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Tanya Carlson: “One of the things people tend to comment on is the incredible fabrics used in New Zealand fashion.” Photo/Ken Downie/Listener

How NZ fashion designers are creating a sustainable future

New Zealand fashion designers are in the vanguard of the industry’s efforts to work ethically and reduce environmental harm. Nicky Pellegrino and Glenda Lewis report on their successes and challenges. 

Until recently, Jodie Woods ran her fashion brand, Tonic & Cloth, from a caravan parked beside her home in Palmerston North. She now has a bricks-and-mortar store with a studio in the back, but still does most of the work herself, from serving customers to designing garments and dealing with suppliers.

Her label was launched at New Zealand Fashion Week in September 2018 and, from the outset, social responsibility has been a driving force. Woods says ensuring everything she uses is ethically and sustainably produced has been more difficult than she ever imagined. “There’s no guidebook. I don’t think people realise how challenging it is.”

A breakthrough was connecting with Ana Wilkinson-Gee, a New Zealander living in rural India, where she runs ethical women’s clothing manufacturer Holi Boli, which trains and employs local women under fair conditions.

Read more: The shocking price of fast fashion | Ideas for greening the fashion industry

Woods hired Holi Boli to manufacture her designs using organic cotton sourced in India, reducing the environmental footprint of her garments. However, it also meant she had to abandon her original plan to launch the label with a collection of comfortable, flattering trousers.

“At that point, Holi Boli weren’t up to making trousers,” says Woods. “They had only been doing shift dresses and didn’t even have a buttonhole machine.”

Slowly, the two businesses are growing together. Holi Boli now employs 14 women and has upskilled so they can produce jeans. Woods has just done her first collection with garments made entirely by them. “I’m still keeping things simple,” she says. “Every season, I try to do this a little better. I just keep plugging away.”

Jodie Woods. Photo/Supplied

Social responsibility is a challenge even for a designer starting small and building a collection from the ground up but, as Woods has found out, it is doable. At the other end of the scale, large international fashion houses have purchasing power, which means they can dictate to their suppliers and have a say in the sustainability of the manufacturing process and workers’ conditions. It is those businesses that fall in the middle that really struggle – and that means most of New Zealand’s fashion industry, which puts us in a unique position.

Tanya Carlson launched her eponymous label in 1997 and having New Zealand-made has always been important to her. Over the years, she has built close relationships with the people who produce her garments. But, while she is well established, her business is not big enough to source fabrics directly from the overseas mills that manufacture them, as the minimum orders required are far more than she could ever need with only one store, website sales and a small amount of wholesaling to cater for. As a result, Carlson is a regular visitor to Wall Fabrics in Auckland, where she is able to shop for smaller quantities.

“One of the things people tend to comment on is the incredible fabrics used in New Zealand fashion,” says Carlson. “It’s because we’re buying in the secondary market. These are end-of-line fabrics from other designers. Marc Jacobs is one we use in New Zealand, or it may have come perhaps from the mill that makes Prada.”

Carlson enjoys finding special prints and might only need 50-100m of fabric to produce a short run of a design that she hopes purchasers will get many years of wear from. The downside is she can’t know exactly where that fabric originated. Wall Fabrics sources tens of thousands of metres of excess stock and cancelled orders from bigger brands, bringing in rolls of different fabrics by the container load from countries such as China and Japan. Often it deals with intermediary agents and buys particular fabrics in very small quantities, making the sort of traceability consumers are beginning to demand almost impossible.

With true traceability extending to buttons, zips, the hardware on jeans and even packaging, it starts to seem overwhelming for consumers as well as designers.

Ana Wilkinson-Gee with one of her team. Photo/Supplied
On the face of it, Tearfund’s Ethical Fashion Guide appears to be a good place to start if you want to shop conscientiously. But, look closely and you will see some of the global fast-fashion brands, such as Zara, score more highly than our homegrown designers. This is partly because the auditing processes used have been designed to assess large factories with thousands of employees, not the network of individual pattern makers, cutters, buttonholers, pleaters and embroiderers, many of whom work at home, that the local industry uses.

“We all use the same outworkers,” says Carlson. “We’ve known them for years, we’ve been and sat in their workplaces.”

Leading New Zealand designer Karen Walker was critical of the Tearfund ethical-fashion process after her own brand received a C-grade last year. She pointed out that the research teams that assess fashion companies do so from their desks, using secondary sources such as audits, rather than actually visiting the factories.

The majority of Walker’s production happens in China, where she works with four comparatively small factories. She has visited them in consecutive years “to see for myself what our team has been reporting back to me and what our audits have shown us” and plans to go again next year. All her manufacturers sign a code of compliance, are visited by her New Zealand production manager twice a year and are independently audited. In recent years, the company has stopped working with several suppliers that couldn’t solve issues identified in audits or be 100% transparent.

Because she owns one of New Zealand’s largest fashion labels, Walker is also in the fortunate position of being able to buy direct from the mills, giving her more traceability to the origin of the product. That doesn’t mean 100% certainty, however.

“Generally, raw materials are hard to trace,” she says. “Even Global Organic Textile Standard organic cotton typically cannot be traced back to its cotton farms of origin.”

Walker plans to keep working on this, as she is with all the trims she uses.  “There’s no finish line to this project.”

The local women who work for Holi Boli. Photo/Supplied
Because New Zealand has a unique fashion scene, it needs to develop its own way of assessing ethical standards. To ensure responsible business practices across the industry here, Kate Sylvester and the brand Ruby spearheaded the Mindful Fashion New Zealand initiative. So far, a number of well-known designers have signed up, including Carlson, Walker and Trelise Cooper, and several suppliers, among them Wall Fabrics.

Working collaboratively isn’t something local designers are used to, says Emily Miller-Sharma, general manager of Ruby, but now it makes a lot of sense.

“We’re one industry and we need to come up with solutions for long-term sustainability. Our intellectual property is in our ideas, that’s what differentiates us, but we can work together on how we minimise any negative effects on people and places. That doesn’t have to be a secret.”

So, rather than each individual designer going to each of their suppliers and asking them to sign a code of conduct, they are able do this as a collective. They can audit factories as a group, band together to place larger orders of commonly used fabrics and, most importantly, share knowledge and swap advice.

It’s not a quick fix, says Miller-Sharma. “We’re always going to need to improve; it’s never going to be finished. There will always be a better method of washing denim or of extracting the metal for zips. You just have to keep mapping out targets and timelines and ticking things off.”

On the Ruby website is a Toolbox For Change section that itemises the materials used for everything from clothes hangers to swing tags, and the efforts being made to reduce waste and energy usage.

“I can understand why some companies want to simplify the information about their sustainability journey,” says Miller-Sharma. “We’ve decided to give maybe too much information. If customers want to then they can read it and if they have questions they can contact me and I’ll answer them to the best of my ability.”

As one of the world’s most polluting industries works on cleaning up its act, many New Zealand designers are doing their bit to keep pace. Want to buy swimwear made from recycled fishing nets? You’ll find it at local ethical clothing brand Kowtow, which also offers a clothes-mending service using the Japanese patching technique sashiko. Purchase an accessory from Ruby and it will come in an organic cotton pouch with a drawstring cord made from paper pulp, and even its care cards are printed on recycled paper.

Walker no longer uses buttons made of virgin plastic; instead, some of her garments feature buttons made from corozo, the seed of a tropical palm that is harvested only once it falls from the tree. And, this year, Walker started working with Outland Denim in Cambodia because it uses new technologies that dramatically reduce water and chemical consumption. Meanwhile, Kathmandu recycles millions of plastic bottles each year and turns them into fleece jackets, T-shirts and backpacks.

Miller-Sharma says what excites her about this change is that it is consumer driven, but the lure of cheap throwaway fashion remains. “If something is cheap, ask yourself why,” she says. “Buy products that last so you don’t need to replace them as often. Hold the companies you are purchasing from to a higher standard.”

Apparel sustainability consultant Vanessa Thompson, a former professional buyer for New Zealand chains and department stores, says the industry has been too slow to go green. “For some retailers there’s still a head-in-the-sand attitude. They think this sustainability ‘trend’ will go away. In some companies, the sustainability responsibility has been given to the marketing team, which is crazy.”

The complacency sometimes centres on a “what about China, pumping out all those consumer goods?” excuse, but Thompson says China is greening up.

“A lot of its factories are state of the art, with solar panels, recycled water and good conditions for workers. There are some really good guys over there, and the government has toughened environmental regulations. I’m told it has even shut down some factories because they were not meeting water-effluent standards.”

Thompson quit professional buying after 10 years because she found the overproduction, over-ordering and dumping unbearable. “There were no key performance indicators for sustainability in the industry. The waste was terrible.”

She has travelled to investigate the global supply chains for herself and tells her clients to rethink fabric choices and eliminate unsustainable packaging as a first step. She says 70% of a garment’s environmental impact is a result of international journeys from field to textile factory to machinist to retailer.  Then there’s the 25% of fabric that is wasted in the cutting room and mostly thrown in landfills.

Thompson says New Zealand designers can import fabrics such as viscose – a type of rayon fibre – made by EcoVero from verifiably regenerated forests that use half as much water and energy as traditional viscose. Postie uses it in its Eco range. There’s also Tencel, a brand of lyocell – another form of rayon – produced by Austrian company Lenzing from eucalyptus.

More thoughtful pattern making could greatly reduce waste, as could new recycling facilities, says Thompson. New Zealand has none, apart from Onehunga’s Textile Products, which turns wool waste into insulation and felt. Only 1% of our clothing consumption is wool. Synthetics, such as polyester and nylon, are 60% of the market and can’t be recycled here.

Synthetics do take much less water to produce than natural fibres, but, says Cameron Weber, a chemical sciences senior lecturer at the University of Auckland, they also take 30-40 years to biodegrade,  exuding greenhouse gases as they go.

As New York Times science writer Tatiana Schlossberg has pointed out in her book, Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have, every small improvement a consumer makes in their shopping habits, such as not buying petroleum-derived synthetics, adds up massively.

One tip, based on her research into jeans manufacturer Levis, is to wash jeans only once every five wears. “That would really move the dial.”

This article was first published in the December 21, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.