#7: CEDAR ORGANICS
After moving to Sydney for a job at one of Australia's largest fast-fashion labels, designer Cedar Purchase was given an insider view into the supply chain and manufacturing process of the fast-fashion industry. She soon realised just how destructive the industry was, and that it was not at all what she wanted to be doing.
A year later, she quit her job to start her own label, and Cedar Organics was born. Specialising in intimates and basics, the garments are locally made in Sydney using organic cotton and dyed by Cedar using organic, Australian-grown turmeric and coffee. We caught up with her in her sunny Redfern kitchen as she was stirring the dye pot on the stove, to chat about her transition from fast fashion to launching her own label.
Annie: How did you start your label?
Cedar: I first moved down to Sydney for a job designing for a fast fashion brand. I hated it.
Cedar: I learnt so much, but towards the end we were using shitty fabrics that cost $2 a metre, and trying to get dresses down to $6 complete cost price - including the fabric, making, including everything - and then selling them for $80 or $90.
Annie: Where were the garments made?
Annie: Do you know if they were manufactured in ethical conditions?
Cedar: It's so not. When we did a specific collaboration, they made sure that all the factories manufacturing their merchandise had to be approved to make sure they were safe to work in. All of our factories got denied. They had to go out and find new factories as ours didn't pass their safety standard. When I heard that I was like, what am I doing here?
Annie: How long were you working there for?
Cedar: For a year. At the end of the year I was like, I can't do this any more, it is literally soul crushing. Every three weeks we were doing a new collection of about sixty to a hundred pieces across the Australian and international collections. We had so many different buyers across different demographics, so we didn't even know who we were designing for. We were just doing a bit of everything, and having to make it under a tight budget to reach a retail price of around $70 - the cheaper the better. At the end of the day it was about the dollar sign, how much money we were making and how cheaply we could do it. For someone who is passionate about sustainability, ethical manufacturing and all of that jazz, doing that is like the complete opposite of what I felt like I should be doing. So I resigned.
Annie: The people in charge, what were their responses when the factories didn't pass?
Cedar: They don't give a shit. When I told them I quit I said, “I'm starting my own label, I want to do sustainable manufacturing and make sure all of my practices are ethical.” They said "Good luck with that. Fashion will never be sustainable." I was like, I need to get the fuck out of here. I am going to prove it to you. Challenge accepted! So now I'm doing it for myself, but also to all those people out there who think that fashion can't be sustainable, people like you and people like me, let's prove it to them. Because it's not that hard.
Annie: From my experience, it's so much easier for a small label to start doing things the right way and build up from there, but if there was a super big label that is already so established, using so many factories with set connections, then I imagine to overturn that whole system would be almost impossible.
Cedar: Yeah, it starts at the bottom. I reckon the supply chain of the fashion industry is one of the largest in any industry. When you think all the way back to the fibre of the fabric, whether it's cotton or linen or synthetic, someone had to plant the seed - or even just dig up the dirt to plant the seed. Then somebody had to water it. Even for synthetics, all the chemists behind developing that fibre, you just don't think about that when you see a dress hanging on a rack.
Annie: Especially when you see a dress for $20.
Cedar: A scientist made that in a lab, essentially! It's like food. You go to Maccas and get a $2 burger, a lot of people don't think about it, they're like, fuck yeah, I can get a $2 burger and $1 chips and a $1 drink! I've got myself a whole meal for $4... But somebody raised that cow, someone grew those potatoes… All of the freight involved... Especially with manufacturing offshore, that's another thing I wanted to reduce as well, is the freight.
That's another thing you don't really think about with manufacturing offshore, the kilometres that garment has travelled to get from A to B. That is influencing your imprint on the environment as well. You could be using organic cotton, you could be using sustainable fabrics, materials and manufacturing ethically, but if it's coming from Bali, and you have boxes you have to ship over, that's a high carbon emission that you could reduce. It's never ending. Where do you draw the line? It can seriously take over your life. Like with my woven labels, it's like, do I get organic cotton labels? If I do, then I have to get them from the States. Or, if I go with a damask woven label I can get it from Australia, and then I'm injecting money into their business in Australia, but then it's a synthetic product.
Annie: That's what I’ve found, there is no black and white. Everything is the lesser of two evils. You have to be subjective about it because there is no perfect option, ever. You need to find a balance and work to your own values. You have to be able to do the best you can do, but it's hard, because once you start thinking about labels, then you're thinking of buttons and zippers, etcetera.
Cedar: Yeah! Is there such thing as an ethical zipper, an eco-zipper? Then there's the whole supply chain behind that one zipper. You have your own supply chain for your own garment, but with the buttons, there could be a child making them. The zipper could be made by a woman who has ten kids who can't be home to feed them. It's overwhelming. I get myself so worked up sometimes. I'm like, where the fuck do I draw the line?
Annie: What did you study?
Cedar: Fashion design, or branded fashion design at Billie Blue in Brisbane.
Annie: Did you learn technical stuff, like sewing and patternmaking?
Cedar: It was everything, it was so good. We did buying as well, branding, graphic design, typography. Then there was the pattern making side of it, the sewing side. We did have a fabric class and I learnt how to dye naturally through that. My teacher was amazing, she was really passionate about sustainable fabrications and manufacturing as well, so she introduced natural dying to us and taught us about the most sustainable fabrics and how bad the fashion industry is on the environment. We had no idea. They generally don't tell you the fashion industry is so bad when you're at university, but it takes that one teacher to tell you how bad it is to get you thinking.
Annie: And it's the kind of thing where once you learn about it, you can't unlearn it. You can't go back to being blissfully ignorant.
Cedar: It's like watching the movies of an Angora rabbit being skinned. You can never unsee that. So she was great, I haven't unlearnt it, and that's influenced what I do now.
Annie: Do you like sewing and patternmaking?
Cedar: It's not really my thing, I like it if I have the whole set up of industrial machines, patternmaking table, but living out of home down here I don't have any space to work. Money is an issue as well, to set up your own space costs so much, and time. I don't have the time to do all my patternmaking and sewing. Design is my thing, then I can employ someone who does love doing it.
Annie: Where do you get your things made?
Cedar: In Australia, in Dulwich Hill. They're amazing. I found them through the Remnants Warehouse; they had a contact list and they were on there. It had been months trying to find someone and everyone who I contacted had either shut down in the last few years, or they don't do jersey, or they don't do jersey intimidates, and I'm like, God damnit somebody help me! I don't know why it took so long to find them.
Annie: Is it like a workshop/factory, or just in their house?
Cedar: They have an office and their factory. They do mornings at the office, you can pop around and chat to them. They do all the pattern making and cutting there. They have about five machinists that do all the sewing. But I've grilled them, I've asked, do you outsource? Where is everything made? How is everyone treated and paid? I thought manufacturing in Australia would be so good, but then I heard about outsourcing and how many people are getting exploited through that.
Annie: That made locally isn't always a safe stamp...
Cedar: That's why I found it so amazing, this girl I worked with, when I couldn't find anybody to do my manufacturing, one of the girls who she went to TAFE was interning with us. She said, "Oh, if you need a sample machinist I have a friend who sews and does patternmaking." So she put me onto her and she was saying that she wants to be a patternmaker and seamstress. I was like, "Well I can't find anybody to make my stuff now, I'll use you." She said it was her first proper job she'd been given outside of uni. I felt really good giving her a job - she is my pattern maker and sample machinist. But it would take a little too long, like three weeks. That's the thing, you find someone and they've either got too much work on, or they're studying, or they're retiring, or they've just had a grandkid, it's so hard to find a reliable seamstress.
Annie: And the business side of Cedar Organics - is it a one-woman show?
Cedar: Yep! When I was at my old job, I was up until 2am every single night building my website… I had never done that, I had no idea what I was doing! And trying to find manufacturers, doing my tech packs, trying to find the most sustainable fabrics, and sourcing that, making orders at like 2 in the morning! Then going to work the next day and doing the complete opposite to that. Trying to find the cheapest fabrics and do it the cheapest and quickest way possible.
Annie: Where do you source your fabrics?
Cedar: I use Certon. They are an Australian company, they do organic cotton jersey and merino wool. It's basically just knit fabric. They grow all the organic cotton in India because the environment is more suited to it. So they grow it over there, it's Fair Trade, their workers get paid fairly, then they get the cotton and send it to Melbourne where it's processed, and they dye it all in Melbourne and knit it in Melbourne. All of their dyes are GOTS certified as well, and they have a whole write up on their website about their processes and what they do. There's 100% transparency - they go through their supply chain from start to finish.
Annie: So you get the cotton and then you give it to the maker, then you dye it once it's made? Or before it's made?
Cedar: I dye it once it's made.
Annie: What do you dye it with?
Cedar: It’s certified organic Australian grown turmeric! And coffee too. That gets a nude colour.
Annie: And you dye it yourself in the kitchen?
Cedar: In a pot! It's a pot on a stove, with a wooden spoon and a pasta strainer! I was like, alright, this works for me at the moment. If I had larger numbers I'd have no idea how to do it. I do one of each size, which works. I do bras, undies and market bags, and I'm going into clothing in the next month too. Just a super simple tee and a t-shirt dress. I want to be able to do a whole collection, but something you don't think about when you start is colourways and sizeways.
Annie: Totally! With my own label, I started with three styles, but once you have three styles and two prints, and I do sizes 6 to 16, then suddenly you’re making over a hundred pieces!
Cedar: And then you have to pay for fabrics, then threads - I need to pay extra for threads because I need natural threads that I can dye.
Annie: What thread do you use?
Cedar: Organic cotton. Then it costs extra for the coffee, the turmeric, the woven labels, and then my time up until 2am each night, Saturdays, Sundays, any waking hour that you're not at your paid job you're doing this job.
Annie: How have people responded to your pricing?
Cedar: I haven't had any issues yet. If you go to Calvin Klein a pair of undies is $40. Mine are $45. My pieces are fully lined, so I'm using double the amount of fabric, I don't think people realise that either. Then making it too, because there's silicon tape in the seams so it doesn't move or stretch out too much, that's an extra cost.
Annie: We had the same conversation with Kathryn from Camp Cove about swimmers. People don't want to pay so much because they're so small, but so much goes into fitting these garments to your body so they don't fall off when you go in the water and a wave comes. There's so much work that goes into it.
Cedar: Getting swimwear or intimates to fit on the body properly is so hard. Getting it to fit different bust shapes, different shoulder widths, different hips - there's not just one size eight. It's stuck to your body, you need to be able to move in it, to walk around or go for a run, to put your arms up. It's about finding the best fit that's the most comfortable for everybody... It took a few goes!
Annie: Do you find that your customers are into sustainable / organic clothing? What do you think your demographic is?
Cedar: From my reactions on social media, I'd say yes. I've had a look on people's profiles and they're sustainable lifestyle blogs, that kind of stuff. The shops that have shown interest are eco, sustainable shops.
Annie: I guess once you start hearing of organic underwear, it kind of makes you think... I’ve started to realise that I want to know what I’m wearing down there...
Cedar: Yeah, with synthetic undies you're essentially putting plastic on your vagina!
Annie: Exactly! Like, hang on a second, what are undies made of? It freaks me out. I don't want that on my vagina.
Cedar: You wouldn't walk around with your arm wrapped in glad wrap!
Annie: Hahaha definitely not. What a great note to end on... Thanks so much for chatting to us!