Meet Tom, a sports enthusiast committed to sustainability. Together with his partner Sarah, he founded Little by Little, a brand merging their love for sports with eco-conscious choices. Their journey began when they realized the lack of sustainable options in sportswear.
Tom and Sarah's path was challenging. They had to source sustainable materials, establish transparent supply chains, and start from zero without any prior knowledge of the industry.
Little by Little focuses on quality and timeless designs, resonating with those who prioritize style, comfort, quality and sustainability.
In this interview, we chat with Tom about how he and his partner Sarah launched Little by Little, their upcoming goals, the major challenges they've encountered, and the key lessons they've taken away. Tom also discusses the difficult balance between sustainability, quality and price.
Can you tell us a little about how you and your girlfriend have started Little by Little?
Yes, my name is Tom and I studied philosophy and international politics in Leuven, so nothing to do with sports or the fashion industry. But I've always been into sports and sustainability. These two passions or interests together led to the creation of Little by Little.
When you look for sustainable clothing, you can find regular casual clothing quite often, but not in the sports world. You do have the big brands that do one series or one campaign per year and claim to be sustainable, but I didn't feel comfortable with that.
There are some small businesses for women in the yoga and Pilates scene, but not really for athletics. For real activewear for outdoor sports and for men, there isn’t enough choice, and we decided to try and fill that gap ourselves. It's not an easy choice because I don't have any connections in that world. My girlfriend is a trainee doctor, so something completely different as well.
Apart from that, it was a matter of trying to find a way and build a network to get started. But it's a process of trial and error as many entrepreneurs start. You have the idea, work it out, do research. Then you come across so many difficulties that you put it aside for a while. But after a few weeks or months, you pick it up again. It's a process of ups and downs. Then suddenly, we had a conversation with someone who also does sustainable clothing and that person said, "Come on, you just have to do it. Talk to that person". So I applied for a VAT number, and that's how the ball started rolling. And so we built or tried to build a network again, finding producers.
When you choose everything to be sustainable, it’s definitely not the easiest way; so you have to think twice about everything. Because if we claim to be sustainable, we want it to be truly sustainable and not like the big brands that do it half-heartedly. But then you also come across dilemmas. Because what in fact is sustainable in textiles is not always clear.
For example, we experimented with bamboo. Bamboo is a natural fabric, so that's already better than synthetic on that level. But at the same time, it needs a lot of water and what's also important for sports is that the fabric can wick away sweat, and bamboo is not good for that.
So we ended up with synthetic fabrics again. Recycled synthetic fabrics, but again, that's not 100% yet, because now there's still too much emphasis on "pet to fiber", so many brands that say, "look, we're cleaning up our oceans or we're using recycled PET bottles". Even though that isn’t “bad” of course, it's not 100% sustainable as I see it. If they really want to go circular, they need to be able to make new textiles from old textiles instead of making textiles from other waste, because there is too much textile waste already, so let's use that old textile to make new textile. That's a bit the goal I want to try to achieve with Little by Little. But that's still a work in progress, we're not there yet.
Interesting that you say sustainability is not always that straightforward. Can you explain a bit more about this?
Yes, that's often something that vegan leather also has. It's vegan, but it's not always better than traditional leather for the environment. So it's thinking again about what's most important to you. We really try to look at the big picture. First, we didn't choose to produce in Belgium, but in Portugal, but the quality we wanted couldn't be delivered there.
After three or four months of negotiating, we said, "This is where it stops", which was frustrating. And then you have to start looking for contacts again and we ended up with a Belgian producer. Now we feel good about that decision because in Belgium, you can easily go there. Those people get a fair wage and conditions.
If you are a Belgian company, you have to meet strict regulations, and, for example, reuse water and meet strict regulations regarding chemicals. And this is much stricter than if you produce in Turkey, Tunisia or even Portugal. The items are literally made 130 kilometers from here, so it's easy and, of course, less transport costs.
Where does the name Little by Little come from?
There is a song by a Norwegian band that I like called "Moddy" and during COVID-19, I discovered a song online from them called "Little by Little". I thought it was a cool song and when I showed it to my girlfriend, she also liked it, and then it became our song, so to speak.
So, when we were looking for a name for the brand, we thought about "Little by Little", since it fits well with the philosophy. We are now a "clean brand", but step by step, little by little, we are moving towards a sustainable world and we really want to make ourselves more sustainable. And I think this also applies to sports. I believe that anyone who has a challenge and wants to go for it will get there.
Not everyone can say, "I'm going to run a marathon tomorrow", but if you want to grow and work on it every day, almost every challenge is achievable for everyone. I really believe that if you have the willpower (both in terms of sports and sustainability), everyone can achieve their goals, so this is also a bit in the name "Little by Little".
What decisions have you made regarding sustainability?
I think if you look at Close the Loop Flanders DC, it already starts with design. Because the more fabric you mix, the harder it is to recycle afterward.
For example, we have on purpose chosen not to make pockets with zippers since zippers are difficult to mechanically remove. If you have all mono fabrics or mix as few different fabrics as possible, it's easier to make something out of it again if the product is no longer usable in its current form.
So, at the design stage, we really thought about which fabrics to use, and what material choices we make, and we also thought about what our first collection would look like. We're a first-year startup, so as we don't have a big budget, we have to make choices.
Are we going to be doing 3-4 models, but in ten different colors? But then we have to make many meters of textile in all those colors. That's why for now, we've only used three basic colors so that you need less fabric to dye.
Because if you dye fabric, you end up with leftovers. We want to have as little leftover as possible, so we thought about what we could do with these leftover pieces. For example, we still had a little bit of leftover from the previous collection, which we used for our winter collection. So in this way, we have to add as little as possible to make a new product again.
In our production center, because they do both the fabrics and the production in one place, it's really one beautiful chain and our supply chain is very transparent and easy. There are not ten different links where you no longer find transparency. It's very easy for us to trust that everything is in order because they do a lot in-house, and we've been there several times.
Also, data from servers for websites is often forgotten about. That's why we deliberately chose a server in the Netherlands that runs on green energy and is subject to stricter legislation.
We also thought about the choice of which bank we use. We were first at the most sustainable bank in Belgium (this was a cooperative bank that started but unfortunately didn't make it, but has now merged with VDK, which is now the second most sustainable bank in Belgium). But also with the bank, we didn't just say to go for the cheapest bank. No, at every step we take, we thought: what is the most sustainable option?
When we make flyers, we don't just go for the cheapest flyers. What ink do they use? What paper is used? Should it come from Germany? or can we go for a local printer in the neighborhood, for example? So there too, we really try to choose the most sustainable option.
In addition, we are also thinking (but that is now less relevant) of doing reverse logistics. In this way, people can return the product to us in exchange for a voucher as an incentive, and we will make something new with it. So we're not just making something sustainable, but we're also taking responsibility for taking it back. We've been selling for a few months now, so there is nothing that needs to be returned yet, so this is something for the future.
For packaging, we deliberately chose to work with Bpost for shipping because within the world of parcel companies (which don't all have the best name) we believe it's the best choice. Of course, there's also Homer. That's one that focuses on sustainability. But the problem there is that they can't always guarantee the shipping time. And we still have to be competitive somewhere. That's why we decided to go with Bpost. Bpost also has fashion bags made of recycled cardboard. So we use these to send our packages, but also our own cardboard boxes that we have left over from our own purchases.
Is it difficult to find the balance between sustainability, quality, and price?
That is one of the biggest struggles we have right now: price.
There are people who are very interested, but do not do enough sports to buy such high-quality or sustainable materials. If they only go running once a month, they will more likely go for something cheaper instead of investing in something qualitative.
Additionally, retail naturally has a certain margin and we have struggled with that a lot, because if we want to give retail a double margin, the price is extremely high. But we recently decided to lower that value again and now only work on commission.
So, no more double margins and we were able to lower the price slightly to make it even more accessible for consumers and offer sustainability as cheaply as possible.
But you can never compete with the cheapest things from big and cheaper multinationals. We are somewhere above the standard. But we are also not the luxury brand where people buy because it is luxurious and exclusive. I also had some people who said, "just ask for double and make it super exclusive, and then people will want to buy it for that reason." But I don't want to do that because that links the sustainability story too much to "it's scandalously expensive and exclusive because only rich people can afford it." That doesn't feel 100% the way I want to build it. We are too cheap to be exclusive, but too expensive to be the norm, so to speak. We are somewhere in between and still figuring it out.
Are there currently plans for expansion or a new product line?
The prototypes are ready for our winter collection, so that's coming up. There will be three pieces: a long-sleeved t-shirt and two leggings.
We noticed that leggings were missing from our collection. Currently, we have shorts, but even in the summer, there is apparently a demand for long leggings for women.
The long-sleeved t-shirt will actually be made mostly from the same fabrics as the summer collection but with long sleeves and a slightly thicker lining. So, we will reuse those leftover fabrics.
And we are currently testing it, and it will hopefully be launched in September-October. This is still subject to change, but that's what we're working on now. We debated whether to launch the winter collection now or wait until next year so we could do it in larger quantities because there will be a limited edition for two reasons. Part of the returns are back to reinvest, but also because we work with leftovers of fabrics. So, that also means we only have a limited amount of this fabric.
We also attach each collection to a certain route. The winter collection will still be attached to the same route. And from then on, we will actually start thinking about a new route to attach a new collection to. But that won't happen until September-October. But first, the winter collection. You need winter items to stay relevant in the winter, right?
What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered since starting Little by Little?
We thought it would be easier to get into physical sports stores. But this has proven to be more difficult than we thought, and sometimes they are attached to a few more expensive alternative brands that already have a name. You need to have a name to get in, and they told us that we should contact them again in a year, but if no one gives you a chance to sell in their stores, then you can't prove yourself.
The second thing we underestimated was online marketing and maintaining social media. If you are not naturally inclined to do that, you have to make an effort, and it's not always top of mind to do it first, even though it's one of the most important things to be seen and continuously reach a new audience.
We made a company video and it did really well on social media. So, it works, but you just have to put time into it. I also had some advisory conversations and they said, "the more you professionalize, the more people will believe in your story." That costs money, of course. So where do you want to invest your money as a startup? Is it buying high-quality materials and making it as sustainable as possible? Or investing in a marketing agency? In principle, I would go for the content first, but it also has to be sold, so some money has to go to marketing.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned since starting Little by Little?
The biggest lesson? I think it's about taking the risk. If you want to do something, go for it. But don't expect it to work the first time. It's running, falling, and getting up. But I have learned a lot, and I have already thought about "would I do it again or not," and I really think I would. You meet a lot of people here, people who mean well, entrepreneurial people, and that's really beautiful. But the story of when the money has to be put on the table is different.
People can really think along with you, but the financial story is often still difficult. And those two have to match. But don't always rely on the financial side. But also it’s double, of course. Make sure you don't take risks yourself. I can talk from a "luxury position." I have another job. So the worst that can happen is that I lose a lot of money. But I won’t go into debt or be on the street or anything like that. So it's a risk, but a limited risk. But I have learned a lot on a human level and met new people and so on. And I don't give up because things aren't going well for a few weeks. I just keep going and see where the ship ends up.
Another lesson is that you have to be critical of yourself. Surround yourself with people who want to help you, but also be critical, especially in terms of sustainability, for example in claiming sustainability. Think for yourself and don't just follow everything. Also think of your own expertise and trust in your own product and dare to ask for what it costs. Even if people say it's too expensive.
This is your price, and you shouldn't be ashamed of it. On our website, we show you very transparently: the labor cost, the fabric cost, the marketing cost, the retail margin, our own margin, administration costs and VAT. So people can really see that to let someone work for one hour in Belgium, it costs an employer 40 euros. And it takes around 1 hour to make one of our shorts. So, it’s not possible to sell it for 30 euros. So just be as transparent as possible, but also have confidence in your product. If the quality is there and people think it's too expensive, then I think, "okay, too bad."
We have now focused on running, but maybe we want to put fitness items or similar items more in the picture and also think about broadening our target group that we want to appeal to.
As consumers, people often do not yet realize enough that the price they see in the store often has a second label attached to it. Maybe it's cheap, but so much water and so many chemicals have been used that end up in the oceans, there are people who have worked hard for this, and people sometimes don't want to see that. Not everyone can spend the most money on everything, that's understandable. But hopefully, that awareness will increase a bit more. I'm not saying everyone should always buy the most expensive, but yes, those who can should make more conscious choices, I think.
That is also the message we want to bring. Instead of buying something cheap five times that will be damaged after a year or so, buy something of high quality once that will last longer. That's the way to go, I think. We also consciously choose to work with rather timeless items without using busy prints that you will be tired of after a few months or a year.
You don't need 30 t-shirts that you'll be tired of after a year. Go for five or ten t-shirts that you can alternate and that last much longer. But this is not for everyone, of course, people like to buy new things every month.
People used to spend money on textiles, but back then it was a much larger part of the budget they spend on it. But nowadays, the prices have decreased so much, and people just expect it to be very cheap nowadays. So, this needs to be appreciated again, I think. But yes, this is still a difficult story.
You can find Little by Little sustainable sportwear on shoplaboutique.com
Read more about Little by Little on https://littlebylittlesports.be or @littlebylittle.sports on Instagram.
Do you own sustainable sportwear? Let us know in the comments down below.