Anne Foster, founder of Elkie & Ark, speaks all about her journey as an entrepreneur, the inspiration behind her brand, and advice on adopting a sustainable and less wasteful way of living. Elkie & Ark is an Australian based brand that sells organic, ethically made, and fair trade bed linen. To find out more about the brand, you can click here to visit the website or read on for the interview.
Business Name: Elkie & Ark
Personal Name: Anne Foster
Job Title: Founder
Please tell us a little bit about yourself, your brand and the products that you sell.
I’ve spent a lot of my life working across sustainability and ethics – everything from studying Environmental Science, to investing and advising leading businesses on global renewable projects, waste and water issues, to working with girls and women who are survivors of trafficking or domestic violence. It’s a varied background but most of all – it all come from having for many years wanting to show how much of an impact everyone of us can have.
Industries like oil or gas get a lot of attention for the pollution and issues they cause, but textiles goes under the radar. Despite this, it is one of the most polluting and exploitive industries in the world. But we can very easily do something about it by changing the fundamentals of how we do business and what we do it for.
I set up Elkie & Ark when I couldn’t find beautiful, high quality products made with the care for the environment, ecosystems and people, right back to the farm. So we crated them! We have started with 100% certified organic cotton and fairtrade bed linen and are soon to expand into other products too.
So what does sustainability mean to you? And what led you to focus on sustainable and fair trade products in particular?
I have been living studying and working the sustainability and ethics space for probably 10 or more years now. It has been important to me since I was a teenager or even before. But, I also live in a city, I love beautiful, minimal, thoughtful things in my life. I think sustainability needs to be something that we covet and love as much as anything else. I don’t believe that sustainable products should look any less beautiful or be any lower quality than anything else out there. Instead, I hope that one day it is simply how things are done.
What led my to focus on sustainable and fair trade products was really seeing the harm being caused on the ground. Everything from toxic waste to its impact on newborn children and also big issues like trafficking or child labour that go on. Speaking with businesses it was obvious that legislation wasn’t working. As I was asked “if you aren’t paying the parents enough to look after their children, what other options do they have?”. So for me, to solve the problems, we need to start form the ground.
Unfortunately, the fast-fashion nature of the textiles, homewares and clothing industry today means that so much pressure on downward prices and margins is put onto businesses and producers that it stops adding up. People don’t make living wages. They don’t work in safe work conditions. And if it is cheaper to use toxic bleaches, or not treat waste or have children work, then this is ultimately what happens. For me the clincher was seeing my own child go through severe medical issues and realising how lucky we were for the basics in life that we have. I wanted to give back to communities who don’t have access to basic things like health care and clean water and parental leave and to at least where we can – help out.
For me sustainability and ethics needs to be holistic and at times it is really hard. We need to ask questions most businesses don’t ask, or delve with questions that often are uncomfortable to ask. We focus on it at every step of the business from farm to finished product and even our impact after this. This means fairtrade farming, sustainable farming, promoting food and water security and not using GMOs. It means low impact dyes, using renewable energy in production, no PVC or non-sustainable packaging, at our end it even means we operate the business in Australia at zero waste. Our packaging is biodegradeable or recyclable. We refuse to follow trends and make products that truly last.
What is the meaning and ethos behind your brand?
The meaning is fairly simple. I love creating beautiful things. I love helping people focus on a life that is simpler, more essential or minimal and indulges in the important things, like friends and families, time, conversation, sleep (!) and also, giving back. I don’t believe it is OK to keep doing harm to people and the planet and I know there is a better way. There is so much going wrong in our supply chains when we really look into them. It needs to stop. That’s pretty much it. I don’t want to compromise on the essential things in life, but I also refuse to compromise on the planet or lives.
What was the thought process behind the decision that led you to create the products that the brand sells? And how did you come up with the idea for the brand?
I wanted to create things that were essential. That don’t go out of fashion, than last a long time and that we can truly indulge in and covet. Not items that we buy for a few months then get tired of. I wanted a product that every time people used it, they loved it. Now white bed linen (and the products we have coming out soon) are things that everyone uses and everyone needs. It isn’t a product I feel is wasteful or excessive. In creating the products we then stepped through every single step – from the farming, dyeing, producing, shipping, packaging to make sure it was as sustainable and ethical as we could. We continue to keep looking for areas we can improve.
The brand itself just stemmed out of me wanting goods made this way, but always finding I had to compromise on the end quality or look. Sustainable and fair trade are how something is made – not how they look or their quality! So this was really the crux of it – showing that we could do things so much better but still to the highest quality. I think the moment we started selling even to people who normally wouldn’t buy organic or sustainable goods we knew we had achieved a lot of what we set out to too!
What makes your products ethical, sustainable, and eco-friendly?
Everything we can! It is in how we select our packaging, farming, dyeing, crafting, shipping, waste management, energy sources, water reduction, wages, worker safety, education, removing GMOs. The list goes on!
We work with small-scale, primarily family-run producers, we pay fair trade prices for all of our cotton, we only use certified organic farming and processing which looks after not just the toxic inputs but the entire impact on the environment – water, waste emissions, outputs, inputs, quality and durability of products and even packaging. Fair trade cotton prices are at a minimum 10% higher than the normal price. This supports education and community centres, seed banks to help combat GMOs (which are 95% of the current Indian seed market). At every stage of production we pay living ages or fair prices, and child labour and trafficking and discrimination simply aren’t allowed. Not just in policy but extensively in how our partners run their business – and how they have for many years. Long before ‘eco’ or ‘ethical’ became buzz words. We then continue this ethos into our packaging, working with local packaging businesses and using sustainably sourced cardboard and not using any plastics when we ship. Our shipping partners are even carbon neutral in how they operate and seek to use up wasted courier space. It really is something we do across the board.
We also research extensively. There is a lot of greenwashing and misunderstanding out there. Often people run with headlines without really looking at what goes on behind the scenes. We talk to people on the ground to really understand what it means for the people on the ground, doing the work everyday.
In what ways do you live your life in a sustainable and eco-friendly way? And what does sustainable living mean to you?
It is an ongoing process to live in more sustainable and eco-friendly ways. We do it in everything from the local, organic, seasonal largely plant-based food we get each week, to buying wherever we can without plastic or wrapping (and asking companies to when they don’t) to really minimising what we buy (I hate clutter, in fact it stresses me!). We get a lot of things – in particular for our children, second hand. We support when we do buy, other businesses doing sustainable and ethical tings (in fact, even on the business page you will see lots of shoutouts for brands doing good). And in our home we have done a lot to really just get rid of excess, use sustainable, low toxic products from beauty to body care, cleaning and even for our kids. I admit we have even managed to use cloth nappies on our kids to almost four years now!
However, there are ways we also fall down. I don’t live on a farm where we can grow all of our own food. We live in a city where we need to drive. I don’t anymore live in London anymore where for four years I didn’t have to drive a car (the best experience ever!). So there are plenty of ways that we aren’t perfect by any means, but do what we can. If you haven’t discovered free-cycling yet, joining this was one of the best things I ever did. It isn’t anything like you would expect and is the most amazing way of usefully giving away things you don’t want or need or getting hold of things you do.
For people wanting to move towards a more ethical and conscious way of living but are feeling overwhelmed, what would be your best advice?
Take it day by day and start by focusing on what is important to you. If animal welfare is important, start with that. If deforestation is important, start with things that help that. Start with goals that mean something to you. Then make one for yourself every three months. And don’t throw things out that you already have if they are still useful, just to get a more sustainable option. Use things up first! Also, don’t be overwhelmed. Every step you take should actually make your life simpler not harder. There is nothing more refreshing and simple than going from 30 bodycare or home cleaning products to just 2 or 3 simple ingredients you can use for everything and that do the job!
What are your favourite eco-friendly and sustainable fashion brands? Or favourite brands in general?
So many… Nudie jeans. AlllyBee Knitwear is an amazing UK based brand. Zady. I used to always love my Riverford Organics (fox hunting aside!) and In Australia, the Farm Byron Bay. Almost any brand out of Byron bay to be honest!
What is your best advice for other people wanting to get started and create a sustainable business of their own?
It will be tough. To really be holistic, you will be paying 5, 6 or more times what the competitors are buying their goods for. It can be disheartening when you are so strict about what you do, and then see green or fairwashing going on. At the same time – you need to celebrate all moves in the right direction. The ultimate goal is that sustainability is nothing but the norm, so the day that TopShop really do everything sustainably and ethically is actually where we should be aiming for.
Know, however, that for an existing brand to really work with an ethical, supply chain is hard. There are issues like timing (you can’t demand things in two weeks), costs (expect to pay many times for products), factory errors (you can’t throw them away and start again) and reducing waste (fast trends don’t work). It is a very different way of running a business. So you will stand out! This applies across beauty, electronics, food. Everything.
So don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be disheartened when you find that people don’t know if their wool is sustainable or their cardboard responsibly sourced. Be prepared to ask a lot of questions and spend a long time finding the right partners. But when you do, they will have the same goals and ethos as you and maybe even some will want to improve what they are doing to work with you and will love the passion and goals that you have to create in a different way. And, it is a wonderful way to run a business and very soon you will have a community around you who really support the lengths you are going to create a change.
What inspired you to start your own business?
I have wanted to do it forever. The final driver was to help stop the impact of toxic waste and runoff and its devastating impact on communities and in particular newborns and families, and to help stop trafficking of young women and children. This is one of the issues closest to my heart, having seen it all first hand.
What challenges have you faced so far within your business, if any?
The main one is just supply times. Slow fashion (or homewares) is really really slow. We rely on our customers to be patient sometimes, and thankfully they are! That is just the nature of it! You can’t ask workers to work through the night to get the Christmas rush done! It also takes a lot longer to find the right suppliers, delve into the supply chain and find out what is really going on. There are a lot of steps right back to the farm that are usually very much hidden away!
What would you say is your biggest achievement so far?
Having people buy from us who buy would never have bought ethical or sustainable before, but do so because they love the end product. That means we are really helping people to change. This is the ultimate goal. To have a product people love so much that they just want to buy it for just what it is. Then, they can learn the story that they get to be a part of too.
Do you believe that everyone can adapt a conscious lifestyle and live more ethically?
Without a doubt.
I’ve always wanted to live sustainably, but I’ve never been someone that you would pick out of a crowd and think I was living this way. I’ve been a City worker. I do love beautiful things that mean something and are minimal. So people shouldn’t feel you have to act/look/be a certain way to live ethically and sustainably. Nor that you need to live on a farm in the countryside – as nice as this would be!
The most important thing, and easiest change, above all else, is to consume less. When we consume less, we are able to also pay more for things made well. Once you start to adopt a lifestyle like this it is so freeing and simplified and calmer, it becomes addictive and you wonder why you were entrenched in living any other way.
Also as more and more brands start to create ethical and sustainable goods or Facebook groups make second-hand buying or freecycling so much easier, it becomes so much simpler to live a life this way. You no longer need to compromise on your style or the end product.
Do you bring sustainable ways of living into every aspect of your life? For example, natural skincare, body products, and eating habits?
Yes! All of the above. Coconut oil is our friend, as is vinegar, bicarb and our local organic seasonal delivery company! We aren’t vegan, but simply by paying more for the few animal products we do eat, we have as a family cut it right down to once or twice a week.
If you are a user of natural skincare, what are your favourite skincare products?
Any organic coconut oil. Dr Bronner’s, Simple as That, Black Chicken Remedies, Green People UK was one of the brands that actually started me on this journey too!
Quick Fire Questions:
- 3 office essentials? Fresh air and natural light! 😉 Reusable coffee cup. Real pen and paper.
- Describe your personal style in 3 words. Minimal. White. Beachy.
- What is your favourite go-to outfit? Just a towel if I was allowed to!
White linen shirt. Denim shorts hacked off from my husband’s old jeans. Barefeet when I can get away with it! (That probably sounds odd in the depths of a UK winter!)
Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter: @elkieark