Sustainable Fashion Start-Up: Kodama Apparel

Creating a sustainable fashion start-up is hugely challenging. Sustainable business practices tend to also be more expensive, so striking a balance between profit and sustainability can seem impossible. We spoke to Natsuko Kondo from Kodama Apparel to get further insight.

Sustainable fashion start-up, Kodama Apparel, is taking a new approach to youth fashion and streetwear.

Sustainability in the fashion industry is widely discussed but hard to execute. Supply chain complexity, combined with the challenges of eco-friendly eCommerce, can make delivering a piece of “sustainable” clothing extremely challenging.

It is, however, a substantial issue. By 2030, it is predicted that the fashion industry’s water consumption will grow by 50 per cent to 31.17 trillion gallons, creating 148 million tons of waste.

Big vs Small: Benefits of being a sustainable fashion start-up

Whilst some of the biggest fashion brands and retailers, from Prada to H&M, make a great deal of noise regarding their sustainability plans, it’s often smaller, more nimble start-ups who can drive change. 

Established brands, with millions of dollars in sales, and big operational budgets, have both ecosystem and finances to, in theory, make sustainability changes more approachable. These factors can often, however, become the exact things holding back large businesses, as both the slow operational decision making and high financial pressures, make changes slow and hard to implement.

On the flip side, smaller fashion brands can manufacture on a much smaller scale, making quick decisions, and adjusting operational processes rapidly, making sustainability a true business principle rather than a marketing gimmick.

Sustainability for smaller business doesn’t, however, come without enormous challenges

Sustainable Fashion Start-up: Natsuko Kondo from Kodama Apparel

Kodama Ethical Fashion

1. What inspired you to start Kodama Apparel

Working as a product developer/garment technician in many apparel companies, I realised how damaging the industry is to the environment. I’ve always had a dream of having my own label. So when I decided to create my streetwear brand, I wanted to develop it as eco-friendly as possible, that also brings awareness for sustainability.

2. What have been the most significant challenges when trying to create a ‘sustainable’ piece of clothing?

For me, sustainability is all about not harming the environment and the people, so transparency becomes very important. One of the challenges I’m facing at the moment is transparency. It’s not just about sourcing eco-friendly materials but everything that is involved in the finished product – who, where and how? I find it difficult to trace this history from farming to the end product, so I have a full understanding of what/who I’m working with.

Kodama Apparel Ethical Trousers

3. As a new start-up business, while you lack the financial muscle of a major label (I’m assuming!), you also have more flexibility to be nimble and agile with sustainability. Do you feel this helps or hinders?

You’re so right! Most start-up businesses, like me, don’t have the financial capacity like major fashion labels out there. I think the upside of it is that we are starting with a level of sustainability as a standard. We have the flexibility to adapt and quickly change as we establish our brand. I imagine shifting business practices and procedures in well-established businesses can be a challenge and a time-consuming process.

4. Identifying the ‘sustainability’ of your supply chain must be a considerable challenge. Where do you begin when trying to analyse this?

It really is. Sustainability is such a broad topic that covers so many aspects of your supply chain. As a start-up, I first focus on what I can control. So it comes down to the choices I make in sourcing materials, suppliers, manufacturers, and how I design my styles. I believe keeping things as local as possible is also an essential part of sustainability and to support Australian businesses. I design with the life-cycle of the garment in mind, the material is a big thing for me, and I look for eco-friendly, natural biodegradable materials.

Kodama Apparel Ethical Fashion Start-Up

5. You mention Zero Waste as being one of your key inspirations. Do you have any thoughts around the future of circular fashion and how we can better manage the end-of-life for clothing?

I think it starts with us as a customer. To look after your clothes and prolong the life cycle will be a massive help to the environment. Also, a shift in mindset plays a significant role. Building conscious consumerism and having a long term consideration when making our purchases will influence the way businesses will have to operate.

As a business, providing the facility to repurpose old clothing, which can be recycled, will be a great initiative.

It’s also essential to build a solution to manage the waste that has been created within our businesses. For example, I’m collecting all the off-cut fabrics from sampling and my small-run productions and working out a way to repurpose them and create a new accessory range. I refuse to throw these out to end up in the landfill.

6. As with all start-up businesses, especially a sustainable fashion start-up, selling online is the only realistic option. What have been your considerations and challenges when trying to be a sustainable eCommerce retailer?

Not being in a physical store and not having the first contact with customers are my main challenges. People like experiencing something tactile and generally we like to feel the product before we make a purchase. To compensate that, I’m working on to line up myself with events and markets to create opportunities for people to experience the brand. It will be great to have stockists as well but getting yourself into retail is not an easy task.

The packaging is also something to think about as an eCommerce retailer. At the moment, I work only with cardboard shipping boxes and paper wraps that can be recycled.

I’m also conscious of the energy impact of my websites and data storage like emails/videos. I picked OVH Cloud as I find them the “greenest” provider by using water cooling systems for their data centres. But otherwise thinking about all the data centres where they need to cool down the machines using aircon constantly, the amount of energy it requires would be horrifying.

Kodama Apparel Sustainable Fashion Start-Up

7. Sustainability is becoming a hot topic in the fashion industry. As a new business, how do you ensure this is a core business principle rather than just a marketing ploy? 

It really is, isn’t it. And everyone seems to have their definition of sustainable fashion. I define what sustainability is to me and set a standard and procedures to follow through. Also, at time-to-time, I will re-visit these practices and analyse how it can be improved and set a long term goal. I think what makes it remarkable is to continually talk about it and show how your clothes are made, showcase your design process, talk about the materials you use and so on.

8. What advice would you give to others thinking of launching a sustainable fashion start-up?

Find and define your edge or style. Then work out how you can create it, leaving a positive impact on the environment and the workers. Also, connect with businesses who share the same goal where you can collaborate and make significant differences.

9. H&M has recently announced its Treadler project, intending to open their supply chain to smaller fashion brands. What are your thoughts around this project, and would this be beneficial to Kodama?

It’s an interesting project. It will all depend on the level of compliance and sustainable practices. How sustainable and how transparent is it? I feel that’s the kind of questions we need to ask ourselves as business owners.

I can see some brands may benefit from their services as many other companies offer services on development, production, logistics.

But this was my career before I left my job to start Kodama Apparel, so I’m not sure how it will be beneficial for me. I also firmly believe in local production as a significant part of sustainability. The day I extend productions overseas, I will need complete transparency to ensure diligent sustainable and ethical practices are in place.

Check out more details on Kodama Apparel via their website

Further Reading: Sustainability of Rental Fashion: eCommerce Subscription Models. Read More


Leave a Reply