Meet A.BCH: a sustainable fashion brand that redefines what it means to be an ethical fashion line
The future of fashion
"Sustainability" and "ethics" are key words that have been pretty buzz worthy of late. This is turn has caused many fashion brands out there — both emerging and established — to quickly quickly cash in and label themselves as the face of this ongoing green movement. You know the ones. The brands that claim a collection is made of "100% recyclable materials" or sprinkle about vague information that don't really clarify the company's newly invested sustainability efforts.
Melbourne-based label A.Bch is not one of those brands. A circular fashion label that prides itself on sustainability, A.Bch was green way before it became cool. Founded in 2017 by Courtney Holm, A.Bch is one of the good guys. A small, independent label that offers full disclosure on how every single one of their pieces came to be — from the fibers they use in their fabrics down to their buttons.
While full transparency might seem like an exaggeration, this is something that Holm holds as a core value to her brand. We speak to her on how being 100 percent zero waste is a scam and why she willing invites her customers to hold the brand accountable for their practices.
What was your motivation to a circular fashion label? Because, it's obviously a lot of work. A lot of research goes into it and your label is super transparent.
I studied fashion when I was working in that space and I kind of came to a point in my own career where I realized that I didn't want to be doing it just the traditional way. I wanted to do something radical to change the industry. So I established A.BCH as a business model because I wanted to prove that a circular fashion label could exist, and that we could be transparent and achieve all these things that everybody said you couldn't achieve.
It's our whole purpose so it drives all the decision making. It drives the design process, it informs how we educate, how we communicate and how we market to consumers. It's the heartbeat of the brand.
You take great care to educate consumers on your part. But do you think people really know what true sustainability is?
I think it's very overwhelming for them. A lot of people when they are just starting this journey they get confused because there's a lot of conflicting information. What I wanted to do was to provide as much information as possible, but let them choose how much detail they wanted to take in. They can read our whole website if they wanted to, or go straight to a blogpost to read about our processes.
Customer education is incredibly important to us as a brand. How do we make it digestible for people to understand and hopefully take action? We did a runway show and made it an educational experience. People could come in and they could use the technology to see the birth, life and after life of the garments that we had. I think these kinds of actions are really like key to the customers education because it's an interesting way to engage with them rather than just shoving information and expecting them to read it all.
There's a lot of conflicting information out there and I find that super true as a consumer myself. Under materials that you don't love, you put bamboo in there but then I've heard of sustainable brands that love using bamboo. So, can you tell me a little bit about that?
There's a lot of materials that are heralded as being sustainable, and instead of people doing research and understanding why, they get excited about one aspect of it and it becomes an emotional response. It's the same reason why recycled polyester is so popular right now. It's not actually that it is better — there's no evidence-based research to show that it is better necessarily. But because it sounds sexy, I guess people jump on it and go "Bamboo, oh that's amazing, its fast growing. You don't have to put any water on it or chemicals. It must be great!" But the chemical process that it has to go through to make it into a soft fabric is an intense chemical process that also has huge environmental impacts but people just like to leave out that bit.
And I think the one thing I've been really careful with is to understand the entire science and process and material story from harvest through to finished piece, because if you're missing any part of that story than you can't make an educated decision. What we're trying to do at A.BCH is kind of like "Here are the facts. This is why we do it and this is why we come to that decision". And then hopefully can make a decision based on what they've learnt from us and hopefully other resources as well, not just from us.
You're a self-professed recycling nerd. How did that come about? Have you always been big on science since growing up?
I think I just love to understand how things are made and how things exist. I'm just very curious. I don't think I'm necessary like the smartest science head in the world, but if I'm going to use a product and I don't understand how it's made, that terrifies me. If I'm not fully prepared and knowledgeable about something, I don't want to sell it or put it out into the world. And it shocks me that people can not know a part of their supply chain or understand how that particular thread is impacting the garment.
Do you feel that fashion as a general industry does a disservice to customers because of the lack of education and facts presented to consumers? Is that something that has affected you in any point of time?
I think that the number one priority for pretty much every business is to make money. And so, anything that could get in the way of that is not something people would want to be forthcoming about. And I think the sentiment that I hear is that a lot of larger brands don't want to talk about certain things because they haven't figured out how to make it appealing to a customer yet, yeah [laughs]. And I think for me, that does a disservice to the customer because then they feel blindsided when a brand does something wrong.
[At the same time] we're not going to claim to be perfect because we can't be perfect. That's not possible. But we can do our best and lay out all the cards on the table and say, look, we haven't solved this problem yet but we're going to work on it. And once we put that out in the world, our customers can hold us accountable.
So, volume is a factor in the business. So how do you decide how much materials to use or how many designs to release?
We do a lot of like R&D with our customers before we release a new garment. We might put on an event where they can come and try stuff on and give us feedback in real time. Or we might actually give people pieces to take home and wear for a few months and then give us feedback.
We've released 27 garments to date on our website which doesn't seem like a lot. But they have little variations in colour ways and stuff that break them up and seem more than that. We get feedback from our customers on what they want as well. And some styles have started because we have had an overwhelming amount of people ask for something in particular. It's not very structured actually [laughs].
You mentioned that your customers sometimes ask "What's new? What else is there?". Is that a problem for you?
I find it interesting. I think maybe they've been conditioned to wonder what's new because that's how they shop normally. When a customer walks into one of our retail spaces it's a very different experience. And so when they ask that, I kind of laugh inside because I'm just like, I'm just going to show you something because I think it's going to look amazing on you and then we'll have a conversation.
I think like we're also conditioned to think like we can have whatever we want, whenever we want, at whatever price point we can afford. I think that that's a very recent mindset. And I don't think we should feel that way. I think it's very like cleansing when you stop thinking that way and I am a person who has gone through that.
Do you feel more its more challenging to be a sustainable fashion designer as opposed to a regular one who can create anything they like?
No, I think that if I was just a regular fashion designer [laughs]... I don't know — what does that even mean? Because since I started this journey, it has already become a different conversation. When I told people that I wanted to start a business where we can recycle everything and compost everything, people look at me like I was crazy. Now though, when I give lextures and talks and ask "Who knows what the circular economy is?", the hands have gone from zero to half the room. I think that's a testament that it has become more mainstream. I would be very afraid if I was a brand that wasn't focused on this stuff. I'm so glad that that's the business we started.
And what's been your biggest lesson so far in running A.Bch?
There is no such thing as perfect or 100 percent or totally most sustainable in the world. Any time I see "Greenest, most sustainable, 100%", I'm like that's just marketing. You can never be perfect, you can never have zero impact, you can never be zero waste. That doesn't exist. There's always going to be an impact but it's what you do with that knowledge and being honest about it and then making good decisions based out of it.
What kind of eco-problems within the processes in your brand that you have yet to solve? Because you say brands are not perfect, they're always trying to improve.
The kind of things I want to solve are the things that people get stuck on. Stretch [fabric] is a big one, closures and dyes as well are massive issues.
I use this example sometimes because it's a very clear like way to explain it — we've never used a zipper in any of our clothes. And the reason we haven't is because they are very difficult to remove from the garment at the end of life for recycling. And even if you get it off, you have a broken zipper and you can't really reuse it. It has to go into landfills. And so, solving problems like that are really important.
We're also working on a biodegradable stretch fabric. We knit in Tencel to make stretch undergarments and to this date no one else has figured that out yet.
Having said that, will there be a limit to how you can grow your business?
Such a great question. I love it because I ask myself all the time — and it's not that I have an exact number or anything — but I definitely feel there's a ceiling that I self-impose. We're never going to make millions of garments. I'm not trying to be the next H&M — that's not the point of what we do. I don't even know if A.BCH will always exist the way that it exists today. Maybe we will serve our purpose to be an example and then everybody else will do the right thing and come onboard and then we'll serve a different purpose somewhere else.
Interview by: Jolene Khor