Matthew Benjamin is the Founder and CEO of Kapes – a sustainable school uniform brand. After completing an MBA in Luxury Management, Matthew started his career in Fashion and Textiles in 2010, working for the world’s largest custom clothing company. He went on to launch and the run the company’s first office in the Middle East. As he became more aware of fashion’s impact on the environment, he began to wonder: ‘how can fashion be used to help fight the climate crisis?’ and subsequently founded his own bespoke menswear company, with sustainability as a core principle. However, he soon realized that selling luxury suits and shirts to the top 5% of men wasn’t having a big enough impact. Recognizing that most of the sustainability challenges with fast fashion are present in school uniforms, Matthew launched Kapes in 2020 to make sustainable school uniforms more widely available.
It’s great to see sustainability starting to become a bigger topic of conversation and action in international schools. More and more schools have positive initiatives ranging from plastic-free canteens and campuses, to eco-literacy and food waste composting, sustainability audits and carbon offsetting.
But even though school uniforms have one of the highest environmental and social impacts of anything a school does, this issue is still mostly being overlooked. Millions of children around the world are required to wear uniforms to school that have a huge negative impact on the planet and our health.
In short, school uniforms are late to class.
Why isn’t more being done to address the negative impact of school uniforms?
One reason is that information about the environmental impact of school uniforms is not readily available. But we know a lot about the negative impact of the fashion industry in general. Every year, the world produces 100 billion new items of clothing,1 87% of which will end up in a landfill or incinerator.2 Washing synthetic clothing releases microplastics, contributing to 35% of all ocean microplastic pollution.3 And the fashion industry is responsible for 4-8%4 of all greenhouse gas emissions — about the same quantity as the entire economies of France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined.5
School uniforms play a part in this.
The composition and production of school uniforms
Most school uniform items contain fossil-fuel based plastics like virgin polyester and nylon. During their lives, the garments release microplastics when worn and washed, and most end their lives being incinerated (releasing greenhouse gases) or sent to landfill where they will remain for hundreds of years. Like other clothing items, they may also contain toxic chemicals that aren’t good for children’s skin. Although some have a few items made using recycled materials, it is a tiny proportion of total sales.
School uniform supply chains are so opaque that it is often a mystery where the material is sourced, who the products are made by, and whether the workers making them are paid and treated fairly. A report by Action Aid in 2007 laid bare some shocking facts – garment workers making school uniforms were being paid as little as 5p an hour and working 70 hour weeks. This is not uncommon and poor wages are still a stain on the fashion industry today.
Chances are you don’t know any of these things about the uniforms your child is wearing and your uniform supplier may not know either. The reports of forced labour in cotton fields of the Xinjiang region of China for example, where 20% of the world’s cotton and 84% of China’s cotton is produced, remind us of the need for greater due diligence on our supply chains and much greater transparency. Apart from the ethical issues, the lack of transparency, I would argue, is a significant reputational risk for schools. We cannot simply turn a blind eye to these issues.
The business side of school uniforms
The school uniform business is dominated by a few key players in each market, where long-term exclusive contracts are commonplace and buy-back clauses can make switching suppliers a costly decision in the short-term. In some countries revenue sharing arrangements exist between the supplier and the school, leading to a conflict of interest because parents are typically required to purchase from a single designated supplier, rather than being free to choose from several suppliers on the basis of quality and price – or sustainability. Under these conditions, suppliers have no incentive to innovate and put people and planet before profit.
For as long as I can remember this has been the state of school uniforms and the sector.
How is Kapes different?
At Kapes we took the initiative to partner with Green Story to take a deep dive into our supply chain and calculate the environmental impact at each stage. Green Story is a life cycle assessment and communications company that partners with the most progressive brands in fashion, including Pangaia, to help consumers know their true impact.
Based on Green Story’s assessment, we know the environmental savings from our supply chain compared to using an alternative unsustainable material. And we also know the environmental impact of each item we produce, and we offset the carbon emissions. The numbers are astounding:
- compare the benefit of organic cotton over conventional cotton: a school with 1,000 students, each purchasing 3 shirts per year made from organic cotton instead of conventional cotton over a 3-year period (typical length of a supplier contract) would save 1.4 million litres of water;
- and compare the benefit of recycled polyester over virgin polyester under the same purchasing assumptions: it saves emissions equivalent to driving 21,330 km, as well as 44,100 kWh of electricity.
Now extrapolate these findings to all the items of uniform sold each year (perhaps as many as 20,000 items per school) at the 12,853 international schools worldwide and you start to understand the scale of this problem as well as the potential to have a positive impact by making a simple change.
Imagine a world where uniforms are made with sustainable materials and reduced impact on the planet, and the residual emissions are offset by purchasing carbon credits that keep trees in forests and protect animals; where the revenue from the purchase of these credits leads to increased job opportunities in developing communities, and helps to build schools and supply clean water.
What if school uniforms were only made in factories that were ethically certified, that could prove they treat and pay their workers fairly? What if your students could scan a QR code on their uniforms to learn about their garments’ journey and access to virtual workshops about the social and environmental impacts of the fashion industry, to empower them to build a more resilient and sustainable future. And what if, for every child at your school that purchased a sustainable school uniform, a sustainable carbon-neutral uniform was given to a child in need to help reduce absenteeism.
This is exactly the world that we are building at Kapes.
This year we have partnered with Arbor School in Dubai and will also be supplying uniforms for Fairgreen International School in Dubai from the start of the next academic year. Since August 2021 we have saved approximately 928,428 litres of water, 10,191km of driving emissions, 18,779 kWh of energy, the equivalent of 70,298 PET bottles, and offset 31,688kg of CO2.
We’ve also provided over 500 free school uniforms to children at Kirigu Primary School in Kenya and joined forces with Mountain Quests to organize eco-school trips to the REDD+ (Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) project that we support in Kenya.
Last month we closed a seed round with SFC Capital which will allow us to scale our positive impact, and in the year ahead we will plan to supply sustainable school uniforms partner to another 15 schools worldwide who align with our values.
Sustainable school uniforms are a great opportunity for schools to reduce their environmental impact and teach our students to become conscious consumers who make buying decisions based on sustainability.
If you are a forward-thinking and innovative school that is committed to making the world a better place, if you agree that each of us must to do everything that we can to fight the climate crisis, I invite you to be part of this.
To quote one of my favourite authors, Robin Sharma, “Change is hard at first, messy in the middle, and gorgeous at the end”. Now is the time to start making a change in your school uniforms.
1. United Nations Development Programme: https://www.undp.org/blog/six-things-you-didnt-know-about-true-cost-fast-fashion
2. Bio Fashion Tech: https://biofashiontech.com/
3. New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/blog/reduce-laundry-microfiber-pollution/
4. The New Standard Institute: https://www.newstandardinstitute.org/take-action
5. McKinsey & Company: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/fashion-on-climate