Joshua Ellis Explores Cashmere Sustainability

In over 250 years, Joshua Ellis & Co. Ltd has been owned by just three families. At the heart of Yorkshire’s textile industry since it opened in 1767, the company specialises in luxury cashmere fabric and accessories which are exported around the world. 

While proud of its heritage the business is also investing in its future, developing partnerships with some of the world’s biggest brands – Alexander McQueen brought Kate Moss to the mill in Batley to shoot their Autumn/Winter 2019 campaign – and building new initiatives to ensure the business is sustainable for the next 250 years. 

Close up of Joshua Ellis loom
Joshua Ellis produces luxury cashmere and accessories from its mill in Batley, West Yorkshire

In the next two years Joshua Ellis intends to eliminate all single-use plastic from its packaging as part of a plan to reduce the environmental impact of its operations. As public awareness of sustainability in fashion and textiles has grown in recent years, however, customers have started to raise a wider range of issues. 

“We began to discuss the idea that by recycling cashmere from other products when they reached the end of their lives, we could potentially open ourselves up to new more price-conscious markets and customers without compromising our commitment to quality and sustainability,” says Oliver Platts, managing director of Joshua Ellis. 

The company needed to understand whether there was a market for accessories that used recycled cashmere, and how much of the product should be recycled.  

Previous tests had suggested that the finish on the product changed with more than 25% recycled fibre in the mix.

For Joshua Ellis, this suggested the choice was to produce either a 100% recycled cashmere product, or an item made largely with virgin fibre and a small proportion of recycled material. 

Loom at Joshua Ellis weaving check design
Joshua Ellis supplies cashmere for major brands while producing its own accessories

When Oliver attended a launch event at the beginning of the Future Fashion Factory programme, he spotted an opportunity to develop a research project answering these questions. 

Oliver submitted an Expression of Interest to our first innovation funding call in 2019, outlining the challenge and identifying how an academic partner could undertake research to inform Joshua Ellis’ next steps. While our team worked with Oliver on developing his full application, we also identified researchers whose interests aligned with the project and introduced Joshua Ellis to Dr Alice Dallabona at the University of Leeds. 

Alice researches the luxury fashion industry, as well as fashion marketing and the relationship between fashion and identity. She collaborated with the team at Joshua Ellis to shape the key research questions, speaking to both Oliver and the company’s sales director to understand the concerns expressed by the company’s customers. 

Building on existing research by academics and industry and with the support of research assistant Camilla Bandera, Alice set up focus groups with luxury fashion consumers where they were asked about their interest in sustainability and how it affects their buying decisions.  

Close-up of mill machinery at Joshua Ellis Ltd in Batley
The Joshua Ellis mill in Batley

While most respondents said that they were aware of issues around sustainability and environmental impacts, they were more likely to act on these concerns when it came to food or energy consumption than with fashion. 

Combining the existing research with the results of the focus groups, the analysis showed that luxury customers are interested in the sustainability of brands.

However, the environmental impacts of a luxury product are not a significant priority: positive environmental messages are often seen as an “extra” on top of a product the consumer would buy anyway. 

Rather than confirming Oliver’s theory, Alice’s report gave a new perspective on what sustainability really means for a luxury brand like Joshua Ellis, as well as for the 24 other textile businesses owned by SIL Holdings – a family-owned group based in Bradford. 

Fine cashmere being woven at the Joshua Ellis mill
The company is now examining sustainability throughout the manufacturing process and supply chain

After the report was shared at group level, SIL decided to recruit a sustainability director to focus on this question and to champion sustainable practices across all 25 of the group’s companies. 

In addition to fulfilling the brand’s pledge to eliminate single-use plastics, Oliver says that the company is thinking more broadly about its supply chain and manufacturing processes, from reducing water usage to supporting high standards of animal husbandry.  

This shift in focus may lead to new potential research opportunities, and Joshua Ellis is keeping in touch with both researchers and the Future Fashion Factory team to explore these as they arise. 

“We want to ensure sustainability is at the heart of everything we do,” Oliver says, “and this project has made it clear that we need to focus our efforts on a variety of different initiatives throughout our supply chain and manufacturing.”