From the source: Paul El Sibai, Australian Brand Alliance Labels

Launched in 2016, ABA Labels is a collective of eight brands which combines fast fashion with social responsibility and recently received B Corp certification. Here, founder Paul El Sibai discusses the reality of running a sustainable business, size inclusivity and global expansion.

Inside Retail Weekly: How did ABA Label begin?

PE: It started life from our other business called Stitch Apparel, which makes products for other retailers as white label products – we design and produce in factories and put other retailers’ labels on it. 

Three years ago we thought, ‘You know what? This is all well and good, we have the resources to bring brands to market, but we want to do it differently.’ We thought fashion should be more accountable, more open and have those barriers broken down. So we thought, ‘Let’s try [to launch] a brand and see if we can be more socially responsible, let’s see if we can harness what was already an ethical supply chain (which we had from Stitch) and see if we can do this for ourselves.’ 

One brand became two, two became three, three became six, six is will soon be eight. 

IRW: Why did you decide to apply for B Corp certification?

PE: I’ve been in fashion for a long time with a lot of different ventures, but this is the first one that was ‘Let’s do good’. Fashion’s got to do better in a lot of different aspects and for us, it was also seeing the writing on the wall. 

So even two years ago, we wondered if we could get B Corp, but also be what people typically call fast fashion. We prefer to call ourselves trend fashion, but we’re fast fashion in the sense that there are a lot of styles, they’re fast to make and at an accessible price point. [A lot of people said] you can’t be a good [business] if you’re going to be fast. So we said, ‘Ok, let’s see if we can prove it.’ We got B Corp a few weeks ago.

It was a two-year process for us to get certification but seeing it and understanding it, I’d say that for most businesses, if they wanted it and were willing to make changes, they could do it.

IRW: What did you have to do in the business to get that certification?

PE: For us, it’s more about the measurability. From day dot, we were really measuring a lot of the inputs, putting different governance structures in place and showing what they achieved. We have a CSR committee that [set out all] these goals. The business had to be profitable and it needed 200 per cent growth year-on-year. We can’t do that at the expense of all the good that a business can do if it’s done right. 

Then the actual process was showing those steps, our progress and that we were measuring our energy consumption and its reduction, as well as our carbon footprint and the steps we were taking to not just reduce it, but negate it. 

We partnered with a firm called Greenfleet. Every month, we plant 187 native trees in Australia – it’s a whole reforestation program through an accredited organisation that says we’re not just carbon neutral, but carbon positive, baby! How good is that?

It’s all those things – and a ton more – for B Lab to then say, ‘OK, your business is profit-for-purpose, you’re bringing good to the world, not just your employees and your bottom line.’

IRW: How have you been able to make fast fashion sustainable?

PE: The first thing we decided was that the business would have a laser-like focus on our consumption of inputs and waste minimisation. We only really produce what we think customers absolutely need. Fashion is really notorious for producing lots of garments: ‘We’re not sure what the customer wants, we’re not sure how much we’re going to need, but we don’t want to not have enough so we produce lots.’ Eight-five per cent of what fashion produces goes into landfill.

We put a lot of tech behind understanding the customer, what she wants, what will resonate and understanding the lifecycle of products. We fed this into a pipeline of capacity in terms of production to only produce particular styles or particular volumes, particular size breaks, particular colours for a particular month or day of week. We also set up the factories so they could produce super low minimums in China. We have factories that can produce as low as 60 units. We built the infrastructure to work with what’s most ethical and sustainable and tried to maximise how taking advantage of that infrastructure.

We brought in another third party auditing and verification body called Greenbiz. Our whole Australian operation is gold Greenbiz-certified. You only get that if you’re at the very top of environmental approach for your operations. Everything is LED lights,

We completely replaced the tapware so it’s slowflow. We put water filters in every tap, so you can bring water bottles from home. No [disposable] coffee cups are allowed in the office. We only source green power to power our whole Australian operations. Does it cost a bit more? Maybe. Does it mean we do the right thing? Absolutely. 

When you have things like B Corp that verify what you’re doing, you can sing about it and your customers can further align with you because they can share those ideals with you. They don’t have to feel guilty about buying that dress, because we didn’t contribute negatively to produce and sell it to them. 

We also do cool stuff where we support lots of different charities. Every month, we make donations to an indigenous education fund in Australia, we also support a fund in China which provides education to children in rural communities. We operate in China and Australia so we give back. We provide assistance to Mission Australia, Dress for Success and the Salvation Army. 

We’ve got B Corp, we’re part of 1% for the Planet, we’ve got Greenbiz, we have SMETA – name it and we’ve got it. There ain’t no greenwashing here, baby.

IRW: Greenwashing is a major bugbear for a lot of people in the industry these days. 

PE: Sustainability means different things to different people and there are a lot of mixed batches of information out there on what’s good and what’s not. Even for us to understand, it’s a challenge. 

A year ago, different brands were bringing out organic cotton tees. And we thought, ‘Is it good?’ People sing about the fact that it’s Australian organic cotton, but you’ve got the other side of the conversation – should Australia be growing cotton at all when we have a water consumption issue? 

Some people say you shouldn’t use polyester, but then others will say it lasts longer, washes better, it’s more durable. If it means a garment lasts longer and if you make something that is timeless and make it well, is it any less sustainable?

We consciously said that whatever we produce has to be accessible in price. You could grab one of these items and for a like-for-like quality comparison, the dresses on that rail would sell in excess of $150 at another brand. We sell that for $139. We can be accessible in prices and it doesn’t have to be nasty. 

We’ve been completely transparent, we started a business wanting to be good and we want that to be as accessible to as many people as possible. What’s the point in making a good-for-the-world dress that nobody can buy? 

IRW: Tell me about that the tech that goes into understanding your customers.

PE: We have a lot of different tech in the business. We take the time to really understand what’s going on in social media, so we understand the customer and what the customers are aspiring to. It allows us to make really informed views on the type of product that customers probably want, then the designers get that briefed in and design to that. We don’t need to design 4000 things to get the 10 best ones. We strip out all that waste. 

We see ourselves as a blend between fashion and tech. We use the tech to understand the customer and give the customer what they want, then the sales look after themselves. 

We have teams of garment techs to make sure the garments fit really well. That’s what’s seen us grow, because the percentage of repeat customers is off-the-charts, it’s crazy. 

IRW: Do each of your brands have ecommerce sites?

PE: They all have ecommerce sites but the thing that makes us super unique is we partner with the lead distributor in the country, so say, The Iconic, and we do a mix of operating on their marketplace platforms as well as the indent side of the business. 

We have some product selling on their marketplace platform, but we distribute from our distribution centre, so we do direct-to-consumer. We do it in Australia that way, in Southeast Asia in Zalora that way and we’re in talks with another distribution partner that does all of Europe. We’re very much about finding the right balance with the right partner and distributing it with a mix of both methods.

We’ve consciously decided not to do any bricks-and mortar, because we just can’t see the sense in it from the inputs-to-outputs point-of-view. We think it’s wasteful to operate stores, so the best way to have efficiency in the business is to centralise your distribution platforms, scale them and go from there.

IRW: Size inclusivity is important to you, isn’t it?

PE: Inclusivity means you have to take into account everybody in terms of tastes, and size. All the products must go from a six to an 18 and all the brands do have a curve brand as well.

But what we’re finding is that over the year, the demand isn’t there. Again it’s about balancing what we produce with what we can sell. A lot of the pieces will only be produced for an 18, not because we don’t think it’ll look good, but the tech tells us the demand is not there. We don’t want to be wasteful in what we produce, so we walk that line. But we absolutely have that full size set. 

It’s another reason why we won’t go down bricks-and-mortar. If you want to be inclusive in size, you need a really big store because you have to carry all the stock. Our business can be inclusive and go up to a 24, which we’ve done, because we’re putting things in a warehouse and if you order it, we’ll ship it. 

IRW: Do you guys use different fit models?

We have lots of fit models. We’re always looking at not just what customers are telling us, but how they’re shopping. We look at things like return rates and their reasons and we feed that back in. The team is constantly tweaking how things should fit. For our jeans, we might put them through four different fit models before we decide that for a particular brand and jean, it’s going to be fit in this particular way. 

You have to do all that to keep the customer happy, but if she’s happy, stuff gets sold, it doesn’t get returned and there’s less waste.


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