The rise of fast fashion has completely changed the way we buy clothing. Trends come and go at the blink of an eye and ever-lowering price tags mean that it hardly seems worthwhile to repair a garment. The result? Globally one garbage truck of textiles is wasted every second.

Courtney Holm, Founder of circular fashion A.BCH
A.BCH founder Courtney Holm

For a long time, making more sustainable style choices could seem like an absolute minefield. Fast fashion brands continue to dominate our malls and even if you are prepared to pay more for your clothing it doesn’t necessarily mean that the garments were made from better quality materials or under better conditions.

The good news is that as consumer awareness around the environmental and social impact of their fashion choices is growing, more and more brands are emerging that adopt more sustainable philosophies.

Courtney Holm is a Melbourne-based designer and the founder of Australia’s first circular fashion label A.BCH. Through local sourcing, the use of 100% traceable material and radical transparency, Courtney is looking to offer consumers the opportunity to make better choices and is working to change the fashion industry from within.

What is circular fashion?

In basic terms, circular fashion is about minimising the negative impact the textile industry has on the environment by making sure that precious materials are recaptured and recycled throughout the whole lifecycle of a garment.

“Let’s say a skirt is all worn through and beyond repair, our customers can send it back to us and one day down the track we will be able to recycle it into new cellulose materials which can be re-spun and turned into new fabric”, Courtney explains the process. “To me, that’s the best-case scenario, but even if our garments are not sent back for recycling, they can be cut up and composted at home.”

A.BCH circular fashion collection

What’s more, to increase the chance that old A.BCH pieces are turned into new clothing items, Courtney has incorporated the concept of circularity into her entire business model. “We offer lifetime repair on everything we sell, run workshops to teach our customers how to repair things themselves and offer $10 store credit for every 500g of A.BCH garments customers send back to us for recycling”, says Courtney.

 “But to me, circular fashion actually also extends to the cutting floor where a garment is made”, says Courtney about A.BCH’s philosophy. “If there’s negative space from how the garment is cut out of the material, we’re looking for ways to use the material in other designs rather than throwing it away.”

Limitations spark creativity

A.BCH is working toward full biological circularity which means staying completely clear of any synthetic materials in their garments as this would cause major problems for recycling and biodegradability.

“We only work with pure stream biological and organic materials, so the entire garment is cellulose based right down to the threads for simpler, pure cellulose recycling in the future or compostability at home,” says Courtney. “Unfortunately, most other brands still use polyester thread even in their organic cotton shirts because it’s cheaper and can be used in pretty much anything.”

For Courtney’s creative process this decision means that she needs to work within the strict limitations she has set for the business.

“When I design a new circular fashion piece, my first step is to look at different materials that we have available in our library and start the process from there, but there are definitely a few things that are out of the question from the start”, says Courtney. “The fibres we use won’t make a great technical jacket.”

Likewise, customers won’t find any garments with zippers in A.BCH’s current collection. “I simply haven’t found an option for this yet that is fully recyclable”, explains Courtney.

Taking control of the entire supply chain

At A.BCH, Courtney and her team only source the best material possible and disclose the details of their origin. They also work to constantly improve their processes further. “There are always blind spots somewhere and I don’t want to get to a point where we just rest on our laurels”, says the designer.

While the environmental impact is a big focus for A.BCH, it’s by no means limited to that and making sure that their garments are made under fair working conditions at all stages of the production is also part of Courtney’s philosophy.

T-shirt from the A.BCH circular fashion collecttion

 “People say you can’t do everything, but we are definitely trying to prove them wrong”, she says. That’s why all of A.BCH’s garments are made either in their own in-house factory or by one of two supply factories who are also based in Australia and accredited by Ethical Clothing Australia.

For the 2nd and 3rd tier of their supply chain, A.BCH currently relies on third party certifications to ensure their high standards are met as tracing and auditing everything all the way to the source is too resource-intensive for a small business to manage on its own.

“The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the one we rely on the most as it’s the most thorough certification and their assessment criteria are becoming stricter every year which is great,” says Courtney.  

Changing the fashion industry from within

While Courtney always had a strong social conscious, she initially started out creating a menswear label after studying fashion at UTS “It was more a hobby at the start, and I have always loved the creative process and expressive outlet that fashion offered to me,” she recalls. “But I was also a bit unsure how I could make fashion work with my values.”

At the same time, Courtney launched an event series called Menske which was a market of high-end goods for men. While she relished the experience of both starting the label and running Menske, it came to a point where Courtney needed to decide which path she really wanted to pursue.

“I realised that I didn’t feel 100% confident in any of these options. I needed some time to process all the things I’d seen in the fashion industry so far. I wasn’t happy at all with the environmental and social impact that it had. It was this negative stuff that was holding me back from really doing something seriously with my business ideas”, Courtney reflects. “I’d obviously seen the impact a little bit myself from working in the industry, but then I started researching these issues more thoroughly and for a while everything became so overwhelming to me that I thought I’d thrown myself into the wrong industry.”

Ultimately, Courtney concluded that there were only really two options for her: either get out the fashion industry altogether or try to radically change it from within. “After a lot of thinking and soul-searching, I decided to start a business that would combat all these things”, remembers Courtney. “That’s when I decided that I wanted to start a fashion brand that is fully transparent and where we traced everything right down to the fibre seed stage. I wanted to open up the whole supply chain for everyone to see, including competitors.”

While this level of radical transparency requires a lot of faith – especially for a new business that is fully bootstrapped by the founder – for Courtney it was the only way forward. “I really believe that this is the only way for the industry to overcome these issues”, says Courtney. “There’s just so much happening behind closed doors at all different layers of the supply chain that you wouldn’t be able to find out with an audit even if you were trying to do the right thing.”

Interested in A.BCH?

You can buy A.BCH’s garments via their online store (international shipping available). If you prefer to try before you buy, you can visit A.BCH’s studio in Fitzroy North Wednesday-Saturday or by appointment.

Image credit: A.BCH

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