Since launching the brand and in the years that followed, I did everything “right” according to the unwritten rules of the industry. Putting out new, seasonal collections countless times a year, and selling wholesale to large retailers like The Iconic and Anthropologie in the US. But the more I learned about the fashion business, the more upset I got about the global human and environmental challenges being created by the apparel industry.
Today’s textile industry is built on an outdated linear, take-make-dispose model and is hugely wasteful and polluting. There is a huge imbalance in supply and demand in fashion. Shockingly, every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned globally. By 2030, it’s expected that there will be 148 million tons of fashion waste.
The realisation that we needed to do things differently happened when I became a mother in 2018. Cliche as it is, it was this moment when I was made more aware that my present actions will affect my daughter, her generation, and all those that follow. It was obvious that that way of working was stuck in the past, rather than focused on the future.
From that moment on, I started to slowly change my business. I pared things back to smaller seasonless ranges, brought my entire supply chain onshore to Australia, experimented by producing 50% of styles made-to-order (implementing more sustainable business practices), and closed a few partnerships with retailers.
When COVID hit and we were encouraged to pause, I found myself starting to scrutinise the retail landscape deeper and see large-scale shifts in the industry. My background isn’t in fashion. So perhaps being an “outsider”, I was more inclined to question the system.
It became clear to me that in every step of the cycle, you were set up so that you couldn’t really succeed. Challenges include failing retail partners, an overabundance of stock, profit-denting sales, a demanding fashion calendar, and a means of production which was unsustainable both from an environmental standpoint and a business perspective. It felt impossible for an independent apparel business to ever become profitable if I kept going with the same system.
The pandemic’s effects on retail, and the increased attention on the environmental (and business) costs of overproduction, put more wind in my sails. It was an epiphany moment. I had to be brave in business if I wanted to thrive. I could see so many small (and large) fashion companies not surviving the crisis. I had to harness one of the advantages we had as a startup, in which we could move more rapidly and pivot faster than any of the bigger brands out there. So we rejected the unsustainable pace of fashion, by shifting out of a relentless growth model into a more responsible one. This decision was both a personal and practical choice. A choice embedded with care for the local industry we support, care for the clothes we are designing and care for the women who wear our clothes. My belief is we all have the power to create change and have an impact—so I wanted to make ours (NATALIJA’s) a positive one.
With a now made-to-order model, we produce garments one at a time when they are required, using only the resources needed, rather than in large quantities. This approach allows for better fit and cuts through the social problems arising from standard size offerings.
Our zero-inventory model is an ambitious vision of a new system based on circular economy principles. It looks to solve two of fashion’s biggest environmental problems: the accumulation of unsold inventory, and the failure of the forecast model, in which retailers try to predict what you are going to buy a year in advance (a key driver of overproduction). Orders placed on NATALIJA are cut, sewn and delivered to you within 2 weeks. By only producing a garment once a customer has purchased, it eliminates the guesswork around demand, helping to eliminate waste in fashion’s supply chain.
Significant change to waste reduction won’t happen overnight without a big overhaul of fashion’s conventional business model. Fashion is a tough business and margins are lean which makes innovation hard. Made-to-order production calls for radical thinking, revolution, and reinvention. While the model has been the right decision for us, it is a radical supply chain transformation and it’s not an easy change to make. Its success as a sustainability solution will be determined by whether or not the industry adopts this revolutionary approach at scale. But our hope is to empower the industry to do the same—be the example that it can be done, and how it should be for the future.
Being brave in business isn’t necessarily easy – it takes risk and courage to stand up for what is important or what you believe in. You need to be open-minded. If something doesn’t feel right, have the confidence to pivot and adapt. With this, you’ll be surprised to find innovative and exciting new ideas come from change.
Natalija Bouropoulos is a Business Chicks member and the Founder and Creative Director of NATALIJA. Shop their range of made-to-order wardrobe essentials here and follow them on Instagram for daily styling inspo.