Sans Beast is the vegan bag of the fashion ‘it’ pack, a label that doesn’t compromise on style in its designs. I sat down with founder Cathryn Wills to talk about environmental sustainability, veganism and the vulnerability of being open about sustainability in the fashion industry.
While working as Managing and Creative Director of Mimco, Cathryn Wills adopted a vegetarian diet back in 2015 which began to shed light on the disconnect between her professional role and her ethical stance on animal welfare and the environment. Like many of us who have made moves towards sustainability, her mind was open to new information and after watching the documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret she began to realise the effects that leather production had on the environment not only in terms of land degradation and excessive water use and run-off but also on the people involved in the animal slaughtering process. At this time Wills began to understand that leather wasn’t as circular as it claimed to be, that is, as a by-product of the meat industry.
After a fulfilling career with Mimco, Wills started to think of her next move, a decision she thought would not only benefit her creativity but that of the team she was leaving behind.
Leaving the company to take a life break in Europe in 2016 quickly ignited Wills’ desire to start her next chapter. She spent the next year sourcing fabrics and building the brand that we now know as Sans Beast. Like many start-ups it can be at times financially and mentally stressful, and often lonely, but Wills says she has never felt “more herself” which is a testament that one is on the right track and following their calling.
With the production of leather to be avoided, in 2017 Wills sourced what is known as “Eco PU” which she clarifies is a non-technical term adopted by some fabric suppliers to differentiate the fact that the chemicals used in the manufacture of their polyurethane (PU) adhere to international standards of chemical use; the EU’s REACH regulations that all Chinese factories have to comply with and more strictly, Prop65 or CA65 out of California that have more stringent standards on toxicity levels of chemicals. Many PUs and PVCs are unable to be imported into California because of this ruling.
Obviously my immediate response to this was how Sans Beast were monitoring their environmental impact by using a product that involves chemicals. Wills was open to providing me with information directly from the textile supplier, a level of transparency that I respected.
Wills elaborates that the water usage to create the fabric is high although not in comparison to leather production. Furthermore, the waste water is treated with an advanced filtration system before reusing rather than being discharged directly into waterways. The scraps that come as a result of the Eco PU coating are also sent to a specialised environmental protection agency rather than landfill. Wills attaches the Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2017 report by Boston Consulting and Global Fashion Agenda to an email and highlights the “cradle to gate environmental impact Index per material” on page 77 to further explain her position on the use of polyurethane.
“You can see that cow leather sits in the top three materials for impact on the environment, whereas ‘synthetic leather’ rates highly in only one – abiotic resource depletion – which means a type of resource derived from non-living things,” she explains.
Related Post: Why There’s No Such Thing As ‘Ethical’ Leather
There has been plenty of discussion about the scrutiny that comes with voicing sustainability, and I’m not talking about greenwashing. Here I am talking about the people/brands/companies that are actually taking steps towards sustainable practices big or small (whether that be environmental or social) that are criticised for being open and transparent. It’s an interesting dilemma and shows just how the ‘perfection culture’ continues to permeate even in the conscious community. That people are unwilling to be open and listen to a different perspective is causing many problems; the increased toxicity in political discourse for one; but if the sustainability conversation fell into black and white, then we would all know clearly where we stand, and let’s face it, how does that make the movement more inclusive?
“When I entered into this business I armed myself mentally and emotionally because I knew there would be a backlash to the materials used,” Wills shares.
The entrepreneur understands that Eco PU isn’t the most eco-friendly textile but in her values system, it is strides ahead of using the skins of dead animals. Her future thinking is to stay on the sourcing track for biodegradable materials that don’t compromise on longevity and finish, having sampled plant-based textiles previously and feeling unimpressed with the results.
“Eco PU is a term conceptualised for ease of marketing, but this does not mean it’s greenwashing – it is there to differentiate (in this case, synthetic leather) suppliers who make an effort to minimise dangerous chemicals in their production. I am very aware of greenwashing and know the tricks of the trade, which is why I visited the supplier before we purchased from them and asked them about their production methods. It is also the reason I am very clear about PU not being a perfect solution to non-leather bag manufacturing, but it’s certainly a step forward when compared to the environmental and ethical questions on leather production.” – Cathryn Wills further elaborates in her email, 2018
Related Post: Animal Leather: Ethical Fashion’s Enemy?
When asked about her approach to ethical manufacturing, Wills response was “it’s not rocket science”. She works with good people that treat their teams well and ensures she experiences the factory her pieces are made in, rather than blindly trusting and speaking with an agent. The China-based factory Wills uses is one she has worked with for the past 10 years; she was acquainted with them long before embarking on her business journey. It is a factory that is subject to substantial audits and compliances. She knows the four brothers that own the factory well and aims to visit at least four times a year. On manufacturing offshore, Wills says there just isn’t the skillset here in Australia to produce the aesthetic and tactile components of her designs.'I am very clear about PU not being a perfect solution to non-leather bag manufacturing, but it’s certainly a step forward when compared to the environmental and ethical questions on leather production.' - Cathryn Wills, founder of vegan label SANS BEASTClick To Tweet
The Sans Beast pieces are designed with integrity to encourage people to treasure, collect share and upcycle; adopting the simple values of buying less, but buying better.
Wills spoke this weekend at a female entrepreneur conference with the League of Extraordinary Women in Melbourne. In the future she envisions a whole world of Sans Beast further than just the accessories category, her second collection series ’The Book of Harlequin’ is available in David Jones nationally. There’s no stopping a woman with her mind set!