3 brands reveal their sustainability journey

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Three retailers – Wittner, NICO and Team Timbuktu – on the steps they’re taking towards a more ethical future.


We’re focussed on becoming a plastic-free company”

When the Wittner shoe brand started production more than 100 years ago, sustainability wasn’t a key consideration. But, as production manager Anderson Maciel explains, the brand has evolved over the past 20 years


“Since 2000, we’ve operated a vertical production philosophy, which means we seek transparency at every stage of production. But in the past two years, we’ve really started to focus on sustainability and our supply chain, because customers want it and it’s the right thing to do. 


I noticed that the good tanneries in China were joining the Leather Working Group, for example, which is a not-for-profit organisation that audits them for carbon emissions, water and power use, and where materials are sourced. Now we look for that accreditation and we’ve become an active member of the group ourselves – I don’t want us to be left behind. 


We also look for factories that meet high European standards for their working environment and supply chain. Certification is so important; a lot of component suppliers say their products are vegan or recycled but, when we ask for proof, they become evasive. Consumers need to know that they can trust you.

A lot of component suppliers say their products are vegan or recycled but, when we ask for proof, they become evasive

- Anderson Maciel, Wittner

We’re focussed on becoming a plastic-free company. In March, we launched an eco-shoe box that I’d spent about six months developing. It’s made from 100 per cent recycled pulp and has a handle, which means customers don’t need a plastic bag to take it home. The box costs us about 3-5 per cent more than a standard box.


Cost is, of course, a consideration – there’s a limit to what you can absorb and still maintain an acceptable brand pricepoint. Two years ago, costs for sustainable suppliers were high, but now it’s becoming easier to find competitively priced suppliers as demand has grown. 


Our next step is using different materials, with innovation in sustainable materials. Wittner has always been known for its quality leather shoes, but this month, we’re launching a vegan friendly range made from recycled plastic bottles. This was a bit of a mindset-break for us and required a lot of testing to ensure the material could withstand sufficient wear and tear and maintain our high quality standards. We’re looking forward to seeing how customers respond. We’re also exploring other technical innovations in materials as we take this next stage in our journey.”


 “Our goal is to become carbon neutral”

For NICO founder and designer Lis Harvey, sustainable fabrication was just the first step in becoming an ethical brand 


“When we started the brand eight years ago, we didn’t intend it to be ethically focussed – we just wanted to make lovely underwear! But once we started looking at supply chains and sourcing materials, my personal ethics stepped in and I realised that I was only comfortable working with sustainable suppliers. 


Our organic cotton is GOTS certified and we use Lenzing Modal botanic fibre from beechwood trees, but really, environmental sustainability is now a factor in every decision we make. For example, shipping can be hugely wasteful – our factories used to ship every item to us in plastic polybags. 


We were like, ‘This has to stop.’ So now they put everything in one larger bag, which makes a huge difference. We also started using compostable mailers about two years ago – they’re marginally more expensive, but the goodwill from our customers makes it well and truly worthwhile.


Next year, our goal is to become carbon neutral, which is complex as it involves considering every stage of the supply chain. I’m confident that our production partners share our ethos – for example, the guys who dye our fabrics naturally are converting their premises to run on solar power, which is cool. But I think we will get outside help on how to achieve neutrality.  

Next year, our goal is to become carbon neutral, which is complex as it involves considering every stage of the supply chain.

- Lis Harvey, NICO

There’s a real advantage to starting on the right foot and building sustainability into the brand from the start. So, I’d suggest new brands keep sustainability front and centre from the beginning. For established brands, it might feel overwhelming, but, really, it’s just taking a bunch of small steps, and doing what you can, when you can.”


 “We needed to educate people about our product”

Customers have lots of questions about Team Timbuktu’s raincoats and activewear, which are made from recycled plastic bottles, says founder Rhianna Knight


“Even before I started Team Timbuktu in June 2018, I had good relationships with factories and suppliers through my previous role in skiwear design. I knew it was possible to make high-quality fabrics using recycled plastic and that they would be as effective as non-sustainable synthetics, but we’ve had to educate consumers along the way. 


To use marketing speak, at the top of the funnel they’re really excited about it, then by the consideration phase they’re asking questions like, ‘Is this going to make me sweaty? What’s it going to feel like?’

We’ve had to educate consumers along the way... by the consideration phase [customers] are asking questions like, ‘Is this going to make me sweaty?

- Rhianna Knight, Team Timbuktu

So, we connect with them through the website via private chat, or through social media, or they might read a blog or review. Customer reviews are also really important as they offer social proof. 


It was important to me to visit our factories overseas, as it enabled us to build a better relationship with them. When you visit suppliers, they appreciate the effort you’ve made. It’s also important to check certification to ensure, say, that the raw materials they’re using are indeed post-consumer recycled plastic bottles. 


We use compostable bags for shipping and mailing, and in 2021 we’ll be planting a tree for every order. We trialled this initiative in November, to counter Black Friday, and planted 10 trees for every order, which ended up being 2000 trees. It was pretty exciting. 


But our long-term goal is circularity. You can use the most sustainable fabric in the world, but at the end of its life the garment often goes to landfill. Circularity is a real challenge for small businesses and for synthetic, mixed fibre material. Our leggings are made from 75 per cent recycled polyester and 25 per cent elastane, which are really difficult to separate into the single fibres that you need to create another garment. At the moment, you can only separate them using heat or chemicals, and it’s really complicated. 


But there are companies investing in research right now, so we’re hopeful.”


Felicity Robinson is the former deputy editor of marie claire, and the co-founder of PRIMER, a content studio and website.