What it’s like to start a sustainable fashion business
“It’s like running a daily marathon”
It’s the year of the great resignation, or at least the great reshuffle, where after two-plus years of working from home, combined with the current heaviness of the world is inspiring many to rethink their path for something more meaningful. In fact it’s a shift that started well before the pandemic, with one 2018 Harvard study citing nine out of 10 people indicated they would work for a lower salary if the job gave them more meaning.
Changing jobs is one thing, but starting your own business centred around sustainability is another thing entirely.
In this interview our founder, Tina Funder chats to Green + Simple about starting our brand-new, vegan handbag label LOM Australia.
Firstly, what prompted you to start your own company?
I have worked in creative advertising for hundreds of clients over the years, and I have always desperately wanted to create my own product. My criteria for the product-to-be was that it had to be innovative, purpose-driven and commercially viable.
In 2019, I read about Adriano and Marti creating Desserto, an innovative leather alternative material made from cactus. It blew my mind and prompted me to look more deeply into the leather industry. I was horrified by what I discovered. A year or so later I (became vegetarian) decided to take the plunge and create my own sustainable label.
How long did it take from concept to launch?
About 14 months. However, the idea simmered for months before I decided to invest. In fact, I did an e-commerce course where I had several other ideas I was considering (all sustainably motivated), but I landed on vegan handbags because I love fashion and I’m passionate about protecting our planet, animals included.
Why cactus ‘leather’?
I have researched a lot of different leather alternatives both plant-based and PU based, and Desserto stood out to me for several reasons. The key benefits of the cactus being: it requires zero irrigation (no water waste), is fast growing and naturally regenerates the soil, has an excellent carbon sequestering capacity, is cruelty free, 100 per cent vegan and the byproducts are directed to the food industry as feed stock. I am constantly sampling with different varieties and there are many different alternative leathers on the market now, it is a growth industry.
What did the process of starting a business from scratch look like?
I reached out to my network and as many people as possible in the fashion industry to ask questions about manufacturing and design. The more people I talked to the more leads I got and I finally found
the right people to work with for product design and sourcing, then the process unfolded a bit like this:
- Material sampling
- Product sketching and technical design development
- Developing my code of conduct
- Sourcing and interviewing manufacturers
- Product sampling rounds (there were many)
- Material and supply chain checks (ensuring everything is certified)
- Brand identity and packaging development
- Sourcing and sampling of sustainable packaging
- Drawing up legal contracts
- Final pre-production samples and external auditing
- Website build, SEO and social media marketing
- Shipping and courier integration
What were the hurdles along the way?
There is literally a hurdle every single day. Too many to list, but here are the most significant challenges I faced.
Made in Australia
I was desperate to make my bags in Australia to support local industry and avoid additional shipping costs and carbon emissions. However, the cost of manufacturing in Australia makes it inaccessible for smaller brands and I found that many local manufactures lack the infrastructure to create the styles of bags I now sell. This was a heart-breaking discovery, and like most Australian brands, I now manufacture offshore. After interviewing manufacturers all over the world, I am very happy with the team I landed with in Guangzhou, China. They are incredibly attentive and adhere to my strict, ethical code of conduct. I am also exploring different bag styles and limited apparel drops that could be made locally.
A complicated supply chain
Controlling the supply chain offshore. This is an ongoing, never-ending juggle. And something that I am constantly trying to improve on. It is incredibly challenging to make sure every element of every bag is sustainably and ethically sourced. There are many elements to a handbag, so I am constantly questioning my manufacturer and encouraging them to find more eco-friendly and sustainable solutions, whilst maintaining a good working relationship. There are still elements of the bags that need work, for example, sourcing organic cotton thread and exploring the use of brass versus zinc alloy hardware.
Which packaging is best?
Packaging took a lot of research and sampling to balance a premium brand experience while ensuring every element of the packaging is recycled, recyclable, compostable, and toxin-free. This is even down to the waxed cotton string used to tie the swing tags to the bags!
How to navigate shipping
Shipping is a bit of a nightmare. Exponential e-commerce growth during Covid lockdowns has increased demand and pushed prices up, and there are huge hold-ups with shipping by sea. I choose to import products by air using a green courier, then I use a B Corp certified, carbon neutral courier service to distribute my products to customers.
Getting all the details right comes at a cost, but until larger corporations adopt more sustainable approaches, sustainably made products will continue to be more expensive.
I feel as though I have run a marathon to get to where I am, and now I need to climb Everest to grow my brand and get my handbags out into the world. I have confidence that the product is beautifully crafted, so once people have them in their hands, the word will travel.
I’m not expecting overnight success, I’m taking things day by day and focusing on nurturing relationships and collaborations with like-minded brands to help spread the word about LOM Australia. And, of course, there are always new and exciting products on the horizon to keep things fresh.
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