Ethical, Sustainable & Cruelty Free Brands
With nearly 30 years experience in the Australian fashion retail industry, Cathryn Wills knows a thing or two about adapting to change. Living in Brunswick West and working in Kensington, both hot spots for the recent rise in Covid-19, it’s an interesting time to be in business. So how’s the founder and Creative Director of one of Australia’s fastest growing cruelty free brands, Sans Beast, handling the COVID-19 shaped curveball we’ve been thrown this year?
“It’s certainly been a chapter that has had its challenges,” she shares. “I’ve become accustomed to rolling with the ups and downs. It took about a month to adjust to the fact that the world had changed. I, and the business, needed to adapt accordingly.”
Ensuring her team felt safe and secure during the early days of the pandemic’s impact on everyday life was a priority, so they shifted into a WFH scenario in mid-March.
“We’re a small team, typically working out of a studio HQ in Clik Collective, a co-working space in Kensington. We implemented a routine of video calls each day at 9am, to check in and maintain a connection. We’ve pulled back on the future wholesale growth strategy to protect the health of the business … and we’re finessing our direct-to-consumer brand strategies.”
Just as various restrictions began to lift around the country and some semblance of pre-pandemic normality was on the horizon, a second state-wide lock down was announced in Victoria. Adapting faster now, Wills tells us the announcement only flattened her for “a few hours” before she got back to the business of making new plans and forging on.
Going Animal Free
This feeling of navigating the unknown is a familiar one. After a decade working in the world of leather handbags as the creative director of MIMCO, things didn’t feel quite right. She mustered the courage to resign from the successful role and the stable income that came with it, having only a vague sense that her next chapter would not involve the use of animal products.
“I was on a plane and in Bali within 2 weeks of my departure from the job, and found slowing down a challenge. I built a powerpoint presentation with a Bintang by my side and threw around terms that spoke to an animal free ethos. Sans Beast as a term just came to me, so I popped it in the title slide and went back to my lunch, pool and friends. I registered it when I got home, but I didn’t give it too much further thought for a few months. The name felt too emotional, too blunt, too ‘heart on sleeve’.
After 18 months of consulting work and embracing a plant-based diet, Wills returned to the idea and found that, actually, the name was just right.
For today’s ethically conscious fashionista, Sans Beast is the perfect accessories label. It’s high end design that won’t break the bank, manufactured with quality and not cruelty. The eye catching designs hit the sweet spot between timeless and trendy. “Designing bags that are classic in nature versus jumping on every passing trend is important to us. We do have an aesthetic point of view and I’m not suggesting we live outside of the trend sphere, but we aim to make each piece seasonless, functional, good looking and robust.”
When it comes to contentious issues like sustainability and ethics in fashion, it can seem as though any attempt at transparency – at embracing the notion of learning as you go – can land a brand in hot water. Silence on these issues or ‘greenwashing’ can often mean avoiding accountability, at least for a while. Why the emphasis on transparency then? “The truth always resonates,” she says.
“I’ve been in the industry for a long time and I believe that anyone sugar coating what they’re doing whilst not recognising the elephant in the room – that newly made fashion and the addiction to ‘more more more’ that is part of modern consumer culture is inherently flawed – is not being honest.”
“I live with a constant existential crisis where I know our product is good and our message is powerful as a tool to drive change, but making more fashion for the planet comes with its downsides. I think every consumer needs to recognise this. Don’t believe brands can be perfect. Own your decisions, love what you do decide to buy, and look after it.”
Not all ethical solutions are perfectly sustainable, but Wills continues to demonstrate her commitment to educating herself and wants to bring the increasingly eco-conscious consumer along with her. From sharing her open-letter apology to animals to providing resources to further information on how we treat animals en masse, she knows that real change requires a perspective change – and time.
After all, her commitment to launching an entirely vegan, cruelty free brand grew in tandem with her own journey into a plant-based lifestyle. There was no ‘turning point’ exactly, but a slow evolution instead.
“I’ve always believed in considered design, responsible manufacturing with ethical partners and transparency in communication. The more I learned about animal exploitation and the impact that industrial agriculture has on the world, both environmentally and health-wise, the more I moved towards the position I’m in now. I had cognitive dissonance for so much of my career. Caring where materials came from, yes, but closing my eyes to the impacts of this provenance . That it took many years to finally wake up and make a change.”
Due to the effects of the pandemic on industries across the world, fashion does seem to be ‘slowing down’ for the moment. While Wills hopes this leads to change for the better, she stresses that the consumer will still have an important role to play. “The optimist in me hopes that every brand will adjust their sales and profit targets to incorporate a slower and more responsible approach to new collection deliveries, because this is what consumers will ask for.”
“However, the realist in me believes that for this to make sense to big business, prices will need to go up and this is not necessarily what consumers are looking for. So, I think consumers ( all of us) have a role to play in choosing well when we shop. Who made your clothes, bag, shoes, jewellery, and so on? Does the price seem appropriate to cover wages, materials, transport, storage, overheads etc of the supply chain?”
Caring for Our Planet
The cruelty-free, ethical focus of the brand is front and centre. “The first and major point is that we don’t use animals as building blocks. No animal fibres or materials, and no animal based glues. We also work with manufacturers who I’ve worked with for over 14 years, who I trust, have visited many, many times, and whom I know adhere to audits, worker codes of conduct and paying their staff above regional awards. We moved the majority of our poly bags to soluble bags a year ago (from a company called Hydroplast). Each order is wrapped in an undyed, recycled cotton dust bag and then in soy printed, tissue paper made from the pulp from FSC plantations. Then, for online orders we send them in recycled and recyclable boxes that we seal with water activated paper tape.”
“Irrespective of bottom line profit growth, we also donate from every purchase to Edgar’s Mission, an animal sanctuary in Lancefield, Victoria. We have so much more to do, and the road sometimes seems daunting, particularly when I speak to peers in the industry about all the great initiatives larger retailers are doing. However I focus on doing what we can with our resources, both as a self funded brand and with a very small (but mighty) team.”
This strong ethical focus informs the aesthetic design of Sans Beast bags. Says Cathryn: “Designing bags that are classic in nature versus jumping on every passing trend is important to us. We do have an aesthetic point of view and I’m not suggesting we live outside of the trend sphere, but we aim to make each piece season-less, functional, good looking and robust.”
It’s important to be proud of what you produce and Wills does admit to having her personal design favourites. “The Reader Satchel is our most popular design, closely followed by The Bandolier and a handful of other styles that continue to resonate with our growing community. Petite Smuggler is probably one of my favourites. It’s got our signature, luggage inspired handmade handle on it, bringing a twist to the typical cross body bum bag. It brings a bit of utilitarian styling to both dressed up and casual looks. My style veers more towards androgynous than pretty, so I aim for all of our styles to speak this language.”
Moving forward, Wills is resolute in her opposition to accepting the status quo. “Adversity builds innovation is the mantra we’re going with. Overall, 2020 has been a momentous year. There has been much tragedy and hardship, however, there has also been a real awakening that’s occurred through the pain, with many of us thinking more deeply…offering more empathy to our fellow earthlings and generally becoming more cognisant of our life choices. That’s the upside I’m wanting to focus on.”
Speaking positively during these Covid-19 days, Wills is able to project the future direction for her cruelty free brand. “I’m focusing on building our capacity to continue in business through the toughest chapter in retail history.” Her plan is to grow the team slowly but surely and extend into other areas she’s passionate about, such as vegan apparel and shoes.
That vision includes having a Sans Beast destination store somewhere, sometime and ultimately, continuing to use “our privilege and platform to inspire change for the better.”