We worry where our food is grown, where our coffee is from and what’s lurking in our skincare but what about how the textiles we buy effect the global population? Anne Threlfall, founder of ethical homewares range Elkie & Ark, believes it’s an important question to ask.
“I started the business because I realised that by simply making beautiful things in a better way, we could fix the environmental and human rights problems embedded in the textiles industry,” she says.
When her daughter was diagnosed with a rare condition in utero, Anne started her research. “We were told for almost nine months that she wouldn’t make it. It made me think about how mothers around the world have to worry about their children every single day. Not just for a year or so like me, but for their whole childhood. About the quality of their water, the expense of their food, the lack of their education.”
Anne spent her early career in investment banking and private equity, travelling the world through its five-star hotels. Her range of bed linen was inspired by that feeling of luxury but with a twist: all pieces are designed in Australia, then picked, spun, woven, sewn and hand-finished from 100% Global Organic Textile Standard and Fairtrade cotton. Anne can trace every single one of her products back to the farm the cotton was grown on.
So how do you replicate that attention to detail in your own business? “It’s the most common question I get asked,” says Anne.
Get to know your whole supply chain.
“Visit them or get someone you know to visit them – and then ask questions all the way back to the raw material. That’s the biggest thing that will stand a business apart and is the only way to know exactly what is going on.”
When looking into your supply chains, it’s essential to go further back than where something was ‘made’.
This means going to the manufacturer and asking where they get their fabrics from, then going to that factory and asking where they get their raw materials from, and then going to that factory and asking where their farmers work, and then going to those farmers and asking if they make enough money to support their families.
“A question I’m asked all the time is ‘when you pay more, how do you know it’s gone to the workers?’ and the simple answer to that is: ask! Speak to the workers in private and just ask them those questions.”
The world witnessed an astonishing case of exploitative supply chains with the disastrous collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh a few years ago. Labels from large international companies were found in the rubble. “What happened was that these huge companies had said the factory wasn’t allowed to be used in their manufacturing,” says Anne. ‘”They had audited it and decided it wasn’t safe. But because their orders were so large and their approved factory couldn’t keep up, that factory had to outsource to another factory, which outsourced to another factory – which ended up being the one in Rana Plaza.”
So while child labour or ethical manufacturing policies are all good and well, “unless you really know your supply chain, you can’t know what’s actually going on.”
And that means regular check ins too.
Run your business innovatively.
“Business has to slow down,” explains Anne. Companies often have trouble transitioning to being ethical or sustainable once they’ve cemented their processes without already taking the ethical aspect into consideration (although it’s by no means impossible).
“Once you’ve built into your company that you turn over your products every couple of months and your margin needs to support chain stores throughout the country, it seems much harder to pay three times as much for the base product.”
The solution, according to the Elkie & Ark philosophy, is about going back to basics. “You’re probably going to have to come up with a product that defies all the trends. You need to stand above it. Have faith in the timelessness of your designs – that they are something a customer will want for many years,” Anne explains. “And you’re going to have to take a hit on margins.”
Embrace cradle-to-cradle sustainability. Anne says the mantra of the moment is pushing consumers to wear something at least 30 times. “It’s crazy that 30 is considered a push! People should wear something 100 or 400 times. People are literally wearing something once – or not at all.
Waste makes textiles the second most polluting industry in the world. “The first step is to simply stop people throwing things out – by creating timeless, elegant products that last; to defy trends and create products for long-lasting style,” Anne points out.
But how do we convince people to spend more? “Businesses need to guarantee their products will last longer.”
Which is the next step: support repairing, reusing and recycling – and work with fabrics, like cotton and linen, that are fully biodegradable.
Keep trying. “We can’t be vegans about it!” Anne says, laughing. “We can’t say ‘how dare you have a product that’s made by slaves’ because realistically, we all do. There is basically no such thing as a perfect supply chain.” Yet.
Anne also talks about how important it is to know how you want to improve – and to be open about sharing those issues. ‘It’s quite fun as a brand to look at all these issues and think of ways to work around them. To ask yourself, for example, “how can I avoid using plastic at any point in production?”’
This won’t be easy though.
“You’ll be met with a lot of people who just can’t answer the questions – where something comes from; if it uses recycled material; if so, how much? It’s so ingrained in factories and companies that all people care about is the price. It’s the first question they ask: ‘[Tell] me how many do you need and we’ll prepare a quote.’
“You really just need to keep digging.”