A Country Road collection of sustainable stories about Australians makers, innovators, farmers and designers by CATGK
The more I continue on my own path of sustainable self discovery, I encounter more and more people (some experts in their fields, others passionate individuals) working behind the scenes, on the front line and in industry, making things happen, getting shit done so to speak. I am constantly motivated by these folk which is why I wanted to work with Country Road on a series of interviews that share stories about their partnerships with Australian makers, innovators, designers, farmers and sustainable warriors.
By interviewing not just the designer but the maker and the supplier, I wanted to show the incredible importance of collaboration. How one person can drive a chain of great change and innovation by asking questions, not accepting the road travelled before and having the energy and curiosity to look at things differently when no one else does.
You will hear in the interview below from Anne Meagher-Whiting, the in-store designer from Country Road (CR) who did just this. She was that person who took her personal passion to somewhere it hadn’t been before, taking a risk knowing there is more to gain than lose. By engaging with founder and design director, Andrew Simpson of Vert Designs (an environmentally friendly design and production studio) to create in-store fixtures from recycled marine plastics - the knock on effect was to inspire Janice Kirpalani, CR’s jewellery designer whose goal became to design a commercial, wearable jewellery collection made from ocean plastics. I really found this so interesting. That here in Australia we had the ability to take plastic marine waste from our local beaches and waterways, use those discarded materials and turn them into something beautiful and lasting. It made me look at plastics in a whole new light. As a commodity and a resource not something to hide and throw away.
Listening to Andrew talk about his design process was like a light bulb going on. That it is the idea of progress not perfection that we should be aiming for, using these new materials as a design challenge to do better and be better. And when you think that these new materials have been hand picked by volunteers, sorted, cleaned, colour coded and shredded after being analysed to help identify and solve environmental problems it really makes you value and appreciate the product - in this case the earring - so much more.
Fiona Broadbent from Eco Barge (the organisation collecting the plastics from beach around the Whitsundays) makes a brilliant and parting observation that by harnessing waste as a resource and giving it value it creates depth in our economy which means instead of going to landfill it will become a sort after material for ongoing use. I hope you find the below four interviews, all parts in the collaborative puzzle, as fascinating as I did and are proud of what we are achieving here in our own backyard on the stage of sustainability . SC xx
Country Road Jewellery Designer
As it was the first time Country Road has done this, how was this different from designing other jewellery collections? What were the changes to the process from the design perspective? What were the challenges? What were the learning’s? What was the collaboration process like for you? “We met with Andrew at Vert and he showed us small little discs that he’d just produced off his machine, and we were really inspired then to create a commercial wearable range using Marine Debris. The initial focus for us in designing the range was to achieve some sort of cohesion between the beautiful colours we could achieve, the beautiful colours of the ocean and the story behind that; and then put that back into our colour palette. I think for us it was exciting to introduce a new element into our jewellery and continue to push boundaries for future collections as well. What we’ve learnt is that the possibilities are endless; anything is possible."
How many pieces are in the collection? “We’ve got two styles. One of the styles we’ve released three colourways, and the other style we’ve just done the one colourway; we just wanted to do a nice small capsule, something a little bit special.”
Is the whole collection from Marine Debris? “With the earrings posts, anything that’s put into the ear can’t be made of that, so that’s made from a surgical steel, the hoop component is brass, and then the pendants are made of the Marine Debris.”
What is Marine Debris like to work with as a medium? “For us in jewellery and costume jewellery especially I think it can be tricky to introduce sustainable attributes in that area and for us, it was ‘let’s start off small, where can we start?’ and so the Marine Debris really led the design process in this area.”
"I think it's a really exciting time to be working in fashion and we're being challenged every day on new ways of thinking. More and more of our customers are asking questions now about where their products have come from."
What do you want customers to think of or take away when choosing to buy this line? “I guess what we would love the customer to take away, is that waste can be recycled into beautiful new jewellery and with this collection especially there is a sustainable story behind their new piece of jewellery. The plastics that we collected were from the Australian coastline, and due to the marble like qualities in the plastic each piece is going to show natural variations and it’s unique to you.”
What’s generally more important to the consumer; good design first and then sustainability? Is it too much to expect that 'sustainability first' might just become the new normal? Or is the tide turning? “I think it’s a really exciting time to be working in fashion and we’re being challenged every day on new ways of thinking. More and more of our customers are asking questions now about where their products have come from. We’re still on the journey of improving our processes every day, and with that Country Road have recently launched Our World on our website and that’s a platform we’ve designed to educate our community on the great initiatives we’re currently undertaking in business, but I think there’ll always be areas to improve and these are the challenges that really excite and drive us to be better and do better. Working with different materials, there’s so much learning to be had, and what we can push and where we can still improve."
Country Road is committed to reducing their impact. Obviously this is a small beginning, what are the plans for the future? “Country Road have a goal to have a sustainable attribute in everything we do, and this isn’t limited to materials but it’s how our vendors are set up, their water systems or solar panels, it’s also how we can give back to community; we’re not limited to just materials. Everything we do can touch into a sustainable area. I guess for me, it’s what else can we do in the future, what else can I make from these beautiful materials? We really loved working with Vert, and it was learning for both of us. We’re so used to working with offshore manufacturers and dealing with deadlines and timeframes; these pieces were quite hands on, it was a slower process for us and it was nice to be able to step back and appreciate that this was a different collaboration now.”
Country Road In-store Design
You’ve incorporated a lot of sustainable in-store fixtures into Country Road? I believe the Marine Debris Store Fixtures came first before the jewellery line. Can you tell me about the collaboration process with Vert? “When it came to the concept we worked in conjunction with a company called HMKM, and they knew that our target was to get a Green Star Rating from the Green Building Council of Australia for the store. They put in some conceptual ideas about things we could do; Vert wasn’t on the list of suppliers but some of their products were in the concept presentation. I thought ‘these people are interesting I’ll give them a call’ and ended up speaking with Andrew Simpson who was really passionate and excited about the opportunity of working with us and promoting the use of ocean waste plastic.”
Is the idea to roll out a similar in-store design nationally? “Yes, absolutely, the target was to be able to implement in such a way that it’s repeatable. We didn’t want it to be tokenistic or a fad; so our target is to be able to get a Green Star Rating in all our future stores; a minimum of Five Stars, which is what we achieved at Chadstone."
What’s the intention for the Country Road customer? What is it you want them to experience when discovering the story behind these pieces? “We’d like them to be excited and engaged with the idea of our new and exciting environment; peek their curiosity and help them to understand that they’re part of the picture with protecting the environment. We care about the environment, we care about our staff and we care about our customers.”
Can you share a little about Country Road’s goal with using waste and recycled materials moving forward? “I’ve put other people in touch with Vert Design and they’re investigating product development in different parts of the business; it’s in the research and development phase, so watch this space!”
Have we hit a tipping point with sustainability? There seem to be a lot of businesses on the journey right now? “There’s really been a big change. We’ve been really focused on sustainable design since 2005. What we found was there was a real movement in sustainability up until about 2009 and when the GFC hit it really sent it backwards. A lot of people who were advocating for change and pushing the sustainable direction lost their jobs, businesses condensed into their core business and a lot of that appetite for progress just disappeared. It’s really been in the last five years that we’ve really seen it ramping up again. There’s one big change that tells us this is a broader social trend not just a fashion, and it’s the people that are driving sustainability are in far greater positions of power and are doing it from a much more honest place. It’s attracting more CEO’s, people in product development, engineers and people who are just really getting on with it.”
You worked with Anne on the Country Road in-store fixtures and then Janice on the jewellery line. How did the partnership come about? “Anne is the perfect example of how sustainability gets introduced to a business and it’s often somebody who has a personal passion for it and is prepared to take a little bit of risk. Anne was able to say, you’re active in this space, what do we need to do to push this to a level where it does meet our needs, and in that instance with the in-store fit out we did a very small piece of work (rather than the broader commercial fit out) to validate the opportunity. We had to say to Country Road we can produce this material but we can’t produce it to the quality, cost and timings, which is necessary to make the broader commercial project work. I think that’s really good practice on everyone’s part to say it is progress not perfection, and where it doesn’t work, let’s find another option.”
Images from Vert Design
What is the goal and intention when it comes to a partnership like the one with Country Road? “Our goal is to get this into different people’s hands and to create a shift. The intention is moving it all forward. We need people who have sustainability as the core driver of the brief to be able to develop those processes because if anything what Country Road gave us with this opportunity to collaborate was to move it to the next volume level. We have been making marine plastic products at the volume of one hundred or twenty items, and when we’re asked to make things in the volume of 1000’s, it really allows us to scale into the next level of production, which means that we’re consuming more plastics and the aim of this project, is that it’s the one form of consumption that reduces waste. We buy the plastics from Eco Barge, and we’ve been working with them to ensure the commodity price of the plastic is high, and it’s the one example where when we pay an invoice we’re over the moon.”
You’re an environmentally friendly design and production studio that works in the capacity of recycled materials; what are the challenges and what are the benefits of working with plastics? The challenges come down to consistency. When I think about recycling, I’ve found that people don’t recycle well, they don’t have a good mental construct to think about it and as industrial designers we have an understanding of the full life span of materials from their original harvesting to their end of life or their recycling. It gives us a really unique vantage point. A really good way to think about recycling is to consider gold recycling; gold recycling goes on every day, it has been going on for 4000 years, works really well, people will go a long way out of their way to get small amounts of gold and recycle it. The reason for that is the commodity price of gold is very high - $3000 an ounce – and the amount of physical work you need to do to a piece of gold to produce it’s commodity is proportionally very low. So where materials become a problem is where their virgin commodity cost is low. If we look at a low-density polyethylene, it might be worth $1.20/kg but you might need to do $4 worth of work to the material to produce something that’s worth $1.20. I guess that’s the problem with recycling, it’s really nothing to do with the inherent properties of the material and everything to do with the competition of virgin materials in that space. What we’ve done by developing the marine debris plastic is create through the machinery and the process, a material that is not produced in any other way. So the beautiful marbling effect through it and the texture and the tone becomes inherent to the material and that’s how we increase its value. We’ve effectively made a new material.”
"Our goal is to get this into people's hands and to create a shift. The intention is moving it all forward"
What form do you receive all of the plastics? “We end up with palettes and then we effectively paint with the palette. Eco Barge collect, they sort, they take out PVC’s, which cause a lot of problems in the processing, and then they send us a shredded plastic. It’s interesting that what’s available is a result of what’s been collected, so there might be a prevailing northerly wind and they end up with a lot of South East Asian fishing buoys which are red and orange and they’ve travelled from further so we might end up with a more degraded chalkier rich red; or we might have a southerly wind that gets more domestic waste from the southern states and we could have more bottle caps and blue colours – we end up with a palette of materials and we get an opportunity to make an artistic decision into how that’s going to blend.”
In order of process, what came first? The Vert design or the Country Road design? “In this instance Country Road led the design. We are a design firm but I think to be professional creative’s you need to be flexible and say that in this instance Country Road know their customer, they know the market, we’re just operating as support. Our design work on this project was designing the moulds, designing the process and then producing the parts."
Through the collaboration with Country Road, you’ve really been able to strike a balance between beauty, functionality, sustainability and commerciality. How did you manage to tick every box? “It’s applying the material in the right space. We’ve really looked at the material and said what is it’s property, how are those properties best experienced by a human and how do we make sure it’s valuable; and that just tells us where to use the material.”
When it comes to materials, what does the future of design look like? “It really does feel today, that the future of design will be sustainable and my practice has been really material exploration and leading as an inspiration; so looking at materials and processes. A decade ago it was seen as a strange thing to do but we are seeing more and more that this is the future. It’s the idea of progress not perfection. And reduce, reuse, recycle. Often when the level for sustainability is set at perfection, it’s not attainable and people give up, and I think that’s one of the things that’s held sustainability back for so long.”
"It's the idea of progress not perfection. And reduce, reuse, recycle."
Image from Eco Barge
Country Road is committed to the health of the world’s oceans. What do you think of companies like Country Road adopting these types of sustainable practices and working with them? “I think it’s great, and if more companies can start using recycled materials we can then reduce the amount of virgin materials. There’s so much waste out there, if we can harness that resource, we can basically add value to that waste by transforming into something new and lasting. It creates a depth in our economy and means that all the rubbish out there isn’t just going into landfill, it’s being reused and transformed into something which, when it comes to jewellery people can enjoy for a long period of time. I think it’s great and the more people that can get onboard with it and with recycling, the better.”
Are the plastics all collected by hand? “Yes, basically our core program is the Whitsundays Marine Debris Removal Program, so whenever the weather’s right we take the barge out to the Whitsunday Islands with 10 volunteers and we head to the South East facing beaches; you get predominantly south-east trade winds and any debris that’s floating in the ocean tends to wash up on the south east facing bays and beaches and they act like a natural collection point for the rubbish. We all have a bag, we load it up until the areas clean and it’s the same process at the next beach until it’s time to come home again."
In terms of process with Eco Barge and Vert, what happens to the plastics you find before they go to Vert? How does Vert receive the materials? What form are they in when they leave Eco Barge? “Vert receives them as a shredded material. It’s quite a process; basically it’s collected off the beach and after marine debris removal, Eco Barge counts and sorts it. During this all the marine debris is sorted through and categorised as per the Australian Marine Debris Initiative (AMDI) Database, all items are then counted and the data is uploaded onto the database. This program is vital in helping us record how much and what types of marine debris are being found which can lead to identifying problem items so that source reduction plans can be made. Once it’s been counted and sorted we run a recycling event where we get the volunteers in and it’s colour sorted; Vert tends to say we need X amount of this colour and that colour. It’s all come from the beach so it’s covered in sand and algae so we give it a wash then we dry it and shred it. We’ve got a machine called a Shrudder and this machine shreds the plastic into little pellets, flakes of plastic. It means that you dramatically reduce the volume of it, which we then ship and send down to Vert. It’s in a form that’s more manageable.”
Images from Eco Barge
"There's so much waste out there, if we can harness that resource, we can basically add value to that waste by transforming it into something new and lasting."
Since your inception, you’ve collected over 195,000kg of debris and waste from the Whitsundays area; how much debris and waste did you need to supply to Vert and Country Road for this collection?
“It was about 75-80kg of shredded plastic, which doesn’t sound that much in the whole grand scheme of things, but if you think of 75kg of plastic and how light each piece is, that’s quite a large volume. We package it up into 20kg bags. It’s amazing; you can make a lot of new things out of a moderate amount.”
You’re cleaning out the waterways, providing help for marine animals in need and you’re providing materials for a line of accessories; how can people get involved? How can they help?
“If you’re in the area, we always love volunteers; even if you’re just travelling through. If you’re not in the area, the way you can help is by disposing of rubbish correctly, so it doesn’t end up in the ocean and reusing/recycling as much as you can. Every little bit helps.”
Are there any future plans between you/Vert and Country Road in the wings?
“I hope so. The more they need, the busier we're kept keeping that plastic out of the landfill. Vert is great to work with and they make fantastic products so I hope that in the future there will be more need for more plastic.”