Luxury with a Conscience
You’re a pioneer in combining luxury with sustainability. Why was this so important when you were starting out? As I travelled around the world exporting our first brand of knitwear, Snowy Peak, I became really concerned about the trajectory the planet was on. I saw the environment deteriorating year on year, at a time when business and government focus was all about growth at any cost. After a mental game of tug-of-war between thinking that it was too big a problem for one person or business to tackle, but also not being able to ignore what I had seen and knew, I decided my best chance to try and make a difference was to create a positive and aspirational sustainable brand that showed you could be good to the planet and its people and still enjoy great design, style and comfort. I wanted to reach opinion leaders and people in the global population that had the greatest capacity to make a difference themselves. This meant we needed to be at the luxury end instead of the jute/hemp sack cloth end.
How did you make this vision a reality? Back then no one was really using the word sustainability in the context of business – or government, in fact. The first thing we did was have our entire team read a bunch of books we bought on sustainability. Then we agreed on what being sustainable as a company meant for us. We were invited to join a pioneering group of eight organisations from New Zealand and Australia called Redesigning Resources. We met each week to figure out how to create a sustainable organisation and set ourselves projects and targets, and used our internal group peer pressure as motivation. It was tough going, but it was very good. We had help from other organisations in the group who had skills we didn’t have and needed, and in return they were able to come into our business on a weekly basis and learn about implementing this in a business context. At the end of the process a book was written, with the goal of providing sort of a blueprint for others to follow. We wrote our first comprehensive Sustainable Development Report two years later, which was a massive achievement. We now do new ones every two years.
What were the major hurdles? There were so many! We needed to make products our customers would love so much, they would be inspired to want to know more about them. But much more than that we had to think about the business process: energy, waste, material use, reducing waste to landfill, reducing waste in production, right down to the little stuff like setting up Bokashi buckets in our tea rooms. We have always been a company that looks after its people well and have had a high level of engagement, with a low turnover and low sickness rates, so that side of the sustainability picture wasn’t something that was difficult, but it all had to be documented. Being a truly and holistically sustainable company is so much more than doing one sustainable line or one or two projects. We’d embarked on an all-consuming, whole-company approach, which involved a lot of difficult decisions. The reality is the price you pay to create sustainable fashion can be higher, but we believe it’s worth it.
How do the principles of sustainability influence your design? A key platform for sustainability is to use less, so our aim is to create wardrobes that are super stylish, multi-tasking and won’t be in one season and out the next. They also have to be easy to care for and comfortable to wear – basically those pieces you want to go to in your wardrobe time and time again because they look good and make you feel great. Our aesthetic is ‘less is more’, which means the cut has to be superb, the fabrics exquisite, and the quality of the construction has to be extremely high. Design for sustainability is involved and comprehensive, from considering not just the production impacts of materials (fabrics, buttons, etc.), but also their ‘in use’ impacts on the environment once purchased. For example, how and how often a garment is cleaned can have more impact than its original production. What about end-of-life use – can it be upcycled, recycled, composted, or does it end up in landfill? We also want to know as much as we can about the human side of production. Who has grown the fibre, processed the fibre, the yarn, the fabric, who made the garment, what were their working conditions like? Fortunately we produce most of what we do right here in Christchurch, so we know the answers to much of this. Our design meetings are much more involved, thinking wise, than if we weren’t sustainability focussed. It is a journey; what we can’t solve in one collection may be possible next time.
Tell us about the fabrics/yarns you’ve created and the reasoning behind them. We’re constantly working on new fabrics and materials to bring to our customers; various blends of organic cotton and merino, left-field plant materials, and combinations of recycled fibres, but we do have a couple of firm favourites. Our machine washable Merino fabric (Mountainsilk™) is, I believe, the best Merino fabric on the planet. It is easy care, requires minimal laundering, won’t pill and will hold its shape and colour. This is due to the technology behind the fibre selection and yarn that goes into this fabric. Our Ecopossum™ knitwear is a favourite with customers. We got involved in bringing possum and Merino to the market over 20 years ago, as it was just such a wonderful fibre combination, being so light yet warm and having such amazing performance characteristics. It was a perfect material for us, as it was utilising a fibre that was then being wasted. To bring this to market I practically had to do a PhD in all things possum so that we could deliver a high quality product from what was a variable fibre depending on the age of the possum, the region it came from and what time of year it was. We somehow managed to perfect the recipe, and have gone on more recently to introduce two new variations on Ecopossum™; Kapua™ (dehaired possum blended with Cashmere) and Cassum™ (dehaired possum blended with exceptionally fine, 15 micron Merino). Both blends are divine to wear and take luxury to another level.
What are your proudest achievements? I am constantly humbled by how well the Untouched World name and kite logo is recognised around the world. It’s pretty exciting when the likes of Barack Obama and Prince Harry are spotted wearing our garments, but equally I get a huge buzz out of people telling us how much they love their Untouched World garments and our brand. Probably what I’m most proud of though is the recognition Untouched World has achieved at global level for our Sustainable Development work. UNESCO has us on their website as one of three global exemplars of Education for Sustainable Development. We have been working with the UN now since 2006 and in the last year we have become a founding partner of their new GAP (Global Action Programme). The Untouched World Charitable Trust (funded by the brand and some wonderful partners) is delivering ground-breaking ‘Leadership for a Sustainable Future’ programmes, and seeing young people coming through these programmes inspired to go out and make a difference, really makes me feel like what we’re doing is all worth it. It’s a massive team effort and it’s only made possible by the truly extraordinary people we are fortunate to have working with us in the company and alongside us on this journey.