How often have you sat pondering over the question ‘can I really make a difference?’ and never felt you could? Well, the answer is you can. Let me inspire you by introducing Anne Threlfall, the Founder of the newest purely organic, purely fairtrade, Australian-based luxury-cotton bed linen company, Elkie & Ark. This brand is the birth child of one woman’s dream to make a difference from the maker to the consumer.
Name: Anne Threlfall
Occupation: Founder of Elkie & Ark, mother – (former Private Equity Manager focused on cleantech, renewable energy and sustainability)
Mum of: Two under four
1) You are the Founder of Elkie & Ark – a purely organic, purely fairtrade Australian-based luxury-cotton bed linen company. Can you tell me more about your company and the motivation behind it?
I started Elkie & Ark to create modern, luxury, beautiful linens made for living and indulging in. To remind us to slow down, re-connect and celebrate the simple pleasures in life. To hug our kids a little tighter, breathe a little deeper and chink our glasses a little louder. I think we all need to slow the pace of life and put focus back on the things important to us – not on endless distractions. It is also a business founded on doing business a whole lot better. To, quite simply, stop doing harm to the people who make our goods.
I love soft, beautiful whites and light filled spaces – homes that aren’t too cluttered yet aren’t too sparse. Our first product is essential, beautifully crafted, soft, white organic cotton bed linen. All products are hand-picked and sewn 100% certified Global Organic Textile Standard and Fairtrade cotton, made in Fairtrade certified factories. I can’t tell you how beautifully soft organic cotton is. I am working on other products too…
The big elephant in the room, however, is that unfortunately today’s textile industry is entrenched in a system that does too much harm to people and the environment. It is one of the world’s biggest causes of modern slavery, trafficking, pollution and exploitation… the list goes on and the more you look into it, the worse it gets. (I won’t go into it here, but as a starting point, do watch the True Cost documentary if you haven’t seen it).
How did we get to this point? Surely we can change it?
No-one actually wants to do harm so why can’t we just have beautiful, simple things that are made to uplift rather than exploit people along the way? Why can’t we have access to timeless, essential, quality goods that defy the need for overconsumption and waste?
So this was really where Elkie & Ark started.
I knew business could do so much better. I knew I could create beautiful things – stunning products with every detail attended to – but could do it without harm. I could pay much, much more back to the makers and take a lot less for ourselves.
We found family-run farms and smaller-scale factories who embody the principals we have in terms of sustainability and ethics. Every purchase contributes directly to paying scholarships for the children of workers and helps to build community projects like schools or women’s centres. It is truly about empowering people to get out of the poverty cycle once and for all through self-made opportunity and education.
Fair or living wages are paid at every single step of farming, ginning, spinning, weaving and tailoring and workers are paid pensions, bonuses, healthcare and other benefits far in excess of the average or minimum amounts. The factories look and feel just like they would in Australia or the UK: light, bright places with a great happy vibe. People eat delicious lunches, provided by the factories, in gorgeous open tropical gardens. It is incredibly… familiar and normal, in a wonderful way.
We visited and spoke to the workers to really understand how it all looked and felt on the ground and what impact this has on people’s lives. People genuinely enjoyed where they worked. They were confident that their jobs could support them, their extended families and their children. Such a basic thing and so easy to achieve when we are just a little less greedy.
Waste is another big issue, so we stuck to a palette that doesn’t go out of season and defies trends and we followed through with sustainability and ethics right down to how products are packaged. We use off-cuts and recyclable or recycled materials for our packaging.
It has been a hard slog but a lot of fun.
2) You are originally from Australia. When did you leave Australia and why?
In 2010 I left for London with my then boyfriend (now husband) in the aftermath of the GFC. We have a lot of close family in the UK and I wanted to work solely on sustainability, clean and renewable energy. It probably seems odd that I had to go to London to work in renewable energy when Australia is the land of sun, wind and waves.
Prior to this, I had lived in both city and rural areas of Thailand working with kids and girls at-risk of trafficking. En route to London, we also travelled through India, living with families who work in cotton and agriculture. During these travels I started to understand the extent of poverty and a few of the issues holding people back: the shortcomings of legislation on the ground, the issues of trafficking and child labour and why it can exist to the extent it does (“Would you rather your child starved or was sold, or worked in a field? If you don’t pay the parents enough, there isn’t a choice”). It was incredible to have such frank discussions. On the ground things are much more complicated than they might seem from a distance. The answers kept sending me back to square one: to change this issue, you need to try to solve the poverty problem first.
We settled in London for many years before returning home before the birth of our second child. London is now a place we now think of as our equal home and I expect that we will spend a good deal more time there over the years. Perhaps soon!
3) Previously you were an Investment Banker and an Investment Manager. Tell us about some of the projects you worked on and what knowledge about the industry you gained from this.
I started in Investment Banking because I wanted to run my own business yet didn’t know the first thing about debt or equity or cash flow. I knew from a very early age that I wanted to do business differently and had studied Science and Finance, focusing on Environmental Science. But in order to break the rules, I wanted to first learn what they were and to know how big business operated. I focused on projects in retail, health, mining, education, and in the end specialized in sustainability, renewable energy and cleantech.
The biggest lessons, however, weren’t so much knowledge about individual industries but rather on the intrinsic power of business and consumers to bring about change.
As an example, governments work incredibly hard to legislate renewable energy policies that will change how we generate and consume energy. Yet the real tipping point occurs when consumers start pressuring their asset managers or pension funds to invest in clean energy. When buyers support M&S or IKEA when they install solar panels on their buildings. Or when people choose to install solar panels on their homes as the best, most economic choice, as efficiencies increase or batteries become a viable option. This is when a tipping point can occur and the industry really takes hold. Consumers have so much power.
The second biggest lesson I learnt was about looking after the people who work for and with you and creating sustainable business as a whole. Probably an unexpected lesson from finance!
I was lucky enough to have three phenomenal bosses who taught me the importance of looking after everyone who works with you as family and putting people first. Studies have also found time and again, that the more you look after your people, the more you address sustainability, the greater your chances are of enjoying greater business success. I figure, even if you don’t, you’ll have a lot more fun and make a lot more friends along the way!
4) What made you decide to take the leap and start your own business? Was it always a passion of yours to have your own company, being at the source and realizing what needed to be done or was it more the need to create a vehicle to give back?
I have always, always wanted to run my own business. I love the mix of creativity and diligence. But the big attraction for me was to do it differently. When I was a teenager I wrote to the late Dame Anita Roddick, Founder of The Body Shop, asking for her advice. I studied microfinance to understand the impact and mechanisms by which it worked and looked into NGOs, charities and businesses doing good. For me, a business run with ethics at its core was the most self-perpetuating way to empower and change lives on the ground.
So the idea had been bubbling away for many years. It was really after my daughter was born that I knew what I wanted to do.
You see, we had had a challenging pregnancy and at around 10 weeks were told she had little chance of surviving. This firstly led me to start researching her condition. It was not dissimilar to some of the incredible health issues caused in children due to non-organic chemical use in agriculture and industry. This was a shocking thing to suddenly discover. My father grew up in a cotton town. I knew the issues with pesticides and toxic dyes and chemicals, but not to this extent. It also made me think what it would be like, everyday, to wonder if your child might not make it: if every glass of water was a risk, if we lived in a warzone, or simply, how many women couldn’t take leave to care for a sick child. This is, in the end, what truly spurred me into action. I didn’t feel that being grateful was enough and I wanted to help change the situation, from the ground up.
5) To start your own business takes time and money. Did you find investors or are you funding Elkie & Ark yourself?
Yes it does! At this stage we are currently funding the business ourselves, although we have considered some offers. To be honest, balancing time for the business while bringing up little ones is probably the harder resource to find!
6) What obstacles have you had to overcome to get Elkie & Ark off the ground? What advice would you give to others who want to start a business in sustainability?
I think the biggest thing in sustainability or ethical business is to keep the message positive. Empower people, help customers to solve issues, rather than giving them a problem that is so big that they get disenchanted and walk away. Ensure the product itself is of such good quality and design, that it stands up alone, even before you look behind the scenes. This is a hard marketing task. Particularly when you need to educate people about the underlying issues.
Also, don’t expect your business or anyone else’s to be perfect. We all have impacts that are good and bad. We all have a different understanding of what ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’ means. “Fairwashing” and “greenwashing” are unacceptable, but by the same token, we need to give businesses the space to be transparent and admit to areas where they can improve. It can be frustrating when you are being so incredibly strict on your ethical or sustainable measures, yet others are making claims that perhaps in practice don’t seem as extensive the effort or cost you are putting into it… but at the end of the day, everyone can find fault in something. There will always be people doing things differently or better. There is no perfect solution yet. So I think we need to keep championing all improvements while keeping our eye on full transparency and the end goals of comprehensively making things better.
On an operational level, starting a sustainable or ethical business has its hurdles. What happens if the factory makes a mistake, can you throw it away and start again? (No!); Will all deadlines be met? (Probably not. Pressured deadlines are where ‘fast fashion’ problems really kick in.); How do you sell more when you are trying to help people to buy less? (This is a really hard one. You need to go back to old-school business principles of making things to last). How much do I need to know about my supply chain? (Everything! Yes, everything. Question everything. Assess everything, right back to the start. ‘Policies’ or passing the buck to a supplier don’t cut it). You really have to change your business model and expectations.
Lastly, I don’t believe in putting ethical or sustainable products into a niche. In the words of the wonderful Livia Firth in relation to sustainable fashion, “Call it ‘eco-fashion’ if you like, but I think it’s just common sense”.
7) You are a mum of 2. What is your secret to managing the work / life balance?
To be honest, I am not sure I have mastered it at all. My secret is probably that I don’t need much sleep. But that is not a healthy nor smart approach! This is an area I definitely need to improve.
I think the biggest thing currently is that I try to prioritise time with my husband, children and friends. I have worked in an industry that took me away from these before and it isn’t something that I think is helpful – in life or in business. Very early on in the business my husband and I decided to make family dinners a priority and ensure that we had at least a morning altogether each weekend. And I do what I can to make sure I stay in contact with friends and also hope that everyone who has helped us along the way knows how incredibly important they are.
8) What do you think have been your biggest achievements so far in both your personal life and professional life? How do you think this has helped you to start your own company?
Professionally, it was probably succeeding an industry that is dominated by men, yet never feeling like I had to lose my femininity and priorities in order to achieve this. This is something I am passionate about: changing the way we define success in life and in business. Ariana Huffington writes brilliantly on this in her book Thrive, where she discusses the need to define success instead by “our well-being, our ability to draw on our intuition and inner wisdom, our sense of wonder, and our capacity for compassion and giving.”
My biggest achievement personally was probably staying positive before my daughter was born and not letting her diagnosis drag us down. I had very knowledgeable, experienced people in my ear everyday telling me it wouldn’t work out. But, I learnt all I could about the outcomes, then put them aside and said to myself everyday “I truly believe this will work out and be OK”. This was quite a mental achievement for me. I think this is a big lesson overall in life. There is nothing to be achieved by playing over in your head bad outcomes. There is everything to be gained by keeping a calm and positive headspace no matter what anyone else believes. I admit a lot of meditation also helped!
9) What does time out or relaxation look like to you? How do you keep yourself mentally and physically healthy?
For any mothers reading this, I want to be honest. I don’t get much time out at the moment to relax. My kids are so opposite that that doesn’t help. One is an early riser, the other a late sleeper. It makes for some very, very long days, before I start my night of work.
Mentally, starting this business has been incredibly helpful in keeping my mind healthy and really stretching me to create again.
One important relaxation time for me is putting my children to bed. I used to rue the hours it seemed to take to get them to sleep, but now this time cuddling them has almost become a meditation or time to think without distraction. It is such an important moment (or hour) of the day.
Physically, I spend most of my day on my feet looking after kids. I try to set boundaries around getting enough sleep. My lifestyle generally is always becoming more natural or organic and I do try to ensure I don’t clutter my days with excessive things. But no, I don’t currently get time for the things I loved and did when I only had one child and no business (like hours walking or cycling the streets of London, or evening gym sessions or morning swims!) I know they will happen again soon.
10) What do you hope to achieve through the voice of Elkie & Ark?
I truly want people to see that they can change world and have an impact everyday. I want consumers to know how much incredible, positive power they have to change the rules. I want people to know that we can have the things we want and while doing this, we can uplift the people who make them and do no harm.
For me, I also want people to remember how much work goes into the things we buy. Incredible work done by real people. We need to slow down our consumption and to truly appreciate the things we have. Everyday I see more and more people living life this way, which I find so exciting. Essentialism is an idea I truly love.
Importantly, I want to create voices for people who are too often hidden away and not heard. The girls working in isolated spinning or weaving mills and rural workers on farms. Children working on farms. People we don’t hear or see because we are so distanced from where our products come from and how they are mad. Even if products are said to be “made in…” locally, this generally doesn’t include where products were perhaps grown, spun or woven. But wonderful people worked hard to do these things and, most likely, they were overseas. I want to make sure we uplift and remember these people too. I truly know we can do this, with transparency, awareness and care. I know things are changing and I am so excited to be a part of this change!
11) When will you launch and will you be delivering worldwide?
We will launch by July 2016 and yes, will be delivering worldwide!