Tomorrow Australia votes in what’s been labeled ‘The Climate Election’. The world is watching. The ABC’s Vote Compass indicates that 81% of Australians using the survey want our next government to do more on climate change, and that 61% oppose Adani’s Carmichael Mine.
Amid the frustration of inadequate action and carbon-reduction commitments, we’ve found an inspiring case for optimism. We caught up with sustainability-minded sisters, Karina and Sam Seljak. They’re paving the way for eco-conscious Australian start-ups, as they turn offcuts bound for landfill into high-quality blankets at Australia’s last wool mill.
‘Cosy enough for indoors and durable enough for outdoors – perfect for both the couch and camping,’ tells co-founder and director Karina Seljak. But these are not the only merits of Seljak’s Australian-made blankets.
Its range is created from offcuts gathered from the factory floor, which are shredded, before being spun into new yarn, and woven into beautiful finished products. Made from 70% recycled Australian merino wool and a 30% blend of polyester and recycled alpaca, mohair, and cotton, blankets come in fringe-edged or whipstitch finishes, and timeless colours. New offerings include Pinot and Moss shades.
‘As the IPCC Report calls for low-carbon consumer products we know that using waste as a resource – reducing both extraction and landfill – is more than a nice story, it’s a necessity,’ explains Karina. Since launching in March 2016, Seljak has so far diverted 2,200 kilograms of textiles waste from landfill. Along the way, it has exposed numerous Australians to its highly transferable closed-loop systems. For at the end of a blanket’s useful life, Sejak accepts them back from customers to reincorporate into the manufacturing process.
As part of an all-encompassing responsible business ethos, for every 10 blankets sold, another is donated to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre – a not-for-profit that Katrina and Sam, the grandaughters of Slovenian refugees, feel very passionate about. Sam is, in fact, making a delivery today, which will bring the total donations up to 160 blankets!
Karina, 30, studied Fine Arts (Fashion) and Business/Advertising during which time she produced and sold her graduate womenswear collection. Meanwhile, Sam, 28, undertook Journalism and Economics undergraduate degrees before moving to Sweden to study a Masters in Leadership for Sustainability. Both sisters will join Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps training in Brisbane next month.
It was while Karina was living in New York and Sam visiting, that the idea to launch Seljak came to the sisters. Working alongside a community of innovative food producers, Karina was inspired by the hyper-localised aspect of small problem-solving businesses. ‘It made us think about what we could do in Australia, what beautiful Australian resources were undercelebrated (wool!), and about different ways we could use those resources to be less wasteful,’ she tells.
Always knowing they wanted to go into business together, Sam brought a wealth of knowledge (from involvement in social ventures including Brisbane community art space The Box, and No Lights No Lycra) to the self-funded start-up. Back in Brisbane, Karina became involved in Better Threads, where she connected with like-minded creatives, including Citizen Wolf. More recently, the sisters crowdfunded $32,000 to research and develop ways to expand the Seljak operation to use other businesses’ textile waste, from cotton to bamboo and linen.
Seljak has also received support in the form of mentors, training, risk management, and funds from ING’s Dreamstarter Program, and The Macquarie Group’s kickstarter initiative. They encourage other environmentally-focused entrepreneurs to tap into private sector support, as big business increasingly looks to make a positive impact. ‘Innovation is extremely time-consuming and a really lengthy process, so it’s not like you can get a financial return on your investment quickly,’ guides Sam.
Their biggest challenge, though, has been limited onshore manufacturing capability. Seljak has ideas to expand its range, especially to new products that complement Australia’s warmer climate, but building localised supply chains from scratch has so far proved prohibitive. At the same time, micro-testing and small runs aren’t accepted by mass manufacturers internationally. ‘The fully-integrated mill we work with in Tasmania is a small business itself, with its own production schedule. Allowing us to do testing has been a big ask and an investment,’ praises Sam. She dreams of setting up a local community innovation centre – anyone have a spare million?
Nevertheless, the sisters have relished enhancing their products and brand direction through workshopping with friends (including in the Tasmanian wilderness, where these images were shot). They are spurred on by what they’ve accomplished in just three years.
‘Being able to bring something into the world that is so beautiful and extremely useful, which I wholeheartedly think people should have, is such a great feeling. But it’s also about having a platform to talk about the issues we care about; this product is an analogy for a better way of making and doing things in the world,’ tells Karina. ‘It’s been really exciting to see so many people get behind that. They have their opinions and hold us to account, which is great because we’re all pushing each other to be better,’ adds Sam.