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Untouched World’s Peri Drysdale on creating a sustainable business

‘Sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ are the words on everyone’s lips at the moment, as conscious consumers are on the rise and demanding more from companies. But we wondered, what is it actually like running a sustainable business? Elly Strang chatted to Snowy Peak and Untouched World founder Peri Drysdale to find out more.

September 1, 2015 | News

The now infamous picture of President Obama in an Untouched World sweater.

Untouched World produces sustainable designer knitwear, apparel and accessories that have been spotted on the likes of former US president Bill Clinton and the incumbent, Barack Obama.

It also only works with suppliers whose values align with its own clean, green vision.

But before sustainability was getting the attention it’s getting today, Drysdale was addressing the issue 30 years prior.

She and her team decided sustainability would be a core aspect to their business before they’d even heard of the word, Drysdale says.

When Untouched World’s parent company Snowy Peak was founded in 1981, she says she decided to work with natural New Zealand fibres and manufacture the majority of Snowy Peak’s clothes in New Zealand.

Untouched World was launched as a Snowy Peak collection in 1995, and as a brand three years later.


If any clothes are made overseas, Untouched World makes sure employees have good working conditions and a fair wage.

Drysdale thinks most clothing brands should want to have a clear understanding of their supply chain.

“Depending who you talk to, clothing is one of the top two or three dirtiest industries and has some of the most hideous human rights issues going on the planet,” Drysdale says.

“I don’t understand how people can shut their eyes to what their business is and it impacts on human beings.”

The point where Untouched World decided to really hone in on sustainability was in 2000.

 Drysdale says she had her eyes opened to what was going on in the world, socially and environmentally.

Peri Drysdale

“I was travelling a lot and noticing that there was huge change going on globally from year to year,” Drysdale says.

“When you live in one place you don’t necessarily see it happening, but when travelling you see things going on, like signs appearing by a river saying don’t swim here as it’s polluted. That was the trigger.”

The company now has several systems in place that ensure sustainability.

Its clothing designers must know the life cycle of each material they use and whether the material is recyclable or not.

Untouched World makes sure overseas suppliers allows its staff to visit factory staff unannounced.

“That’s the only way to be sure, as any piece of paper can be bought,” Drysdale says.

“It’s finding out on the ground what really happens.”

A portion of the profits made from Untouched World clothing go into the Untouched World Charitable Trust.

The trust funds education programmes that teach leadership for a sustainable future to teens.


One of Untouched World's leadership programmes, held at Blumine Island

Another leg to the trust is ProjectU, where Untouched World clothing is made in India in a social enterprise scheme.

Indian women are given double the current going rate for sewing and their children get an education to keep them from going into sexual slavery.

She says these three important prongs in place ensure sustainability.

“It’s looking at the product life cycle, making sure people who work on your clothes are being treated well and what you do with the profits, which for us go into a charitable trust.”

 

Eradicating child labour


How do you know your supply chain hasn't been tainted with child labour?

Accreditation system and charity foundation Child Labor Free (CLF) wants to help businesses show consumers that their supply chains are free from child labour.

After two years in the making, it has just launched and already has New Zealand Fashion Week on board as a partner. Fashion brands such as Hailwood, Kate Sylvester, Nom*D, Ruby and Stolen Girlfriends Club are piloting the accreditation system.

Michelle Pratt and Nikki Prendergast founded the two-part foundation and accreditation system.

The foundation is not for profit, while the accreditation system is a social enterprise and limited liability company.

Brands can sign up online to have their supply chains audited and, if successful, can market their products with the trademarked CLF mark.

CLF also has a consultancy service to help businesses through the process of becoming child labour free.

The idea came about when Pratt and Prendergast were sourcing toys for their New Shoots early childhood centres.

The pair realised they had no way of knowing where the products came from – or if children made them.

“It dawned on us and we went, ‘How do we know?’ All the children in New Zealand that play with and touch toys – how do we know where [those toys] came from?” Pratt says.

Read the rest of this article here.

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However, despite various accolades declaring it best in business, such as being the first fashion company to be recognised for sustainability by the United Nations, Drysdale says its business model isn’t faultless.

“I would never say everything we do is sustainable – it’s a journey,” Drysdale says.

But any difficulties are worth it, she says.

“For me, it’s the motivation for getting out of bed in the morning and continuing to do what we do, because it’s so exciting and so worthwhile to see change can be made,” Drysdale says.

“Our customers really like what they buy because it’s having an impact on the planet, the dollars they spend is making them feel good as a consumer.”

Untouched World has recently teamed up with Child Labor Free, an accreditation process that certifies companies supply chains as free of child labour.

Drysdale says Untouched World thinks its great such an initiative has come out of New Zealand and her team wants to support it.

“It’s much broader than making sure no children work, it’s making sure families don’t need children to work to survive,” Drysdale says.

“If you went and said no children working, you might make it worse for families in the short term, so Child Labor Free makes sure they’re paid enough and there’s education and support.”

​Why you should tell your business’ sustainability story


Sustainable Business Network national communications manager Fiona Stephenson agrees with Drysdale on businesses needing to be more than just sustainable.

“Once upon a time there was a progressive company which looked after its employees, sourced from sustainable suppliers, was as efficient as possible and whose products enhanced consumer wellbeing. But its promotional messages didn’t gel with consumers. Sales stagnated and the company failed to thrive. The end,” she says.

“Simplistic, yes, but this story is played out in real life all too often.

“On the other side, there is a growing opportunity for savvy business which tell their sustainability story in a compelling way to engage consumers and sell products or services.”

If you’re a company wanting to take steps towards sustainability, Stephenson says throw jargon out the window, including ‘sustainability’ if necessary.

Instead, she says focus on your company’s story.

“If you’re not sure what your story is, think how you’d like your business to change the world, even if on a small scale. What difference do you make? What problem are you trying to solve? Use empathy to connect with your audience,” She says.

Read the rest of this article here.

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Despite a growing consumer interest in sustainable products, Drysdale says it’s important to realise it isn’t the be all and end all to a great product.

“The bottom line is the style has to be right, the colour has to be right, the price has to be right and then sustainability is an important underpin. Sustainability on its own isn’t enough for success,” Drysdale says.

Here's her tips on how to take steps towards becoming a more sustainable company:

  • The first thing to do is to get a common understanding or a common agreement about what sustainability means to your company. We started by giving everybody in the business from supervisor level up a whole bunch of books to read on what sustainability is.
     
  • Get a really good sustainability advisor to take you by the hand to start with.
     
  • Get assistance through New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development. There are really good programmes in place to measure what you’re doing.
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