Designers concerned by unsustainable practices in the fashion industry are building businesses that aim for positive change
It was never the intention for Citizen Wolf to be a poster brand for ethical and sustainable fashion.
“We set out to solve a fit problem,” says Zoltan Csaki.
His business partner, Eric Phu, explains: “I’m really short and stubby and struggled to get clothing that fits. If I need a business suit, it’s easy enough to find a tailor who will make me a suit. What about the stuff you wear 95 per cent of the time?”
Their tailored T-shirt business is now two years old, and as well as nailing what they believe are “the best T-shirts you’ll ever wear”, their business model now aims, among other goals, to produce zero waste.
Monday sees the beginning of Fashion Revolution Week, a movement that began following the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, in which 1138 people died in a factory making clothing for fast-fashion companies. It aims to address questions around fashion industry supply chains, including questions of environmental impacts and sustainability. As part of the activities, Sydney’s Citizen Wolf is one of a handful of brands across Australia including A.BCH, KitX and Brigid McLaughlin, that are opening up their workplaces for Open Studios, where the public can learn more about ethical and sustainable fashion and perhaps get a little handson in the creative process or learn some new skills.
The bigger message, of course, is about understanding where our clothes come from throughout the supply chain. But it also raises questions about our personal relationship to them: why we need so many, how we look after them, and whether it’s time to buy less, buy better and take better care of the things we do have.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, every year about 500,000 tonnes of textiles and leather goods end up in landfill — and that’s just in Australia.
For Csaki and Phu, owning a couple of T-shirts that are made from organic cotton or wool, and made to measure for your size and shape, should mean they are better than 10 cheaper options available to you — and you’ll keep them for longer. It also justifies the higher price tags, which start at $59 and run up to $129. Not being from fashion backgrounds — the pair met at a digital advertising agency “many moons ago”, says Csaki — they had to do their research. It threw up a lot of terrifying statistics along the way.
“Fashion has a tremendous amount of waste,” says Phu. “Tshirts are the garment that people spend the least money on and think least about. That’s the other side of the equation that we’re very conscious of. One-third of garments (made in the fashion industry) never get sold because they were poorly predicted by the buyer or the designer, or are the wrong fit, and they go straight to landfill. Another third will be worn once and then thrown out because they’ve shrunk in the wash or fell apart after two wears. That’s 50 billion garments a year (globally) that don’t need to be made.”
Csaki continues: “That’s obviously unsustainable. The answer has always existed. The answer is tailoring.”
T-shirts, they say, are just the beginning of the journey for Citizen Wolf, and they hope one day to be able to create entire wardrobes for customers. Their perfect fit is based on the measurements of 2000 early customers, written on paper, then digitised to create an algorithm to ensure a customised tee for each individual. All they need now is your height, weight, age and, for women, bra size. You then choose your T-shirt style from different versions, either in store or online (citizenwolf.com), in a fabric of your choice, which is laser-cut in-house and sewn up by skilled local workers.
They source mostly organic cottons and wool, as well as taking end-of-run fabrics from Nobody denim in Melbourne; all of their leftover fabric scraps are sent to Seljack (seljackbrand.com.au), which uses them to create blankets at Australia’s oldest weaving mill.
“Now we’re trying to consciously become a zero waste company,” says Csaki.
To that end, they’re also now offering free lifetime repairs on any Citizen Wolf item, to keep them in circulation longer.
Courtney Holm, founder of Melbourne’s A.BCH, knew all too well “the wastefulness, the secrecy” of the fashion industry. This compelled her to create a brand with full supply-chain transparency, from “the farmer level” of crops such as cotton or linen, right through the manufacturing process to the point of purchase.
“We take it to the furthest possible point,” says Holm. “Every component, threads, labels, buttons — every item has to be recyclable or compostable. The industry standard for sewing thread is polyester-cotton blend or pure poly, which would render anything we’re creating unrecyclable. So we’re working with pure material — 100 per cent organic cotton right down to the threads and lining, even our dyes are biodegradable. We don’t create anything without a clear life cycle.”
One of the issues facing startup brands — A.BCH is now 14 months old — is that even though an increasing number of suitable products and solutions are now available globally, they involve minimum orders that are out of the reach of smaller businesses.
“It took eight months to meet the minimum for biodegradable elastic. When I was able to do elasticated waistbands it was the greatest day of my life!” Holm believes there could be more collaboration between brands to meet those minimum orders together.
While many designers would feel constrained by the limitations Holm has set herself, she sees it as a challenge. “There are definitely parameters and these little compromises you make, you have to come up with a solution. That’s the beauty of real design. It means you have to be more creative.”
Given A.BCH is a vertical retailer selling direct to consumers online (abch.world) and via its pop-up shop, Holm can control every aspect of the business, down to the labels they put on your postal package. “We use paper tape, recycled paper packaging, everything is recycled and recyclable. Before we launched the website we sourced recycled tissue paper and stickers.
“It seems like a lot of effort, but the whole idea of transparency is that it holds us accountable from the beginning,” she says. “If we have that level of transparency on everything we do, we’re going to strive to do better.” Fashion Revolution Week runs from April 23 to 29; for more information, see fashionrevolution.org.
Citizen Wolf founders Zoltan Csaki and Eric Phu were surprised by the amount of waste in the fashion industry; below, a design by Melbourne’s A.BCH, which strives for transparency