From answering a newspaper advert in 1990, to becoming a global brand selling sustainably produced, eco-friendly products worldwide, Cornish-based Celtic & Co. were recognised with an award from the Queen in 2018. Hollie-Ella went behind the brand with founders and hands-on directors Nick and Kath Whitworth, to find out what it takes to be truly sustainable today.
Determined to create a sustainable living in their hometown of Newquay, when Nick and Kath Whitworth saw the advert in a local paper offering a small boot-making business for sale with just seven pairs of boots in stock, they decided to try their hand at making footwear from British sheepskin.
“Initially we rented a small building in the middle of Newquay and employed just one seamstress, making for local surfers.” Nick tells us. When they began making sheepskin boots the response was incredible, and when a customer came in requesting a pair of slippers that was the birth of the product that remains a bestseller, the Bootee slipper.
Beginning as the ‘The Original Ugg Company’ and registered with the UK trademark ‘UGG’, the couple sold the rights to the name in 1997, and funded their move to a large workshop and warehouse. Over the years as the business has grown, they have expanded the range to include luxury products made exclusively from the finest, all-natural fibres to ensure sustainability, without impacting on style.
“In 2013 we changed our name to Celtic & Co. as a way of retaining our distinctive heritage and to reflect a wider range of products.” Despite being an award-winning British fashion brand, they have chosen to remain in Newquay, the town where it all began. Today the business retains the same ethos as day one, but with a staff of 50.
“Everyone is part of the family business and some of our team have been with us for 19 years.”
When asked what British-made means to them, it is clear that working alongside locals in Cornwall has been key to their success. “Britain is our home and the economy we are supporting. This is where 75% of our suppliers are from, so we have built strong relationships within the UK. For us it’s first and foremost about the customers and our local community.”
Sadly much of the wool shorn from sheep in the UK is wasted, due to the low market value of fleece. In fact, it costs more in order for the sheep to be shorn than farmers could ever get for selling it. By working directly with British farmers Celtic & Co have done something amazing, transforming what so-called ‘waste wool’ into long-lasting, beautiful products.
When it comes to sustainability, Nick is passionate. “We have been pioneering the slow fashion movement for 30 years and always create investment pieces for the wardrobe, pieces for life, rather than throw-away styles just for the now.”
With clothing made from synthetic materials such as polyester, acrylic and nylon – ie derived from plastic – it breaks down quickly and releases micro plastics and toxins into the environment. By using natural and sustainable materials like wool, linen and cotton, Celtic & Co. avoid this problem. “With care their lifecycle can last much longer and even be repaired. We actually have customers bring their 30 year old boots in for resoling!”
One challenge the Whitworths have worked hard to overcome is the seasonality of their business. Taking 80% of their business between August to December, they learned to focus on core products, many of which are made in their UK factory, ensuring demand can be met during the colder months. “We are always able to meet customer needs by having more made in season without running the risk of going out of stock all together.”
When it comes to manufacturing, Nick tells me that sadly it isn’t possible to do everything in the UK. “75% of our suppliers are based here in Great Britain, but where we work with those in Europe, we scope them out and always make sure they work to our same ethics and are experts in natural fibres.”
The brand has a ‘Sustainability Working Group’, which meets monthly to review their objectives for the coming year and help inspire and push things in the right direction. This has brought about impressive changes, including plastic-free packaging for their customers.
“We are proud to say that sustainability has been at the heart of our ethos from the beginning. Since then we have pioneered the slow fashion movement and continue to take great steps to always look for ways in which we can impact our environment positively without impacting on quality for our customers.”
From composting all organic waste and recycling as much as possible both in the offices and factory, Celtic & Co. are avidly living and breathing sustainability every way they can. “We use discarded pallets for exhibition stands and DIY projects and utilise recycled corrugated boxes to ship our orders out. When we get a box back from a return, it is reused until it becomes unusable, when it is then recycled. We have replaced with a paper solution on packaging and everyone uses wooden pencils rather than disposable pens!”
A corporate partner of the Royal Trinity Hospice, the brand regularly donate clothes to help raise vital funding in support of its work helping those with progressive, life-limiting illnesses, as well as those close to them. “By donating clothes no longer needed to organisations such as Royal Trinity Hospice, we are not only reducing the impact on our environment but also giving these vital support networks the funding, they need to continue to help others.”
Plans for this year include planting trees in the local area, in the local area each year, starting with 30 trees in a nearby orchard. “One for each year we have been in business!” the couple beam. Kath, a keen walker and cyclist would also like to cut down on all-but essential travel, “I love cycling come rain or shine…if I could cycle to all of our meetings I absolutely would!”
Company Director, Nick is a part of HRH the Prince of Wales’s Campaign for Wool, helping provide feedback into a network of people facing the same issues as he does: “For wool and sheepskin, there are areas surrounding the availability of raw material resources and waste solutions many companies were hugely impacted when the UK’s only tannery closed down.”
In 2018, Celtic & Co was awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in the International Trade category, the highest official UK award for a British business. Speaking of it, Nick tells me, “all of us here are so immensely proud of this achievement and we’re so grateful to them, because it was a real team effort. Receiving this award has to be the pinnacle of our achievements to date, because it is reflective of our suppliers and our wonderful customers. It has given us the drive to continue to stay true to our values as we grow.”
So what makes Celtic & Co unique? “We are very transparent. Our ethos has been the same from day one and we talk about it all the time. For 30 years now we have done our utmost to go above and beyond, so our core value has to remain: ‘what we can do for our customers next?’”
When it comes to consumer advice the couple appreciate the choices their customers are faced with and are ever-grateful they recognise their own values and come back time and again. Acknowledging that consumer choice has historically been driven by a ‘more for less’ attitude, Nick remains firm: “Buying unethical items just further damages our environment and once you compile the cost of several low-cost items, you could probably purchase an incredible wardrobe of clothing designed to last for years and years.”
Thinking on their favourite pieces, Nick would be lost without a sheepskin coat and the bootee slipper, which even get packed for his annual snowboarding trip. Kath is hard-pressed to choose just one, but eventually picks the classic sheepskin boots and the Felted Funnel Neck jumper – “they’re super soft and luxuriously warm!”
When it comes to weekends, the couple love long walks on the beautiful local beaches with Alfie, their dog. Nick can often be found in the garden where they grow their own produce, which often gets used for Sunday roasts.
On owning their own business Nick exults, “It’s been great to create our own sustainable business here in Cornwall, to grow our ideas here in the laid back surroundings of the country we love. Our daughter Clare had worked in all departments over the years but watching her passion for the business grow has been incredible. At the beginning we had to adapt around having a young family, but this has taught us to offer a balanced life to our employees. We’ve watched other people’s children grow up, so it feels like an extended family.”
With products made from sheepskin and leather, I wonder if the rise in veganism has impacted the business?
“Our teams are experts in all of our materials, so we’re always very happy to help in any way we can. The sheepskin we use to produce our footwear and outerwear is a by-product of the UK farming industry and would normally be discarded and incinerated at high temperatures. By taking this we avoid it being burnt, so reduce carbon emissions and allow farmers in the industry to make a profit selling on perfectly good natural sheepskin. What would be classed as waste material by some is transformed by us into luxurious, wonderfully warm clothing and footwear; upcycling at its very best!”
In terms of the future, “we have big plans for this our 30th year, looking to revive some of our old bestsellers and our AW20 collection is set to be our best yet! We’ll continue to look for new ways to be as carbon neutral as possible and support the local community in this too. The possibilities really are endless as to what we will do in the coming years.”
In The Country’s top Celtic & Co. SS20 product picks:
The Geelong Slouch Roll Neck – laidback oversize fit, rolled hemline and made from 100% Geelong lamb’s wool, made in Britain. Ideal for those cool Summer’s evenings sat outside in the garden. RRP: £112, variety of colours available.
Boyfriend Aviator Sheepskin Jacket – Designed as a slightly oversized fit (Hollie-Ella adores anything oversized) and this is just perfect for keeping warm on those early morning walks or long cool evenings spent outside. RRP: £750
Classic Boots: Shortie – made from 100% premium quality British sheepskin this is a stylish take on a classic style. With a suede heel for shape retention to avoid slumping and springy rubber sole for comfort. RRP: £140