project bowman

How Three Australian Fashion Labels Are Overcoming The Challenges Involved In Sustainability

As the planet warms and landfills get ever more full, one of the things at the forefront of many people’s minds is how our consumption habits impact the earth. We know there’s no true ethical consumption under capitalism. We also know that a tiny fraction of companies is responsible for the vast majority of global carbon emissions. (An issue our current government seems keen to ignore with its fossil fuel and gas-led post-pandemic recovery plan.) We know that rampant consumerism is gonna lead us quite a dark place and that buying less and more mindfully is an important individual action that we should all be taking.

Syrup has flagged ways to shop sustainably and our favourite sustainable fashion brands in the past. We’ve deep-dived into the sustainability efforts of jeans makers from Outland Denim to Levi’s. We have a bunch of guides about how to shop vintage like a pro, and rewear your wardrobe without getting bored. But what about the people making the things that we buy?

At every step of the journey, clothes have the potential to be damaging or decent towards the environment. Whether that’s how designs are conceptualised, how the raw materials for fabrics are grown or sourced, the methods used when clothing is being manufactured, right down to the packaging that’s used when it’s sent out to stores or to your doorstep. There’s so much to consider and there’s often a fair bit going on behind the scenes than what you might find on a brand’s “sustainability page”—which are growing in ubiquity.

How does a brand decide where to focus their efforts in a system and world that is so predicated on an exploitative way of doing things? If your clothes end up costing more, how do you manage people’s —environmentally disastrous—expectations about what clothes should cost? And is the whole concept of sustainable fashion just more greenwashing? Or a way for us to assuage our guilt about when we’re still buying stuff we probably don’t need? Much to consider. Below, Syrup speaks with three Australian fashion designers, of both newly launched and long-established labels, on how they’re tackling sustainability.

Project Bowman

Launched only a few months ago (and in the midst of Melbourne’s struggle with the pandemic) Project Bowman is a locally made slow fashion label that’s trying to build sustainability into their business from the get-go. Co-founders Amber Rigney and Bella Nolan have focused their efforts in a bunch of areas across the business, including materials, local production and waste reduction. The clothes themselves are alternately dreamy and practical—the timelessness of design is another important consideration when it comes to susty fashion, and Project Bowman’s designer Rigney nails it. Syrup spoke with the new brand founders about launching their sustainable business under extremely difficult circumstances.

Why was sustainability important to you when starting Project Bowman?

Rigney: Before Project Bowman came to be, we floated a few fashion business ideas. The common denominator was that we didn’t want to put out anything to the world that was going to have a harmful or negative impact. In our words “there is already too much sh*t in the world, why make it more polluted”. We wanted to make a statement, we wanted to have bold designs and branding, but at the end of the day, it had to have a positive impact. Project Bowman provides our customers with garments they freakin’ love, that don’t come at a huge cost to the earth. We are looking at you fast fashion!

How did Project Bowman decide where it should be focusing its sustainability efforts?

Rigney: There was never a discussion where we decided to focus more energy on environmental or social efforts, as we believe the two come hand in hand. To put it simply, brands that are doing one without the other are doing it wrong.

Nolan: For example, producing locally is really important to us because it ticks both boxes. We know that our garment makers are being paid and treated in accordance with Australian standards and our money is being put back into the local economy. It also means we don’t omit additional emissions caused by international travel and shipping and that we can produce in small quantities, as most overseas manufacturers only accept high MOQs (minimum order quantities) that only lead to overproduction and clothing waste.

Rigney: Materials have been the biggest hurdle for us and we are always on the hunt for more ethical and sustainable fabric solutions. We currently use a mix of deadstock fabric and natural fibres but are working towards transitioning away from deadstock, towards sourcing our own environmentally friendly fabric so that we can 100% guarantee that the entirety of our supply chain is ethical.

What challenges does the brand face as a result of adhering to sustainable ideals?

Rigney: Cost is a major issue facing, I’d say nearly all, small businesses and sustainable labels. No, we aren’t charging you a high price point for fun!

The reality is that it costs a lot more to source high-quality materials that don’t have a lasting impact on the earth and make sure they are used to produce garments in an ethical manner. We’re entirely funded by Bella and I, so it is challenging but we would never compromise our values to cut costs.

Nolan: Communicating the value of a garment to consumers can also be difficult, especially when they can easily jump online and find cheaper options on fast fashion sites. We’ve been quite transparent on why our products cost a certain amount and we like to think that’s something our customers really appreciate.

On top of this, finding a manufacturer in Melbourne was really tough. The move towards overseas production has left Australia with quite a small industry where the manufacturers we do have are at capacity with the amount of clients they can take on. If we could learn one thing from COVID-19, I’d love it to be the importance of building up industries here in Australia and not relying on overseas suppliers.

Rigney: We’ve had to put production on hold during the dreaded COVID-19 state 4 restrictions, which has been really tough! We’re currently in the process of adapting by expanding our manufacturing interstate so that we can continue to support the Australian industry and progress as a label. It’s been a tricky one to navigate, as we feel the brand is so intertwined with our Melbourne roots, but it’s a decision we’ve had to make for the longevity of Project Bowman.

How do you view the sustainable fashion landscape as a relatively young brand? Do you think we’re oversaturated with “sustainable” brands? What do you hope to see from brands and consumers? Could we see regenerative fashion soon?

Nolan: We see being a young brand in this climate as advantageous because we can start off on the right foot, instead of having to adapt and change pre-existing harmful practices embedded deeply into the supply chain. As a small label we have the ability to be flexible and improve our systems as we continuously learn more about how to produce in an environmentally and socially friendly way – there’s no big man upstairs telling us that the bottom line matters more than the world we operate in!

Are we oversaturated with sustainable brands? Absolutely not. The fashion industry needs to be working towards a place where all brands have ethical and sustainable practices, so that sustainability isn’t a marketing ploy but an essential point in all business strategies. What we are seeing is more greenwashing, such as fast fashion brands producing environmentally friendly lines or providing ‘recycling’ boxes.  At the end of the day, if a company has a jam packed store full of clothes and sale racks in every shopping centre across the country, they are not sustainable. They are tricking consumers who want to make the right choices into making the wrong ones. 

Rigney: In terms of fashion being regenerative—isn’t that the end goal? A circular fashion system is regenerative and that’s what everyone in the fashion industry should be working towards. This means closing the gap between distribution to consumers and recycling items back into raw materials. At Project Bowman, ‘end of life’ for the garment is just as important as the initial stages. As a new label, we aren’t perfect yet but we have goals and strategies in place to facilitate the ‘end of life’ transition from consumer back to us—so that item doesn’t end up in landfill. Stay tuned!

Boody

On the other end of the spectrum, Boody is an Australian lifestyle fashion brand who’s been in the sustainability game for a long time. The family-owned company, which makes some of the softest, cosiest activewear we’ve ever chucked on our legs was founded back in 2012, well before sustainable fashion became de riguer. Boody hones in on their materials, using organic cotton and bamboo for their pieces. They’re a distinct outlier in the now very busy recycled-plastic-bottle-activewear market, and definitely one to try if you’re polyester-averse. Syrup checked in with Shaun Greenblo, Boody’s managing director to take a dive into the brand’s sustainability efforts.

Why was sustainability important to you when starting Boody?

To put it simply, we truly care about the world we live in and we believe everyone has a social and environmental responsibility. This was the catalyst to founding Boody and we hope to create ripples that roll into a wave of change. We are on a journey and it’s only the beginning.

We’re a family business run by two generations of entrepreneurs (two fathers and their sons), who set out to make a positive impact on the way people approach their clothing choices. Our collective experience in health and wellness combined with our passion for the environment inspired us to create basics that are truly better for your world.

We reject the notion of fast fashion and bypass trends and fads as we believe they lead to overconsumption and waste. Our garments are thoughtfully crafted from organically-grown bamboo, which is what makes them super soft, comfy, breathable and most importantly, sustainable. Long-lasting everyday essentials in a softer fabric with a comfier fit is our obsession.

How did Boody decide where it should be focusing it’s sustainability efforts?

Boody started with organic materials; mainly bamboo; so our focus revolves around how we source and produce fabrics that are better for the world. In today’s world, businesses have to operate with social and environmental policies at the forefront. We are constantly communicating with our consumers in this area and we get motivated – and sometimes even challenged – by what drives them to create a better world. We care about what our people want and Boody is driven by an evolving community encouraging us to be bigger and better. Challenge accepted.

What challenges does the brand face as a result of adhering to sustainable ideals and how do you navigate them?

The Boody brand is born from comfortable, premium basics for your body, consciously crafted in organically-grown bamboo. Recently, this posed a challenge for us. Bamboo is lightweight and breathable meaning it’s been great for our basics, but when we started working on Boody Active we realised organically-grown bamboo alone didn’t have the durability and stretch that activewear needs. In a Boody first, we’ve now developed a brand new fabric blending two organic and sustainable yarns, bamboo and cotton. We’re super proud to have created something that is fit for purpose and the planet. 

How do you view the sustainable fashion landscape as an established brand? Do you think we’re oversaturated with “sustainable” brands? What do you hope to see from brands and consumers? Could we see regenerative fashion soon?

Progress has been made in the sustainable fashion landscape but there’s much more work to do. Globally, no-one has nailed the sustainable fashion formula but what is exciting to see is that sustainability is slowly becoming part of the industry’s dialogue. A lasting change needs to happen, but we can’t do it alone. Australian fashion brands who are making ripples include Nimble, Outland Denim and KITX. Together, we hope to act as aspirational leaders for newcomers to follow. Collectively, we can move our industry forward.

Hakea Swim

With summer pretty much here and beach days on the brain, the question of swimwear also comes to mind. As a category, it’s one ripe for falling into the trap of panic buying something trendy, or shopping online, only to realise it’s not quite right, or doesn’t fit, or stretches and sags way too quickly. HAKEA SWIM is a swim brand aiming a little higher than that drawer of your wardrobe reserved for ill-advised summer purchases that don’t get worn for longer than a season.

HAKEA employs the increasingly popular Econyl fabric to make their durable swimmers, which is made from discarded fishing nets, ocean plastic and fabric mill scraps. Like Project Bowman, they also focus on designs that err on the classic side, so you’ll be wearing these swimmers much longer than your frilly cow-print one-piece. Syrup spoke with HAKEA’s designer Casey Eastwell about the difficulties the brand face as a small business, and how they’re working around the challenges.

Why was sustainability important to you when starting HAKEA?

As lovers of the natural world, doing our best to coexist with it is integral. There are many facets to sustainability, and while we’re not yet perfect, we are always actively seeking to lighten our footprint with sustainable manufacturing and conscious consumption.

How did HAKEA decide where it should be focusing it’s sustainability efforts?

We aim to implement sustainable practices throughout HAKEA. From conception, our ethos was to change the way we consume, moving away from the four-seasons-per-year fast fashion model and focusing on creating timeless pieces with versatility and longevity. We use recycled materials where possible throughout our fabrications and packaging.

As a business, we want to utilise our platform to create awareness and give back to social and environmental causes. As part of our commitment to protecting the environment, we are proud to partner with 1% For The Planet donating 1% of our annual sales to conserve and preserve our natural spaces. This global movement connects members with approved nonprofit partners who are creating positive environmental change to make the biggest impact possible. Where you spend your money can make a difference. Together we can create change.

What challenges does the brand face as a result of adhering to sustainable ideals and how do you navigate them?

As a small business, it’s hard to develop new technologies on your own. For a long time, we were looking for plastic-free alternatives for our hygienic liners. It seemed like the few brands using them were already working with big manufacturers offshore, which isn’t viable for a small business due to the high minimums you need to meet.

Recently though we were able to make the switch after Better Packing Co launched their biodegradable liners. Working together is important; sustainable options shouldn’t be a marketing strategy—they should be common practice. We’re currently looking at ways we can close the loop, how can we make recycling textiles a more cost-effective and standard rule.

How do you view the sustainable fashion landscape as a relatively young brand? Do you think we’re oversaturated with “sustainable” brands? What do you hope to see from brands and consumers? Could we see regenerative fashion soon?

I think the fashion industry is going through huge changes for the most part in a positive direction.

When starting Hakea, there weren’t many sun protective swimwear options that were sustainable, stylish, functional and designed by women, for women. I think it’s becoming more commonplace to factor sustainability into brands these days and I think it’s important brands are transparent.

For consumers, I think it’s about a new way of thinking—buying less, investing in quality pieces and knowing that where you spend your money can be helping to create positive change. By shopping from independent designers, the consumer is supporting a small and local network as opposed to a huge corporation. Change starts at the grassroots level.

Lead image courtesy Project Bowman.

Monisha is a writer with a background in publishing and digital media. A chronic Pisces, she’s into trying to be a better person and sparkling water.