Equally, the highlights are worth celebrating: we joined as members for 1% for the Planet, we welcomed many new staff into the business and launched a profit-sharing initiative for our permanent employees. Through our paid volunteering initiative, our team cultivated and planted thousands of seedlings for Tree Project, then funded the planting of 31,000 more. We launched two beautiful collections which helped see good growth online and we opened a new store in Melbourne. We also launched two charity collaborations for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and Positive Change for Marine Life raising funds through the sale of dedicated product.
ARO: How are you feeling about the year ahead and what are you looking forward to?
MG: The year ahead feels more positive and hopefully will see us operating more normally, as long as our stores and our wholesale stores stay open. The reality though is that the disruption seen in our supply chain will remain and our team will continue to be affected as Covid spreads rapidly through the community. What we have realised though is that with collaboration, communication, leadership and planning we can get through anything!
Our mandate for this year is to keep our projects and plans on track so we can see some of the stalled vision come to life. We are mid-renovation of a purpose-built office space and design room, which is exciting after 17 years of working from makeshift space.
This year, we’ll also submit our B Corp application, open several new retail stores, achieve good growth online, launch new charity collaborations, introduce more Australian cotton into the collections and produce more locally made product, as well as release our fourth transparency report. There is a lot going on, but we are acutely aware of the need for a slow and steady pace because the last two years has taught us that we need to remain nimble and should things change again, we need to be ready to pivot should we need to.
ARO: How has business been in your physical stores and what are your plans for it in the future? Has Covid made you rethink bricks-and-mortar?
MG: The stores and our retail team have been the hardest hit over the last 12 months. The resilience our staff have shown is humbling and it has been wonderful to see their energy back on the shopfloor with the beautiful hum that comes from customers and staff interacting again. Elk is a very customer-focused brand and the connection we have with customers is increased by the opportunity to have them in our space. We love the physical connection that comes from seeing products on different people, discussing how things are made and seeing how they connect with our collections.
Our plan to open more retail doors has actually been strengthened from the recent success of our latest site that opened in Carlton in December.
Making fashion is not a one-way transaction. We want to deliver products that people actually want to keep wearing and which make them feel great. Retail lets us get a feel for how people are thinking, it helps us hone our craft and make better ranges. E-commerce relies on data and analytics which helps us make decisions but there is nothing like having 100 people trying on your product and deciding why or why not to buy something; this is powerful and influential ‘real’ data that drives change.
ARO: This year, Elk launched the Jardin collection, which went up to a size 20 and featured a diversity of models from backgrounds and ages. What motivated this decision and how will it play out in the future?
MG: We have always been proud of an incredibly diverse customer demographic at Elk but I don’t think we have been good enough at making the effort to represent this. Our creative production schedules became a bit too routine, so we are pushing to be more diverse as the feedback from our customers has been overwhelmingly positive. We would like this year to consult with a specialist to understand which of our styles are suitable for less able-bodied customers – it would be wonderful to illustrate which styles are adaptable. There is so much more we can do to champion the diversity in our community and among our own customers.
ARO: Elk has already done a lot in the sustainability space – what new initiatives do you have coming up? ?
MG: We have set the business and our teams up with processes and the structure to make decisions with sustainability front of mind, so much of the change and improvements we are seeing are business-as-usual for us; always with our 2025 goals guiding us.
For the year ahead, one of our big projects is to get our B Corp certification. The process to get the application ready is huge and we have been working on it for months already in the hope to have a submission in by the third quarter of 2022. This will further our commitment to accountability and transparency and help us measure our goals.
We have also made the decision to move to the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi). Post COP26, it will be great for us to demonstrate strong climate leadership by setting ambitious targets and publicly supporting a net-zero approach.
ARO: What have been some of the ways Covid has changed you as a leader for the long-term?
MG: The shock of the first lockdown in 2020 saw us go into some sort of a reclusive state but we realised quickly we needed to be more present than ever before. We have set our business up with great managers and teams who keep the wheels turning and help us realise our plans, but they still need us as founders to keep the bigger picture in mind and to keep the road ahead in sight. We recently introduced a profit-sharing model which gives all permanent employees the opportunity to share in the successes of the business. This has been a positive way to improve team engagement and share the responsibility of decision making and accountability. The pandemic and the closures it brought have seen us as leaders give more of ourselves and be more open and transparent in our thoughts and decisions.
ARO: It seems like more businesses in retail are publicly addressing sustainability. In your view, how much of it is genuine, and how much of it is greenwashing?
MG: There is a lot of genuine, positive change but there is a long way to go. We are seeing a generational change with new designers and brands making sustainability core to their businesses, younger consumers demand alternative options such as second-hand, and larger businesses are being pressured too. We are seeing a shift to more conscious consumerism as the topic becomes more mainstream.
Sadly, there will always be an element of greenwashing, but I think transparency is key to understanding a brand’s position or work. Information is king for consumers to make an educated decision and see through any shallow claims and avoid greenwashing. Websites, instore information and product labelling are all great ways for brands to share knowledge. While greenwashing is an issue, the bigger concern is the pace of change – it’s simply not fast enough and this scares us.
ARO: What are some of the big challenges for a brand that is ethical and sustainable?
MG: Supply chain transparency is one of the biggest challenges. The biggest impact we have as a brand comes from our products and the materials we use. We are working hard still after many years to map our supply chain back to the farm for every fibre. It is a moving target, with seasonal material changes, and pressures out of our control such as environmental impacts. It’s somewhat less complicated to be ethical and sustainable when you are making a product or operating a business in Australia as you have direct connections to suppliers and can access reliable information to verify. Elk has a hugely diverse product range and manufacturing group, so getting to the bottom of each material and maker is a huge challenge.
ARO: What are your plans for 2022?
MG: We have our plans mapped out and they include moving into our new office, opening new retail stores, launching our Re-New program in February with preloved Elk products, running two new charity collaborations, the B Corp application will be completed and we hope to be involved in Melbourne Fashion Festival again. Along the way, we will continue to keep the conversation around transparency and responsible business alive, we will share our knowledge, voice our challenges and celebrate our wins. We have a busy year ahead.
This article was originally published in the Australian Retail Outlook, powered by KPMG.