The Seljak Sisters Tell Us How They Make Their Recycled, Closed Loop Blankets

by: Courtney Sanders | 3 years ago | Features

Image: Karina and Samantha Seljak. Image supplied.

You know what's better than keeping warm in winter? Keeping warm under blankets which are made from factory floor waste, in a closed loop system, by a company which donates one blanket to the Asylym Seeker Resource Centre for every 10 sold! Seljak is the brainchild of sisters Karina and Samantha who together came up with the brilliant idea to turn offcuts from the factory floor of Australia's oldest mill (in Tasmania) into brand new blankets. The results are Seljak's cosy range of comforters: made in the same mill the offcuts come from out of 70% recycled Australian merino wool, 30% recycled alpaca and mohair, as well as polyester for strength. Here, we chat with Karina and Samantha about their experience in the world of ethics, what they believe to be the major problems in the fashion industry right now, and why closed loop production is so important.

Courtney Sanders: It would be great to find out a little bit about each of you, and how you interact with ethics in your work and life?
Samantha and Karina Seljak: Aside from Seljak Brand, Karina works on the marketing team at Australian Ethical Investment to help people understand the power of their money. Super, which is mandatory in Australia, will be one of the greatest investments most Australians have, and which companies people invest their money with is their choice. Australian Ethical invests in companies that are beneficial to people, the planet and animals (companies that do things like create energy from ocean tides, and make closed loop carpets with ocean plastic), as directed by its 30-year-old ethical charter.

Sammy, on the other hand, has worked in Indigenous communications, spending three years at Gilimbaa Indigenous creative agency, and has run multiple projects in Brisbane (including No Lights No Lycra and a community activation space), so her experience is grounded in community engagement, social enterprise, and sustainable project management. Currently living in Sweden, she has just completed her Masters in Leadership for Sustainability with a focus on implementing closed loop methods in large scale companies.

Our experiences have lead to a common understanding in the importance of purpose-driven business for enabling creative, future-proof systems.

Courtney: When and why did you first start thinking about the intersection between the products we consume (with particular reference to fashion) and ethics?
Samantha and Karina: This was a natural evolution. Firstly, we have always been a family who values longevity and quality over quantity. This resourcefulness came from both our farmer roots on our mother’s side, and from our father's side, whose parents were refugees from Slovenia.

Furthermore, Karina’s study of Fashion Design saw her exploring modularity, wasteless, and transeasonal approaches in her university graduate collection. In fact, she made a diffusion collection from the offcuts of the first! Her consequent experience interning in New York, gave her insight into the flaws of fast fashion: things like the strain of ever-increasing collections per year being outsourced to developing countries. In one particularly low moment, Karina was sitting with a piece of sandpaper for hours, asked to create different worn effects on denim to send back to the factories overseas. Of course, the water and energy that goes into creating raw denim is huge, let alone the wearing treatments used to make it trendy!

It became apparent that we wanted to use our consumer dollar to vote for the things we cared about. Even through high school, we were both avid second-hand shoppers and it made so much sense to us to use someone else’s waste as a valuable resource!

Image: details of the Indigo Fringe Blanket by Seljak.

Courtney: Where and how did the idea for Seljak come about?
Samantha and Karina: We had always wanted to work together, and there came a point where we’d been working in Brisbane and New York but had a similar vision inspired by the circular economy: to see waste used as a resource.

Sammy had already trialled other business ventures and worked in creative communications agencies where genuine storytelling was the key for creating legitimacy. Karina was ready to highlight a local Australian product after her time in the handcrafted food scene in New York, where local was the holy grail.

So, when we came together after experiencing different parts of the world, geographically and in terms of business, we wanted to reimagine a local resource. We were particularly inspired by Australia’s merino wool: it's the best in the world, but over 95% of it is shipped off in its rawest form, plus it's anything but cool for young Australians. We wanted to produce our product in a way that would reduce the impact of the environment, inspiring people that closing the loop is possible and profitable.

Courtney: Tell us a little bit about the process of creating your Seljak blankets: how did you find the factory and how did you work with them on what I’m sure was a relatively new initiative for them, of turning waste into new blankets?
Samantha and Karina: The factory we work with to make Seljak Brand blankets already had the ability to turn their offcuts into blankets. This is an age-old method of retaining the value of wool and is utilised by at least a few mills around the world. We saw huge value in this process and its ability to tell the story of circular models, so we worked together with the mill to make the blankets that we now sell. We also took the recycling process one step further and implemented a closed loop system. So now we offer a collection service after people have finished with the blankets so we can remanufacture them into new blankets at the end of their life.

Image: details of the Original Whipstich Blanket in Seljak.

Courtney: Speaking of turning factory waste into new blankets: how does it actually work?
Samantha and Karina: The waste, which is from various processes including offcuts from spinning, carding, weaving, is all collected together and ragged (shredded) to create a consistent fibre length. Next it is spun with polyester so the short waste fibres are given strength. Then the yarn is woven into our blankets. Other companies like Patagonia’s Worn Wear (for example) use a molecular process to break down their polys to be rebuilt, whereas the process we use is mechanical.

Courtney: On top of turning waste into blankets, you’re also reducing impact at the other end of the supply chain, by allowing customers to return their blankets to you, to be made into new blankets! It’s the circle of life! Can you explain to us, firstly, what exactly a closed loop production system is, and why it was important for you guys to implement as part of Seljak?
Samantha and Karina: A closed loop system differs from the existing take-make-waste paradigm (that is, extraction, manufacture, consume, dispose) and instead, uses a system that uses renewable resources and energy to manufacture items that can be remanufactured at the end of their life to create something of equal or higher value.

We want to take responsibility for the things we’re bringing into the world and using a closed loop system enables this. With this model, we can educate consumers about this alternative paradigm and also inspire other businesses that there are other ways to create the beautiful things, and the essential things we need in life. One where we can reduce raw resource extraction and waste to landfill. We felt the need to respond to the current and future way of the world and things like climate change, overconsumption and waste are now just facts that need to be dealt with, and creative solutions are needed to face these challenges.

We know that our solution isn’t perfect but you’ve got to start somewhere. We’re continuing to listen very carefully to our customers because businesses need to mould what we do to deliver something that people need and get excited about.

Image: the Pine Fringe Blanket by Seljak.

Courtney: On top of all of THIS (so many layers), you donate 1 blanket to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre for every 10 sold. Why the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, and why was making this donation an important part of your business model for you?
Samantha and Karina: In a global migration crisis, it’s the least we can do to supply blankets to people that need them. While the government in Australia is politicising the issue of people seeking asylum, we are trying to do our part so that their basic needs are met. Given we have an essential product that provides warmth, donating blankets is our small contribution. Also, diversity from immigration brings innovation, new ideas, varying perspectives and these are things that we want to support, not suppress!

Courtney: More broadly speaking now, what do you think the biggest problems in the fashion industry are right now?
Samantha and Karina: Overconsumption from the consumer end and a lack of transparency on the production end that covers up myriad of social and environmental issues. We really believe that when people know how, where and by whom their clothes are made, attitudes shift. Documentaries like the True Cost are a great way to start understanding the many impacts of the fashion industry and increase the awareness of how much we should be spending on clothing i.e. far more per item, and way less often!

Courtney: And what initiatives do you think would have the most positive impact on the fashion industry?
Samantha and Karina: To address the issues surrounding garment workers, we believe worker-owned business models and cooperatives would mean it would be in the interest of the employers and managers to keep employees healthy and happy.

To address environmental issues and pollution, we believe in the pricing of externalities. The carbon tax is an example of this. On a more industry-specific level, if a company is polluting water with dye exhaust, there should be a cost to do this. If a company uses extreme amounts of water for cotton crops, for example, they need to pay for it. No only does this provide an incentive to reduce pollution and resource use, when implemented using the economical model of the carbon tax, low-polluters and low-resource- users can effectually sell their unused ‘credits’ to high emitters and polluters. As such, it can be profitable to be environmentally conscious and this can lead to increased innovation in technology and machinery to continue to drive pollution and waste down. To discourage rapid consumption and disposal, the fashion industry needs to be disrupted (which is inevitable of all industries). We could look to things like robots to make clothing. This could mean that fashion will be made much closer to the customers which would decrease the need for shipping and cheap labor - of course this comes with negative impacts too, such as, employment in countries who have come to depend on the fashion industry. Interestingly, it is a common assumption that robots already make our clothes!

Image: the Earth Fringe Blanket by Seljak.

Courtney: Do you think reduction of the fashion industry’s environmental and social impact would be most effective if it was government-driven, business-driven, or customer-driven, and why?
Samantha and Karina: We think a contribution from all three sectors is needed. Consumers are essential for putting pressure on businesses and governments. Governments can help regulate the industry using initiatives and laws like the aforementioned externalities tax and also to set fair workers rights. That said, we would emphasise business as key given the financial control. Really large businesses have the most impact and it’s here where change really needs to happen!

Courtney: What would you recommend as simple things we can all do to reduce our environmental impact every day?
Samantha and Karina: Checking out how your bank and financial institutions invest is a high impact way to make a change. Following local share economy sites is a great way to share everyday resources. When it comes to making purchases, there are so many awesome companies to choose these days. Well Made Clothes highlights a BUNCH of these and companies like Who Gives A Crap are changing the way your daily necessities (toilet paper!) are contributing to the world. Also, the old mantra ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ never goes astray.

Image: the Original Fringe Blanket by Seljak.

Courtney: What are you guys working on at the moment?
Samantha and Karina: Currently, we’re responding to many requests to turn textile waste into blankets and are working out how to use all the different waste streams most effectively. For example, denim offcuts need to be treated differently to used jumpers, and pure wool waste streams differently to old uniforms. We just ran a successful crowdfunding campaign with ING Direct’s Dreamstarter program and Start Some Good to do that very thing. So now we have some funding to find a way to use these waste streams to develop a new summertime blanket.

Going forward, we want to work collaboratively to create more closed loop products and assist other businesses in reaching circular outcomes. We know we need to draw on a range of expertise to create new systems and we’re working out how to help corporates think differently about how they make, use and dispose of the stuff they make. We want to consult for these companies and take our model to scale so we can spread the impact!

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