Churchill Gowns’ sustainable mission for graduation gowns - from £28
You might think that the market for graduation gowns for university students is a pretty staid market, but it can never be the same following Churchill Gowns’ disruptive business model which enables gowns to be home-delivered from £28 – and they’re all made from recycled plastic waste .
Founded by Oliver Adkins and Ruth Nicholls, the duo met in Cambridge in 2018.
“Our investors in Australia introduced Ollie and I,” says Ruth. “I had been studying law at St John’s College, Ollie was at the Cambridge Judge Business School.”
The market had been unchanged pretty much forever.
“The gowns have been around since medieval times,” affirms Ollie. “There’s no patent, it’s a generic garment. There are approved supplier relationships with the universities, and with our arrival there was a definite sense of rocking the apple cart.
“When a new entrant comes in and is trying to be innovative, it’s seen as disruptive and we wanted to reassure the market that we’re not disruptive.
“The more people have been buying from us, the more people like what we’re doing. We’ve sold thousands of gowns now, which is reassuring for the universities.”
Whether or not Churchill Gowns is disruptive (I suspect they are!), it’s certainly revolutionary – its EcoThread Gown range is 100 per cent recycled, made from a post-consumer plastic waste that keeps 28 PET bottles from reaching landfill for every gown made. The duo – which had a successful appearance last year on Dragon’s Den, of which more later – decided at the outset that ethical manufacturing, environmental sustainability and social responsibility is a bridge to die on.
“We believe that sustainable, ethical and environmentally conscious business practices need to not just be seen as a side note to profitability – they need to become core to every business,” says the company’s website.
And if you’re worrying that recycled plastic bottles may not feel great against the skin, don’t worry.
“The texture is indistinguishable from any other polyester,” says Ollie.
“It’s PET – polyethylene terephthalate – plastics, that means plastic bottles from drinks or shampoos , stripped down into pellets and then spun into yarn. The beauty is not just that the plastic is coming out of landfill, but also in terms of the energy used in production – which usually requires lots of water.”
“It takes 59 per cent less energy to make recycled polyester, there’s no oil being pulled out of the ground,” says Ruth.
“One thing I’ve been surprised about is how many items have polyester in them – shoes, ties, clothes – and we want to challenge the consumer and other manufacturers to use recycled polyester,” says Ollie. “We should all be using recycled goods where possible .”
“We like to think we are challenging other firms to get into sustainable garment items,” Ruth adds, “to bring about a more general awareness of how we can use sustainable materials.”
Around 1m students graduate annually in the UK, and it’s expensive to obtain a gown, which is then only used for a couple of hours. As well as being sustainable, Churchill Gowns are convenient and affordable – which isn’t to say they are easy to make.
“The pleating on the gowns is quite complex,” says Ruth, “and very few factories have machines which can automate that – in fact there’s only two companies, and both are based in China.
“It was an interesting challenge because most businesses want to differentiate but we wanted to look the same.”
So how did it go on Dragon’s Den ?
“We went on, pitched, we had two offers, from Deborah [Meaden] and Touker [Suleyman], and we accepted Deborah’s deal in the Den,” says Ollie. “It was a fantastic experience to raise our profile and they realised that students need choice.
“It’s been a very lengthy due diligence process so it’s not entirely finalised yet.”
“The terms are rather complicated but Dragon’s Den has two benefits,” adds Ruth. “The investment and the exposure. Every time the episode is repeated we get a spike in interest, so it’s already been a very positive outcome regardless of any investment.”
Churchill Gowns was already in a good place before it went on.
“Most Dragon’s Den companies have been turned away by investors but that wasn’t the case with us, we have very strong angel investors and have had lots of support already.”
And 2020 has seen a whole new market open up.
“We pivoted the business,” says Ollie. “The Home Graduation Gift Box means you can buy a cap and a gown, with decorations and chocolates, so you can celebrate at home with flatmates or the family. This has been very popular, especially with parents, and now small groups of friends are meeting up, hosting their own mini-graduations. It probably helps that you’re not sitting there while a thousand names are read out as well!”
“It’s given students the opportunity to be more creative,” adds Ruth. “We partnered with Perfocal On-Demand Photography, which is sort of an Airbnb of photography.
“Business-wise we’ve doubled our revenue this summer compared with last summer so it’s been very good given that there are no actual graduations. We find international students particularly love what we’re doing.”
Dr Belinda Bell, programme director at Cambridge Social Ventures at the Cambridge Judge Business School , said: “Churchill Gowns is a new player in a market dominated by one or two established companies, so a big part of our support was to help them find the legitimacy and confidence to hold their ground, including protecting their social and environmental mission.
“We coached them through developing their innovative on-campus sales strategy, introducing them to gown buyers and student groups in Cambridge and beyond.
“Financially, we facilitated a loan from an alternative social finance provider so that they could source enough stock to work at scale. This also bought them the time required to raise investment: a process we mentored them through, including the appearance on Dragons’ Den.
“We are encouraging universities all over the UK to consider this as the norm to help reduce their impact.”