Ross Powell: ‘it opened my eyes to the damage being done by the fashion industry’
Interview: Ross Powell, CEO, Cashmere Circle
As a teenager Ross Powell thought he’d found the ideal job once he’d completed his studies – greenkeeping at a local golf course just as he was developing a talent for playing the game. For a young man who enjoyed the outdoor life it seemed as good a way as any of making a living.
“It was a lot of fun and I was able to go to work in trackie bottoms though, as it transpires, you can also do that as a CEO,” jokes Powell who now is one of the new generation of “accidental entrepreneurs” who have sprung up during work-from-home lockdown.
In Powell’s case, serendipity also played a big part in how he came to be heading a garment repair business, Cashmere Circle, a company not only reviving worn out knitwear but dedicated to curbing waste in the fashion industry.
As part of his course at Edinburgh University, Powell studied sustainable development and environmental policy opening his eyes to the environmental crisis. Keen to be part of the solution, he began volunteering for the climate change charity Protect Our Winters UK which encourages the outdoor sports community to engage in the climate crisis.
His work drew the attention of Belinda Dickson, founder of the Belinda Robertson cashmere label. “She asked me to do some research on the environmental sustainability of cashmere and it opened my eyes to the damage being done by the fashion industry,” he says.
After graduation he was interviewed for a job with the energy company Bulb, and was offered a position, but the lure of working on something new with one of Scotland’s top entrepreneurs proved to be an opportunity too good to turn down.
“I got chatting to Belinda who was involved with repairing cashmere but felt there was an opportunity to do it on a bigger scale,” he says.
They set up the new business, with Powell installed as CEO. He jokes that he feels “a little bit of an imposter” with his title and that being “a tight Aberdonian” he had no previous passion for luxury fashion, let alone expensive cashmere. However, he’s seen the merit in taking care of quality, naturally made clothing and has developed a mission to help reduce waste and protect the environment.
Belinda Dickson now sits on the advisory board of Cashmere Circle with four others and is active in driving the business forward. Powell has developed a huge respect for his mentor. “She’s seen it all over her illustrious career” he explains, “so there’s rarely a problem she doesn’t have a solution for.”
Cashmere Circle is introducing consumers to skills that have long-been used in textile mills and combined them with new technologies to offer a full repair and cleaning service that will fully restore and clean worn out cashmere products. Items are returned to the customer in the same condition as when they were new.
‘Twenty years ago brands would typically offer two collections per year. Now, they offer between 12 and 16 per year’
It means giving an extended life to clothing that would otherwise be thrown out, and chipping away at the billions of tonnes of items sent to landfill.
The company notes that through waste and the use of plastics, the fashion industry is the second most environmentally damaging behind fossil fuels. Fast fashion – cheaply made products that quickly lose their shape and fall apart – is a particular problem. “Twenty years ago,” says Powell, “brands would typically offer two collections per year. Now, they offer between 12 and 16 per year, while Zara have been known to introduce an astronomical 24 per year – that’s two collections per month.”
The industry is also one of the main plastic polluters. Synthetic fibres are man-made, plastic-like fibres derived from chemicals.
By extending the use of cashmere, Powell says his tiny company can help make a contribution to changing habits and he knows that to make a real difference it needs to grow substantially.
With Belinda Dickson’s help he is building a team of skilled repairers, consultants and marketers. One is Tim Hoyle, the UK authority on sustainable textiles who has worked with Marks & Spencer and John Lewis.
Powell is about to launch a campaign to raise £300,000 for up to 30% of the equity and has spoken with a number of exciting investment groups and angel investors among other potential backers.
He is also approaching cashmere producers and retailers to build a customer base that will transform the company’s prospects. Ultimately, however, he says the consumer is king and will force a change in attitudes to throwing out garments that can be rescued and re-worn.
“Softer with wear and able retain their shape as they age, good quality cashmere garments can last for generations,” he says. “But they must be shown the love they deserve!”
Occupation: co-founder and CEO of Cashmere Circle
Education: Edinburgh University (International Relations)
Other activities: Protect Our Winters, a charity encouraging outdoor sports enthusiast to engage in the climate movement.
What annoys you?
Nothing much, apart from the time it takes to apply for the grants system for small firms.
Optimist or pessimist?
I am a keen golfer, playing off a four handicap, and played for the university team. Also enjoy skiing
Could you name three people, living or dead, who would make perfect dinner guests?
Tim Ferriss, American entrepreneur, investor, author, and lifestyle guru. I am a real sucker for his messages.
Derek McInnes, former manager of Aberdeen FC. He was an ever-present for eight years of my life and I’d like to talk about the moments of joy he brought me.
Elon Musk, space and electric vehicle entrepreneur. There are so many questions I could ask him that I don’t know where to begin.