Six years ago, ELK co-founder Marnie Goding was visiting a supplier when she began to notice the amount of waste being generated and the broader environmental impacts of the industry.
As business owners, Marnie and her co-founder and partner Adam Koniaras already had strong social values, looking to use their business to create employment both locally in Australia and within the supply chain.
But this experience set them off on a quest to improve practices in their supply chain that has transformed their business into an award-winning sustainable one.
The ELK story
ELK is an apparel and accessories brand based in Melbourne, Australia, operating since 2004. It has 109 employees as of December 2019, four retail stores in Melbourne and wholesale distribution across Australia, New Zealand, Japan, USA, Canada and the UK.
The business now looks to create products that are good for people and the planet, including supporting traditional trades, design for a circular economy, certified ethical suppliers, a living wage, responsible materials, community contributions, carbon neutral operations and sustainable packaging. For more detail on these initiatives see ELK's 2020 Transparency Report.
Taking the first steps
Following Marnie's visit, she started asking more questions of suppliers and researching alternative materials. At the time, sustainable fashion was a relatively small niche and just beginning to grow in demand so her suppliers weren't used to receiving such questions and didn't know where to begin in answering them.
She was able to make some progress in developing relationships with those suppliers who were willing to evolve with ELK but eventually realised that in order to make any significant change she would need a dedicated role to drive change across the business.
Calling in help
So 3 years ago, ELK brought on an Ethics and Sustainability Manager, Erika Martin, who Small Mighty CSR recently spoke to about ELK's journey.
Erika says her first step was to make sure she fully understood the business and its environmental and social impacts (or its triple bottom line) to know where best to focus her efforts. Though Marnie already had a long list of changes she wanted to see, Erika quickly focused on the areas ELK had the greatest influence: its operations and its major suppliers.
She encourages other small businesses to do the same - to focus on one change at a time.
Within operations, Erika focused first on tangible and visible changes to demonstrate the company's values and mission in practice to employees, including capturing and diverting 95% of waste from landfill, installing bike hoops to encourage cycling, and employee volunteering and fundraising activities. This, plus a series of presentations and education on sustainability, encouraged staff to be more conscious of their own influence.
Moving forward, Erika plans to tailor efforts further within individual departments, setting sub-goals on how they will help to achieve the company-wide goals.
Tackling the supply chain
Making changes to the supply chain has been a long but rewarding process. Erika introduced a Supplier Code of Conduct early on to establish acceptable standards of practice, but helping suppliers to understand and adjust to it took patience and diligence.
She found that taking the opportunity to visit the supplier factories in person made a significant difference in understanding the suppliers' businesses and context, enabling deeper communication than over email, helping suppliers to see the benefits of change, and supporting them to implement practices in ways that made their own businesses stronger.
With Erika's dedicated focus, ELK's progress accelerated. In the last 3 years it has published its list of direct suppliers and working toward tier 4 suppliers in key materials, minimised and shifted most packaging to recycled and environmentally preferred materials, and worked with its design team to prioritise a list of sustainable 'Preferred Fibres and Materials'.
Growth and resilience
ELK has now published two comprehensive Transparency Reports and was recognised with the inaugural Sustainable Innovation award at the 2019 Australian Fashion Laureate as well as being named a finalist in the 2019 Banksia Foundation Awards.
In the 3-year period since Erika has been driving sustainability efforts through FY20, ELK's annual apparel sales grew an average of 10% each year, despite a difficult retail environment.
2020 was a difficult year across the board and ELK was no exception, transitioning away from physical retail, shifting employees to work from home, and managing supply disruption and restricted manufacturing capacity. However ELK's strong relationships with suppliers kept the lines of communication open and ready to restart quickly.
Erika has also noticed an increased demand from conscious consumers in the last year, including more comments in social media and customer inquiries, and expects to see this drive a strong recovery and growth for ELK.
When asked for her top tip for small and medium businesses looking to be more sustainable, Erika couldn't limit herself to just one.
Her top tip is to "Just start somewhere. Don't be overwhelmed; even small changes make a difference. Make sure it's true to your values, something you're passionate about so it will actually be embedded in the business. Every little bit makes a difference."
She also encouraged businesses to ensure their sustainability efforts are resourced appropriately - if not a dedicated role then at least establishing an internal champion or coordinator to drive progress. A senior leader like co-founder Marnie who owns the commitment and prioritises it at a strategic level can make a huge difference.
As Erika says, you don't have to reinvent the wheel - there's lots of examples out there of other business' initiatives and even policies with a quick google search. And ELK's 2020 Transparency Report is one great resource to learn from a small business leading the way in sustainability.