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I’m an aspiring sustainable designer, so I asked Arnsdorf’s Jade Sarita Arnott for her advice

PHOTOGRAPHY BY TASHA TYLEE

WORDS BY HOLLY HARMAN

Advice from the expert.

I have a very vivid memory of myself as a child, knee-deep in a rubbish skip at school, on a one-girl mission to rescue hundreds of magazines and books that had been put into the incorrect bin. While relocating as much paper to the recycling bin as possible, I was distracted by the fashion pages in the magazines, frozen in my mission, gawking at the beautiful clothes. 

Here lies the ultimate predicament for many fashion-forward individuals – the deep-rooted desire to be earth-conscious and pro-environment is contradicted by an admiration for clothes and a constant yearning for a new wardrobe addition. 

As I grew older, navigating this dilemma was difficult, to say the least. However, shopping secondhand, reducing my fast fashion consumption, renting outfits and purchasing from local Australian designers has helped to somewhat ease my guilt.

Earlier this year, I decided it was time to do something about this predicament. Alongside a friend, I began developing a small sustainable fashion label with the goal of only using materials that would otherwise be wasted. Feeling inspired and ready to take on the world, we got cracking, only to discover that six months down the track, we are still stuck in the research phase. 

While the basics of starting a label had seemed quite straightforward, we were faced with a harsh reality: if we wanted to truly stick to our values of sustainability and up-cycling, it was going to be a much more convoluted process. 

I spoke to Jade Sarita Arnott, founder of leading sustainable Australian label, Arnsdorf, to unpack the challenges I’m facing as an absolute rookie in the industry. After facing a similar personal conflict, Jade decided to put Arnsdorf on hold in 2012 to reinvent the brand with sustainability as its foundation, making it the ultimate inspiration for any emerging brand with sustainable aspirations. 

Arnsdorf is based on the pillars of transparency, ethical manufacturing and sustainability and proudly produces all garments in-house in Melbourne. The brand has a permanent collection of timeless pieces which are accentuated by trans-seasonal collections run in limited quantities to reduce waste. Notably, its pieces never go on sale – instead, the garments are designed to be worn and loved for years to come.

In terms of creating a sustainable label, what were some of the most difficult hurdles you faced when re-developing Arnsdorf into the brand it is today?

I think it can be such a rabbit hole of all the aspects of sustainability. Developing what your personal pillars of sustainability are is so important. It’s hard to do every single one, so figuring out what resonates most with you… it’s good to focus on those to start with. Some brands are about using recycled material and others are more concentrated on ethical manufacturing. Are you using recycled garments and threads? Or dead stock?

We’re using a combination of both. 

Well, the most challenging piece of the puzzle is the circularity aspect, which is becoming more and more important and having access to facilities that take garments at the end of their life and make them into new fibres. In an ideal world, that’s the way it would be working, but we don’t really have the facilities in Australia where we can extract the fibres. This has been challenging for us, but we do donate our scraps to people that want it. In our case, we approach [circularity] in different ways, we do lifetime repairs. We have longevity as one of our pillars, so our lifetime repairs hope to create circulation and so pieces aren’t discarded as often. The conversation has moved on from just being about sustainability, it’s now more about regeneration of the land, regenerative farming and circularity, so that’s the next step in the sustainability journey. New brands should catch up to that as their starting point, as much as they can.

What I have found along that way is that going down a less earth-conscious route would really speed up the process, but to create something truly sustainable requires time and patience. I’m sure you’re well-versed in this area…

[Laughs] It definitely needs patience, things definitely take longer. But compared to what used to be on the market, I think people are catering to a sustainable audience more and there’s a lot more variety. You can even get recycled zippers! It’s also just thinking about ways of designing that can help take apart your products at the end of their life. So, you know, putting rivets in the jeans and limiting the amount you put in. It’s about the materials, but it’s also about the design. Starting out, you’ve got an opportunity to create this foundation of sustainability, so you’re at an advantage to a brand that’s already operating on that wheel of day-to-day business. You have the opportunity to stop and think about the little elements that will make up the brand, like packaging, swing tags, the energy company you use for your studio and ask, “What materials are going to be more sustainable?”. I think the B Corp framework could be a good starting point in terms of their approach to sustainability and their checklists about how you balance profit and a positive impact on the world.

For me, sourcing materials has been quite a challenge, so it’s tempting to compromise the carbon footprint of shipping to get the right material overseas. Do you ever have to weigh up between the lesser of two evils for materials?

If you’ve got a longer lead time you can do sea freight – that’s less harmful to the environment than air freight. It’s also about supporting the sustainable fabric makers to show there is a customer for this type of product. It’s about finding the most sustainable fabric that will also work in the products and perform well. We use a bit of deadstock that acts as a highlight piece within the collection and that can be good, but personally, I invest in organic cotton over deadstock. I think it’s more sustainable for a brand ordering larger quantities. If you’re starting out, that’s fine, but it’s important to transition over to supporting regenerative farming and align with processes that you want to see in the industry. If there’s too much demand for deadstock, is it really deadstock? It can get a little grey.

Choosing a more sustainable fabric can be quite expensive, it can be difficult to make these investments with a low budget. 

In terms of expensive fabrics, there’s still a spectrum of fabrics that are sustainable but at a lower cost. It’s about balancing your values and the value it’s going to have as an end product. You might be spending an extra five dollars on a garment, but it will add so much more value to the consumer if it’s got a more sustainable material.

When designing pieces, I have found myself frequently reassessing whether elements of the design are too trend-based and, like you said, whether the design is able to be transformed at the end of its life. How do you go about balancing trends and longevity?

We have a permanent collection, which is our core collection that has modern wardrobe staples. Within that, we produce seasonal limited-edition collections which are influenced a little bit by trends, but still with the brand’s own DNA of timeless design. It’s like furniture design, something can be bold and interesting but still retain timelessness.

Keeping things Australian-made comes at quite the cost and often it’s tempting to just manufacture overseas to suit the budget. I must admit, there have been weak moments where I think it would be easier to manufacture offshore. How important do you think it is to stick to your guns about keeping things locally made?

Local manufacturing is a strong part of the business and everything is still made here, but to be honest, with the pandemic and everything that’s going on, you actually need diversity in your supply chain. I think you need as much transparency in your supply chain as possible, but it’s been really tricky during this period when we have had to shut down and not operate. It’s also really expensive when there’s a downturn in the economy, so I’m not completely opposed to overseas manufacturing, as long as it still holds the same values. Our values are transparency, ethical manufacturing and sustainability, so it’s taking the pillars and being flexible in how you operate within those pillars. So if you can find a manufacturer overseas that works for your pillars and you feel confident in them, then that’s fine. It’s not a right or wrong or black and white thing, it’s really just about making informed choices and making sure they work with your own brand values. 

It’s hard to know how to go about production, how do you minimise waste in this area?

Figuring out what manufacturing process is going to work best for you, whether it be made-to-order, in-house or whether you need to outsource to produce things. We do small batches of things, see how that sells and then re-cut accordingly. We are able to respond quite well to supply and demand rather than over-ordering, hoping a design will sell and then having to mark it down. Being conservative in how many units you produce, especially at the start, is important. Made-to-order produces less waste, so it’s a good way to go, but it also takes more time and can be less efficient. 

What would your advice be for someone, like myself, struggling to develop their label with a sustainable conscience?

I think just get really clear to begin with about what your values are. It doesn’t have to be following what other sustainable brands are doing, either. I guess it’s thinking laterally and figuring out what your voice is, what you are going to bring that is different in the space, and what impact on people and the planet you can make, while being a viable business. Keep going, knowing it’s not going to be perfect and just start anyway, it’s a work in progress. Just continually try to improve what you’re doing. Done or good is better than perfect. It’s always scary to press go and it’s never completely perfect, but you’ve just got to set a date and stick to that. 

arnsdorf.com.au

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