This is where a lot of ethical brands get it wrong, they choose to make the trade-off between fashion and fit for the ethical criteria time and time again. I think there is a middle ground, an approach that is considerate of the planet and people however, it doesn’t sacrifice the “fashionable” criteria of fashion. Some garments are made out of sustainable fabrics and in an ethical manner, but they don’t look nice or they don’t last! I know it sounds harsh, but you know the products and brands I’m referring to. I am a firm believer that products should speak for themselves. They should project the brands values through the design, the manufacturing process and the aesthetics. That being said, when I walked passed the ELK stand something about the white Vekki Dress – a Pleated, short sleeve, mid-length dress caught my eye. Intrigued to find out more, I did some research and discovered the Australian brand was founded by Marnie and Adam Goding in 2004. I was fortunate enough to interview the brands Head Designer, the lovely Amadio, and we spoke about the company’s ethical philosophy and their 7-year journey to becoming a sustainable brand and the challenges that this presents to the brand.
When did ELK become an ethical company?
Elk was established 14 years ago and has always been ethically minded, but in the last 2 years we have made a solid, public commitment to completely review the business and the products we make from an ethical and sustainable standpoint. Since we really jumped in we have realised just how important it is to us. We are doing this because we want to not just because we have to. It is a journey that we are on, it is not a simply a matter of declaring that tomorrow I will become a fully ethical and sustainable business.
Do you think it’s more challenging to restructure a brand that has been operating for a while to becoming more ethical or starting an ethical brand from scratch?
In a word yes. As an established business it is more complicated and slower to implement change than it is for a new brand to design their business from scratch. Staff experiences, established relationships with makers and suppliers, public perception and consistency which have all been building blocks of our brand are open to change and this is a slow process. The designing and manufacturing practices we have are already great, but we now want to make them better. We say that we are not redesigning our products, we are re designing our whole business.
What percentage of the business is sustainable right now?
Currently, about 25% of our production could be titled as sustainable but we have a lot more coming in for future ranges. We work a long way ahead (around 18 months) and so many of the changes we make take a significant amount of time to reach market. We have a commitment that by 2025 “all Elk products will be made with recycled or certified sustainable materials, with full traceability back to farm and total consideration for reducing production waste and end of life impacts”. Future ranges will use only organic or recycled cotton, our viscose is from Lenzing (a company that produce sustainable fibres) which are approved by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), our timber jewellery is sustainable, we use a lot of vegetable dyes in tanning our leather amongst many other things. We have implemented a strict code of conduct which all suppliers must sign and agree to and this will evolve as we include more tests and standards. To date there has only been one supplier we have had to stop using because they couldn’t commit to our standards moving forward. I am also about to embark on a 3-month journey which will see me travel through Asia and India. I will be based in Hong Kong as it is so central.
What happens in Hong Kong, what are you going to review?
The trip will be focused on building relationships with ethical suppliers in Hong Kong and surrounding countries, sourcing sustainable materials and following up on leads and people that we have connected with over the last 12 months. We have a shopping list of fabrications and processes we want to source and are really scrutinising how we put our garments and accessories together. We have broken products down completely and have looked into aspects such as making sure we can use recycled poly cotton to sew the garments together, what the care labels are made from along with many, many other ways we can design and produce in line with our sustainable mission. For example, we recently found a supplier in LA who collects plastic from the ocean and then turns the waste into buttons. Another lead is a denim supplier that I am very excited about who has reduced the water consumption to make traditional denim from around 1500 litres of water to 0.4 litres! These are just some of the great opportunities we have sought out and the kind of innovation we are looking for, but it takes time to follow leads like these and so being in Hong Kong means I can go in and out of other countries faster, cheaper and with less impact – we are a long way from a lot of places in Australia!
Tell me more about the Vekki dress, what is it made of?
The Vekki dress is made from a cotton polyester blend. The synthetic material is needed to keep the permanent pleats, I know some people might think that’s not 100% sustainable having poly in it, but if the product doesn’t last, then it’s another fast fashion item creating more waste. We have made this dress in seven sizes from a 6 to an 18…. It’s very versatile and great for travelling and we want people to wear it for as long as possible. No ironing either (great energy saver) and really comfortable. Furthermore, this item and all of our collections for that fact are not trend led. We design mostly for trans seasonal weather which is important with the varied Australian climate and for the global audience we sell to. At ELK we create wardrobe staples each season, allowing our customers to build on the items they already have in their closets.