governments to place regulations and for companies to adopt responsible business practices. When it comes to consumption a complete shift in the mindset needs to happen; media and social marketing have such a big role to play here as they influence customers to constantly buy new things.
There is so much that can and has to be done to improve the current system; I honestly hope that the future can be sustainable!
Any exciting plans on the horizon?
I’m very excited to launch the upcycled production leftovers collection (working on the name!) soon.
In August, I’ll visit the fabric manufacturer in Milan, Italy, combining holiday and work; I’m very eager to meet them in person and finally see their facilities and new fabric collections. I’ll definitely share details about this on my social media too.
And finally, where can people shop nuud activewear’s fantastic collection?
I’m planning to sell at some dance and yoga events too as people would often like to touch the garments before buying them. So, keep an eye on my social media!