The Gen Y Series: Anne Foster
Believing that as consumers and businesses we all have the power to change how things work, earlier this year Anne Foster created ethical luxury homeware brand Elkie & Ark. Anne’s dream was to create stunning, organic and toxin-free textiles that supported the artisans producing the base product without polluting the land. A truly sustainable and ethical textile brand. Elkie & Ark is just that. And they do it all whilst paying the living wage, supporting scholarships and funding community projects in the areas they source their products from.
How did the idea for Elkie & Ark come about?
I came from so many things! I’ve lived, volunteered, studied and worked in the organic, sustainability, international development and ethical space for years, grown up around textiles and I am a big believer that as consumers and businesses we have incredible power to change how things work. I love (love!) beautiful, essential things in my home. I live a home life that is as ethical and organic as possible. So I started to question, why wasn’t I thinking about the textiles I used too? When I found out they were causing devastating issues from waste, toxicity, unfair pay – or worse, trafficking and child labour – I knew there had to be a better way. To fix these problems right back in the supply chains (as much as I hate that phrase!) before they could take hold.
I wholeheartedly believed that creating stunning, impeccably made and style products – while paying people living wages and not polluting the land - should be mainstream, not niche. I knew that there was a way to make the best product, while also bringing the strictest sustainability and ethics to the market! I also noticed that often we had lost contact with the land or the people who farmed, wove, crafted our goods and wanted to reconnect with the full journey of our products and all the hundreds of people behind them. Farm to finish.
Lastly, I wanted to create a business that encouraged people to take a step back, focus on what is important in life and slow right down. This is a big part of what we do. Reconnecting with our own time and goals and with the lives of other people too. I think we all need more of this!
What persuaded you to quit your job and make it a reality?, And how did you fund the idea?
To be honest I started after my baby was born, so I couldn’t leave home to go back to full time work yet and was going a little crazy needing to use my brain! But the real point that pushed me to it was when we had our own complications with our daughter during pregnancy. I had about 8 months of being told our daughter wouldn’t live. It hit home for me what this would be like, every single day, not knowing if you could support your child or a sibling or if simple things like water supply or sufficient food or medical attention weren’t something you could count on. I was connected to a group of mothers globally and I realised just how lucky we are. I didn’t want to just be ‘grateful’, I wanted to give back to others who hadn’t won the lottery of birth.
To date I have self-funded the business, which isn’t cheap, but it is a benefit of having first worked in the corporate world! I am also looking at potentially crowdfunding some beautiful new product ranges next year.
How did you overcome the fear?
The fear!! I had a colleague who used to talk about that, but I think she suffered it during a hangover…!
In honest: everyday I find myself facing a new task that I would have absolutely no idea how to do – or even approach. Or that terrifies me. I have two strategies. One is to wait until that bewitching hour in the night when you grow bold (for some reason!) write an email, close my eyes and hit send! The other is to think about the people who I am trying to help with my business. I think about what they are going through each day and know that the more I grow my business, the more I can help. And the fewer girls who will be trafficked or children will be exposed to toxic waste. I may not have a huge impact – but even one person I can help is a start. No matter how scared I am, I realise I need to get over it and keep going.
I also realised early on in my business (probably just after I launched my website) that I had to stop thinking I had any of the answers. I started thinking of myself as you would an intern on the first day at a new job. I am here to learn, ask, study, try: not to know all the answers or always get it right.
Tell us how you’ve attracted such great publicity!
I have been blown away by some of the publicity we have got. Absolutely humbled!
A lot of it has been luck, a lot has come from magazines or bloggers finding us on Instagram, in the last month or so I found an amazing person to help me with PR as I just couldn’t keep up with it and it wasn’t my key skill… and a lot has come from making sure that I have a business with a real story to tell. I have gone to absolute extremes with my business. From the waste free packaging, to the carbon neutral shipping… paying many times more back to workers and therefore losing a huge percentage of potential profits, minimising waste at the factory level and going right back to the farm focusing on each step, waiting 8 months from payment to receiving stock, visiting and interviewing workers, asking for the wages of every person… it goes on!
So the brand stands for a lot and differs in many ways to how it would be done conventionally. From the costs, to timelines, waste, knowledge of the products and the people behind it. I originally dumbed down all we were doing behind the scenes but soon realised people wanted to know the extent to which we were looking at the journey and impact of our products.
Lastly, I have had some amazing people who have helped and I have reached out to people. I do a huge amount of writing. I networked through Facebook or other groups and this is where I met some of the writers who then pitched the story to magazines. After a few months and some of the bigger write-ups (The Collective Hub, Conde Nast, the first HuffPost article) I decided to have someone do my PR because I quickly realised that people were interested in the story, but I just didn’t have the time, contacts or skills to reach out and follow up on it all. So I found someone to help. I’ve continued to reach out to people where I know the personal story is a big deal and I write the content – but this has given me access to further magazines too, in different areas that I wouldn’t have contacted myself. But a lot of luck and Instagram has been an important means of being found by magazines and bloggers too.
Tell us what’s next for Elkie & Ark?
We have a lot of new products to coming out next year which is really exciting. Some I have been vetting and searching for for almost a year now but until recently, couldn’t find a means of bringing them to market that was as sustainable and ethical as I required – as well as a good enough end product. I have been speaking to small-scale family run groups in Guatemala doing incredible upcycling of fabrics. Traditional fibres from Peru, or working with designers in Australia, with farmers and mills in rural areas of Australia and also Europe. This is the part of the business I really love. I want Elkie & Ark to be a business that celebrates textiles from around the world and the people who make them – no matter where they live. And to provide customers with pieces that they know the full journey of, the impact, and that they also know really celebrate indulging in the important moments in life. Most of all, we will continue to focus on products that last and defy short-lived trends. That is so fundamental in what we need to do as a business to truly be sustainable.
What excites you most about the social enterprise space?
I love the idea that we can start to fix problems in the world through business. Many problems that business caused in the first place. I love social enterprise because it also is the idea of fundamentally changing how we do business – not just through philanthropy but by running business differently at a base level. Not just for profit, but for people and the planet too.
I am excited that we are seeing a fundamental shift in business where resources or people are starting to be valued as much as ROI.
We are also hitting big issues globally and economically. Be it in health, stress and wellbeing of employees, communities, ecosystems or that of the planet. With this, comes the fundamental idea that social enterprise is no longer just about being ‘nice’ but fundamentally, it is vital if we are to future-proof our businesses and manage long-term sustainability risk.
A recent McKinsey report outlined in their research that 50% of business value is at risk to sustainability, incorporating everything from energy and climate change, to water scarcity, waste and things like child labour violations. And that this is already impacting the profit line in big ways for mainstream business, losing hundreds of millions. Businesses are being brought to court over human rights violations overseas and consumers are wanting business to change.
Most of all, I am excited because since the 70s teenagers and university-aged students have believed they can change the world and do things differently. Now, with advances in technology and social media, Millennials have a platform on which they can actually achieve this – without needing to feel they need to give up their sparkly-eyed dreams and just conform to how it is done.
What’s the big dream? And how will you get there?
The big dream is to grow to work with more communities to support the work they are doing. I also want to help people globally to reconnect. Most of all, I want to show people the positive impacts that we can have. That every one of us can have beautiful things that we want, but in a more essential and considered way - that supports other people rather than causing harm.
I also want people to really start understanding the journey of so many of the things we use and buy. Right back to the farms or mines or oceans they come from. Be they iPhones, furniture or even the services we use. We know about some of the issues of physical manufacturing, but as companies push tech or design or analytical or call centre work overseas I would hate to see that go down a similar path. I would love to see it go the other way, where we become more connected and aware, not less.
In order to get there, there are a lot of products I want to be able to source from some incredible communities and family businesses. Some I know already and I can’t wait to meet so many more. I think the answer to ‘how will I get there’ is – ‘slower than I would like to!!’ but I can’t wait for the things in my mind to be created. I also love the fact that we have customers all over the world and want to be able to more directly provide to these markets.
How can people get involved with what you're doing? Is there anything you need help with?
Everything!! I desperately need someone to help with storytelling and video or even blogging and writing! Textiles and clothing designers, get in contact if you are interested in what we are doing! In fact, if there is anything you think you could help with, please just reach out and let me know.
Really, the biggest help is also if people can keep spreading the word about what we are doing. Have a read of the website, ask any questions and understand the journey our products make and help to spread the word.
What advice would you give to people who might also want to start a social enterprise?
It can be hard, in particular in how to market it. You will find many people don’t care what you are doing or don’t want to see some of the issues. You will see I rarely talk about slavery. It happens, particularly in agriculture and textiles. But people don’t want to always know. So if you are doing social enterprise – be hold and honest, but also ensure you give people hope and a means to make a difference. Just rallying people with depressing statistics probably won’t bring about the change you want. Most importantly – be real in what and why you want to be a social enterprise because it will be harder. Running a business and turning a profit is hard enough. Even more so when you are trying to run your business in a fundamentally different, most costly, slower or less competitive way.
What keeps you up at night?
Me! I’m one of those terrible people who works best at 3am.
Other than that, just the fact that I hope that in our lifetime, we stay connected to people around the world and don’t give in to isolation or fear of others just based on what we don’t know. I hope social media helps us to connect and to see what goes on in the world – rather than segregates.
One thing you wish you had learnt five years ago?
How vital it is to follow the path that you intrinsically know is right for you. I dreamt of running a business like this when I was a teenager – and wish I had known how settling it is to actually follow that idea. Even with the ups and downs! It isn’t even about it making money – just going through the motions, for me, of really giving back to others in the most fundamental ways – education and opportunity.
What have been your biggest challenges to date?
In my career it has been really standing up for myself. I worked in a very male dominated industry (Investment banking and Private Equity). It was really only when I moved overseas that I started to stand up for myself and stop being so worried about what everyone else was thinking or doing.
Personally, it has been having the strength to do what I know is right for me – even if others don’t understand it! (like building this business that I dreamt of for so many years!).
How have you dealt with these?
One of my favourite ways of dealing with issues, is to think about the people I look up to and stop and ask “how would they handle this? What would they say or do in this situation?” In particular, I look at some of the incredible women and men I have worked for who were always incredibly steady, and inclusive and generous and strong and I pause and think how they would stand up for themselves or reply or act. I have had some incredible female bosses and admire how they didn’t feel they had to work harder or longer than anyone else and didn’t have to lose their own femininity or self to achieve what they wanted. This I think is so important to remember we can just be ourselves and that is OK!
In terms of following this path, the most important thing was to wit until the time was right. I could have started this business when I first wanted to at age 22, but I wouldn’t have known what I do now. So similarly, don’t ever regret the path you have taken!
If you had to pick one, what's the one issue / problem you most wish you could solve?
Cliched but not cliched - poverty. It brings hardship and problems that those not in poverty simply can’t imagine. That then leads to trafficking, exploitation and so many other things.
What you’re reading right now: “How to manage fly strike in sheep farming” Welcome to my world! ;) I am a big believe in always reading two sides to every headline, and in the ‘eco’ world, there are a lot of headlines to dig behind!
Fave way to relax: Martinis. That or just sit in the sun with a coffee and no phones! Or good giggles with my little one. Laughter makes everything better.
Right now, I can’t get enough of…. Sleep.