Katie Roberts - Sustainability in Style - Elvis & Kresse

Sustainable Fashion in 7 Questions with Katie Roberts

July 18, 2018

  1. Tell us a little about yourself and what you do?

I'm originally a country girl who grew up in Australia with parents who aimed to live the sustainable 'grass-roots' hobby-farm life. My love of art and design led me to study fashion production systems because I assumed that fashion would allow me to infuse a useful product, like clothing, with my love for art and design.

The employment gods were kind and I had a whirlwind career in all kinds of covetable positions in the fashion industry. However, it fell short of my creative expectations (which was particularly apparent in one role where I sat at a computer illustrating exact copies of garments purchased on overseas buying trips). It was wasteful in regards to both rubbish and creativity and as I was in the industry on the edge of the fast-fashion boom, I could see that this would only get worse.

The breaking point for me was when I was a lingerie buyer for a department store and unpacked sports bras with lovely purpose-built hangers that were removed and sent to landfill before they even got to shop floor because the poor hangers didn't 'match the decor'. The next move for me was a sustainable tourism degree, which I moved interstate for and they sadly closed down the year I enrolled!

So, by default (they had similar first year subjects), I ended up becoming an environmental scientist and majored in sustainability. I've worked as a plant science researcher for over seven years now while running my sustainability education website Sustainability in Style, working as a freelance writer for print magazines, and also studying my Master of Environment with a major in Sustainability education. I'm at the pointy end of my Masters research where I'm looking at the way that sustainability messages can be transmitted through social media and how they can influence real-world sustainable action. 

  1. Everyone has an unexpected luxury - or a different way of defining luxury. What does luxury mean to you? What do you consider to be a luxury that others might not?

My ultimate luxury is time, space, and quiet. I am disorientated for the whole day if I don't have my quiet time in the morning to meditate, make a smoothie, journal, stretch, and plan for the day. It's that little bit of luxury that can change the way the whole day pans out. I've noticed the days or times where I haven't been able to carve that little bit out can be very stressful and unproductive.

Last year my hubby was injured and couldn't work for a while so I was (not very successfully) juggling three jobs along with the website and freelance work. I think the only thing that kept me going was the meditation! I don't recommend doing that much work at any one time but it's handy to know that in-a-pinch meditation can actually make up for lost sleep and lack of real rest for the short term. 

Katie Roberts Meditating - Elvis & Kresse

  1. What is the most environmentally or socially positive project you have ever worked on?

Ooh this is a tricky one because all my plant science projects fit under this category - as well as my research and Sustainability in Style. To be honest though, despite focusing my career on Sustainability and environment, probably the most positive experience I have had to date was raising money for OXFAM and getting to participate in their Oxfam Challenge- riding a bike through Vietnam and Cambodia and getting to visit an Oxfam-funded weaving venture in a rural village. It was so incredible to be able to do something like that in memory of a dear friend who lost her life far too young. One of my favourite memories from that trip was riding down a rural road and stopping for lunch on the roadside and playing soccer with a whole field of children. The Cambodian people had experienced such tragedy so recently, and landmines are a constant reminder and a real threat of loss. For an Aussie who grew up in a safe and happy (pre-social-media-networking-always-on-stressed-out) time I felt so in awe of the Cambodian spirit to share their happiness with us through the universal language of smiles (and football). 

  1. Do you think the future of apparel is sustainable? Why? Why not?

It's a tricky subject because the fundamental flaw of life as we know it is that we have an economic system based on growth at any cost on a planet of finite resources and space. Sustainable businesses need people to buy from them to be able to make money. Unfortunately, most of us are trapped in the idea that value means 'low cost' and that we need to have lifetime ownership of something, which means that many businesses who want to pay the full cost don't get the patronage they require to stay in business. Also fashion is fundamentally based on the idea of change, while sustainability in regards to fashion requires us to want to change less.

If there is a whole of industry push to closed loop production systems where we can own an item until we tire of it and send it back to be made in full into a new garment without losing quality or creating waste (in a zero-waste, renewable energy powered production system), and/or to be used in its current context by someone else. Then yes, changing your closet contents could be as close to natural ecosystem models as possible. However, people still have to be employed in this model and this extends all the way up the supply chain. Human ethics would dictate that changes in the fashion production system would also require the long term consideration of the millions of people who are employed by the global garment production system. 

I think that with the right economic, systematic, and capital planning the apparel industry could be sustainable. However, I don't know if 'fashion' is sustainable in the current definition of it being always changeable (outside of growing your own T-shirt in the morning and composting it at the end of the week to find a new one spouting from the soil the next day). Finding a signature personal style and using apparel to enhance and adorn it seems (to me) more sustainable than always changing how you look to suit trends.  

  1. Do you have a piece of clothing or an accessory that you have had forever - a completely indispensable classic?

Eeep! Boots! My shoes are literally worn to death and it can be really hard to get ones that last the distance. I've got a few really 'well-loved' pairs of shoes that I could share (including a pair of Dr. Marten boots that are now 18 years old) but these guys are on their last kilometres. I've had them repaired so many times over but sadly they have nearly walked their green mile as the insides of them have now fallen apart and my cobbler said there isn't anything he can do for them. I'm thinking they will become succulent planters when they finally do disintegrate while I'm wearing them.

Katie Roberts Second Hand Thrift Boots - Elvis & Kresse

True story: I was walking through the shopping centre on my way home from the bus stop and actually walked out of the sole of another pair of (thrifted) shoes. I walked back to it, took my shoes off, walked home, and stuck them back on! They are still going!   

  1. Tell us about the last thing you bought which would be considered socially or environmentally sustainable. Why did you choose it?

I love thrifting. It's a talent of mine! Sadly (and I say sadly because people should love their clothing selections more than they do) you can find anything you like secondhand. Which means that many small sustainable brands struggle to capture enough market share as their target market of eco shoppers tend to not shop at all, or buy secondhand first. I actually had a secondhand shopping score at an amazing secondhand market event here on the Sunshine Coast where I recently scored two lightweight Isabel Marant tops. They are divine and I chose them for the natural lightweight fabric, baggy boho designs and full-coverage sleeves and necklines. It gets SO humid here in summer and our winters are sunny and warm so all my clothes are based on being protected from the sun and avoiding the dreaded sweaty-pits-and-back look that happens if you wear tight clothes.   

Katie Roberts Sustainability in Style - Thrifting - Elvis & Kresse

  1. If you could make one change in your own industry, to make it better, what would that be?

I'm not sure what industry to talk about - I have too many (it's exhausting and I hope to change that soon).

Plant science? I would make it more sustainability focused. Sadly, many science research projects have waste outputs. Especially when you have to work in a laboratory environment where quarantine conditions require specific disposal of waste.

Sustainability education? I would get people thinking about the dollar value of education. Education is often taken for granted in regards to monetary value. It's priceless in the way that it is marketed as the solution to all our sustainability issues, however no one wants to put the money into making sustainability education a reality outside of traditional schooling methods and - occasionally - for community groups and not for profits. If we were really serious about sharing sustainability messages with the adults who are making the decisions now that affect the future of the planet, we would be funding sustainability education ventures and research. I'm hoping that all the hard work I'm investing into setting up my Eco Style Insiders members site, workshops, books, and shop over the next few months will give me the income I need to be able to do ongoing sustainability education PhD research. However, if I can't get the funding I need to support myself through these studies, I won't be able to do them. Many of the solutions to our health and sustainability issues are sitting in the brains or computer files of researchers without funds!