Written by Hannah Cole

Photography Supplied

Linen, hemp, shift dresses and tees. How to navigate sustainability in the contemporary space.

Tracing the movement towards sustainability in fashion over the last decade, there is no denying we have come a long way. Seven years ago, the Rana Plaza factory collapse rocked consumers across the world. Finally, the horrifying conditions that produced much of our wardrobe were uncovered and blasted across the news. The following month, Fashion Revolution, the global not-for-profit calling for clothing that doesn’t “come at the cost of people or our planet,” was founded.

What ensued was akin to a domino effect, slowly building at first to the wide awareness of now. In 2016, as a naive 20-something coming to terms with the sustainable plight, I can recall only one local offering that delivered both information and garments I wanted to wear at the time. Wellmade Clothes appeared to be an outlier in a sea of fast fashion and same-day deliveries. Fast-forward to 2020, and conscious launches, dedicated edits and sustainable-only stores are an inbox norm. 

Undeniably, it’s a profitable market to pursue. Recent research found that 87 per cent of Australian shoppers are more likely to buy a product that is ethically or sustainably sourced; we are prepared to pay more for our conscious choices too.

It fits then that major retailers including The Iconic and David Jones have jumped on board. Dismissing the idea would warrant lost crucial consumer dollars (and, I suspect, less customer goodwill and fewer positive PR stories). Add to the list several local online retailers that have launched with specific sustainable offerings: Thread Harvest, Eco Mono, Slow Clothes, Girls of Ipanema. Tomorrow? There will be more. 

Hidden amongst all the linen, hemp, shift dresses and tees, resides Public Figure — somewhat of an anomaly in the sustainable field. “Consumers didn’t want to sacrifice their style in order to be sustainable,” says founder Bella Zito on carving out this niche. “I wanted to help these people find their path to being a considered consumer.” After extensive research prior to launching Public Figure, Zito found that there was a sense of confusion — almost fear — when it came to approaching sustainability in the contemporary — dare I say, fashion-forward — space. 

Zito continues, saying, “It seemed honest fashion had an image problem.” While linen slips and basic-wear have their place in most wardrobes, it’s not the kind of thing many of us are drawn to for the everyday. There is a desire to look elevated and sophisticated, without sacrificing on ethics, which is a difficult convergence to satisfy. 

“The shopper who was uninformed about sustainability thought they couldn’t find a more elevated option — they believed conscious fashion was colourful, patterned, linen beachwear. They wanted more minimalist, refined and elevated options they can wear to dinner, the office and beyond.”

Serving to meet two specific customers — the everyday contemporary consumer, and the informed, conscious consumer — Public Figure hosts an impressive list of labels. Anna Quan, Wynn Hamlyn, Natalie Marie, and Peony Swim attract the fashion-forward customer looking for a conscious curation. Almost a year since launching the store, Zito notes the consumer journey: she is becoming more educated and is on a path to making more conscious choices. 

As is typical of an eco-tailer, Public Figure breaks down labels into focus categories: environmentally conscious, ethical production, made in Australia & NZ, organic, recycled materials. Not only is Public Figure a shopping platform to fill those wardrobe gaps, but a source of information, a change agent, and an activist. In the too-big-to-handle world of sustainable fashion, it is these categorisations that help educate the consumer and enable us to make the most informed decision. While it is difficult for a fashion offering to tick each and every box, we are empowered to select the cause(s) most important to us and make the best possible choice therein. 

I’m always a little suspicious when it comes to mega-retailers adding sustainable verticals to their offerings: is it just a ploy to save face? So, I questioned Zito on these recent local changes. “For the truly sustainable shopper, The Iconic and other fast fashion companies don’t create competition,” she responds. “These informed consumers understand the difference and know what questions to ask to determine the sustainability of products.” Conversely, the addition of these verticals can possibly create confusion for consumers still learning about this space. A sustainable edit is all well and good for a quick, guilt-free purchase, but misses out on educating and communicating with the shopper on a deeper level. “For us, sustainability isn’t a trend or fad, it is a way of life we are integrating personally and professionally.” 

As our commitment to sustainability continues to rise, undoubtedly there will be another surge of eco-tailers, both online and physical. Will the market become oversaturated? Is there a limit to the number of these offerings? “I would personally love to see the market over-saturated with conscious businesses. If that happens I’ll feel as though we, as an industry, have done our part to fix our impact and evolve the consumer mindset.” 

The limit does not exist, so brace yourselves for an enlightening road ahead.

Varro Cuff by Young Frankk.

Balloon Sleeve Tee by Kowtow.

Ribbed Tee by Worn Store.

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