“Boden is not perfect but we are trying to do the right thing – not talking about sustainability is a bigger problem”
Ben Dreyer, Boden’s Strategy, Sustainability and Operations Director, has been with the clothing retailer – which sells primarily online, through mail order and catalogue – for over 25 years. He has helped grow the business from a £10 million to £350 million company...
This year’s IRX & eDX – taking place on 24th & 25th May at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham – will be Ben’s first. He will be on stage a couple of times. There’s a fireside chat titled Growing from a small to medium-sized business while staying true to your values. And he will also appear on a panel session, The conscious consumer: encouraging consumers to make informed choices.
Here, Ben shares some insights he will be discussing at the event. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You have been with Boden since February 1998 – what have been the biggest successes?
When I joined, Boden was a £10 million company growing at 60% yearly. Keeping the whole thing together was like holding wild horses. We only started generating profit when we reached medium-sized company status. At that point, you can begin to make longer-term decisions.
The most significant success is that we have kept our focus on a core customer –. As we have entered other markets, we have remained tried to find that same customer in Germany and the United States, now our biggest market. This has reduced the complexity of the business – one customer, one range, in creative treatment.
Q: In light of the above, what advice would you give to retailers looking to expand into new markets overseas?
In my 25 years at Boden, I’ve learnt not to complicate things unnecessarily. For example, thinking “we can get a few sales here or there” can be tempting as a business grows. But suddenly, you have a complex model, and if you are not careful, you are spending a lot of extra time making IT, accounting, and the legal side all work. Instead, you want to focus on making lovely clothes and selling them to loyal customers.
At Boden, we went for the two biggest mail-order markets. The secret is not to try and go into multiple markets in multiple channels. It’s tempting to think: “We’ll do some online, some marketplaces, and some shops.” Keep the model simple – that’s the primary recommendation. Additionally, if you want to go global, find suitable partners to help with IT, logistics, and other aspects.
Q: How long has Boden been focused on improving sustainability?
When Johnnie Boden, who founded the company in 1991, interviewed me, he was already talking about designing clothes that could be worn repeatedly. That set the tone for me 25 years ago. It’s great to hear that parents are passing on their Mini Boden children’s wear to others in their extended family and friends. Because we are all leaving a footprint with everything we do – whether it’s sending an email or logging on to a Zoom call. So if you have one shirt you wear 100 times and another just ten times, it’s clear which one you should opt for.
At Boden, we have introduced a Care: Repair: Rewear scheme that is popular. A lady recently brought in a coat she bought 19 years ago. We repaired the lining. Now, hopefully, she can wear it for another 19 years. Offering quality and value is at the core of what we do.
Q: How would you assess Boden’s sustainability efforts today?
Our driver has always been trying to do the right thing in whichever area we are operating. Whether it is looking after the people who make our clothes, the fabrics we are sourcing or trying to reduce our carbon footprint. Even back in the 2000s, we were investing in programmes to protect the Amazon rainforest. More recently we have covered our Leicester warehouse in solar panels and reduced our Scope 1 and 2 footprint by 60%.
But until four years ago, we weren’t talking about this, because we were frightened of being accused of greenwashing.
Boden is not perfect, but the company is trying to do the right thing. But not talking about it is a bigger problem. Some retailers have under 1% of their range made from sustainable fabric, but if you look at their website, you would think it was 99%. At IRX, I will discuss the quick sustainability wins achieved at Boden. Firstly, by talking about it, you can get the ball rolling and share successes and challenges.
Q: Should retailers be more transparent and honest about their sustainability efforts?
Yes. Only through talking about it can we explain the complexities and our decision making thinking. We live in a world where people energetically discuss things – especially on social media – as black and white. The whole challenge about sustainability is that it isn’t black and white. For example, when transporting goods, you ultimately want them to be protected. Sending an item in a lovely tissue bag that arrives faulty is no good to anyone. In fact, it is worse because it has to be sent again.
You could use paper bags, but that means cutting down virgin trees. Some retailers spray paper bags with chemicals to make them waterproof, which means they can’t be recycled. We looked at compostable bags, which are popular, but the truth is they aren’t entirely where they should be yet and are fished out and sent to landfill. We looked at lots of options, assessed all the angles and decided the right approach for Boden was using 80% recycled plastic because it offers good performance and is a good sustainable way forward.
The point is there is a lot of nuance and many things to consider. It’s foolhardy to make outrageous claims as a retailer; people can see through it. But, it will count if they see that you are weighing up the pros and cons and trying to do what’s right. That honesty will drive positive engagement from customers and lead to better solutions.
Q: What are you looking forward to, in particular, at IRX?
It will be the first time I have attended this great event. Businesses are feeling under pressure now, and becoming insular is tempting. Because of that, it’s essential to get out and see what other people are doing to gain access to fresh ideas.
Ben is speaking a IRX & eDX 2023 in two sessions – a fireside chat, Growing from a small to medium-sized business while staying true to your values, and a panel discussion, The conscious consumer: encouraging consumers to make informed choices. IRX & eDX take place at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham on 24th & 25th May.
Register – for free – here.