At Country Road, we have discovered a material made from recycled ocean plastics, which we have used in both our new 5 Star Green Star rated Chadstone store and in our September jewellery collection. Pieces of plastic are picked from the Australian coastline, sorted by colour, then regenerated into new plastic. The result is a colourful material patterned with a beautiful marble effect.
To tell this story, Sheree Commerford, of Captain and the Gypsy Kid, interviews Fiona Broadbent from Eco Barge, the organisation who collects the plastic from the shores of Northern Queensland; Andrew Simpson of Vert Design, who has developed the marine debris plastic; Anne Meagher-Whiting, from store design here at Country Road; and finally Janice Kirpalani, who was then inspired to create a jewellery collection from the same material.
"The more I continue on my own path of sustainable self-discovery, I encounter more and more people (some experts in their fields, others passionate individuals) working behind the scenes, on the front line and in industry, making things happen."
"By interviewing not just the designer but the maker and the supplier, I wanted to show the incredible importance of collaboration. How one person can drive a chain of great change and innovation by asking questions, not accepting the road travelled before and having the energy and curiosity to look at things differently when no one else does."
Are the plastics all collected by hand?
“Yes, basically our core program is the Whitsundays Marine Debris Removal Program, so whenever the weather’s right we take the barge out to the Whitsunday Islands with 10 volunteers and we head to the south-east facing beaches. You get predominantly south-east trade winds and any debris that’s floating in the ocean tends to wash up on these bays and beaches, they act like a natural collection point for the rubbish. We all have a bag, we load it up until the area is clean and it’s the same process at the next beach until it’s time to come home again."
In terms of process with Eco Barge and Vert, what happens to the plastics you find before they go to Vert? How does Vert receive the materials? What form are they in when they leave Eco Barge?
“Vert receives them as a shredded material. It’s quite a process; basically it’s collected off the beach and after marine debris removal, Eco Barge counts and sorts it. During this all the marine debris is sorted through and categorised as per the Australian Marine Debris Initiative (AMDI) Database, all items are then counted and the data is uploaded onto the database. This program is vital in helping us record how much and what types of marine debris are being found which can lead to identifying problem items so that source reduction plans can be made. Once it’s been counted and sorted we run a recycling event where we get the volunteers in and it’s colour sorted; Vert tends to say 'We need X amount of this colour.' It’s all come from the beach so it’s covered in sand and algae so we give it a wash then we dry it and shred it. We’ve got a machine called a Shrudder and this machine shreds the plastic into little pellets, flakes of plastic. It means that you dramatically reduce the volume of it, which we then ship and send down to Vert. It’s in a form that’s more manageable.”
You worked with Anne on the Country Road in-store fixtures and then Janice on the jewellery line. How did the partnership come about?
“Anne is the perfect example of how sustainability gets introduced to a business and it’s often somebody who has a personal passion for it and is prepared to take a little bit of risk. Anne was able to say, you’re active in this space, what do we need to do to push this to a level where it does meet our needs, and in that instance with the in-store fit out we did a very small piece of work (rather than the broader commercial fit out) to validate the opportunity. We had to say to Country Road we can produce this material but we can’t produce it to the quality, cost and timings, which is necessary to make the broader commercial project work. I think that’s really good practice on everyone’s part to say it is progress not perfection, and where it doesn’t work, let’s find another option.”
What form do you receive all of the plastics?
“We end up with palettes and then we effectively paint with the palette. Eco Barge collect, they sort, they take out PVCs, which cause a lot of problems in the processing, and then they send us a shredded plastic. It’s interesting that what’s available is a result of what’s been collected, so there might be a prevailing northerly wind and they end up with a lot of South East Asian fishing buoys which are red and orange and they’ve travelled from further so we might end up with a more degraded chalkier rich red; or we might have a southerly wind that gets more domestic waste from the southern states and we could have more bottle caps and blue colours – we end up with a palette of materials and we get an opportunity to make an artistic decision into how that’s going to blend.”
In order of process, what came first? The Vert design or the Country Road design?
“In this instance Country Road led the design. We are a design firm but I think to be professional creatives you need to be flexible and say that in this instance Country Road know their customer, they know the market, we’re just operating as support. Our design work on this project was designing the moulds, designing the process and then producing the parts."
When it comes to materials, what does the future of design look like?
“It really does feel today, that the future of design will be sustainable and my practice has been really material exploration and leading as an inspiration; so looking at materials and processes. A decade ago it was seen as a strange thing to do but we are seeing more and more that this is the future. It’s the idea of progress not perfection. And reduce, reuse, recycle. Often when the level for sustainability is set at perfection, it’s not attainable and people give up, and I think that’s one of the things that’s held sustainability back for so long.”
Country Road In Store Design
You’ve incorporated a lot of sustainable store fixtures into Country Road. I believe the Marine Debris Store Fixtures came first before the jewellery line. Can you tell me about the collaboration process with Vert?
“When it came to the concept we worked in conjunction with a company called HMKM, and they knew that our target was to get a Green Star Rating from the Green Building Council of Australia for the store. They put in some conceptual ideas about things we could do; Vert wasn’t on the list of suppliers but some of their products were in the concept presentation. I thought ‘these people are interesting, I’ll give them a call’ and ended up speaking with Andrew Simpson who was really passionate and excited about the opportunity of working with us and promoting the use of ocean waste plastic.”
Is the idea to roll out a similar in-store design nationally?
“Yes, absolutely, the target was to be able to implement in such a way that it’s repeatable. We didn’t want it to be tokenistic or a fad; so our target is to be able to get a Green Star Rating in all our future stores; a minimum of 5 Stars, which is what we achieved at Chadstone."
What’s the intention for the Country Road customer? What is it you want them to experience when discovering the story behind these pieces?
“We’d like them to be excited and engaged with the idea of our new and exciting environment; pique their curiosity and help them to understand that they’re part of the picture with protecting the environment. We care about the environment, we care about our staff and we care about our customers.”
Country Road Jewellery Designer
As it was the first time Country Road has done this, how was this different from designing other jewellery collections? What were the changes to the process from the design perspective? What were the challenges? What were the learnings? What was the collaboration process like for you?
"We met with Andrew at Vert and he showed us small little discs that he’d just produced off his machine, and we were really inspired then to create a commercial wearable range using Marine Debris. The initial focus for us in designing the range was to achieve some sort of cohesion between the beautiful colours we could achieve, the beautiful colours of the ocean and the story behind that; and then put that back into our colour palette. I think for us it was exciting to introduce a new element into our jewellery and continue to push boundaries for future collections as well. What we’ve learnt is that the possibilities are endless; anything is possible."
What’s generally more important to the consumer; good design first and then sustainability? Is it too much to expect that 'sustainability first' might just become the new normal? Or is the tide turning?
“I think it’s a really exciting time to be working in fashion and we’re being challenged every day on new ways of thinking. More and more of our customers are asking questions now about where their products have come from. We’re still on the journey of improving our processes every day, and with that Country Road have recently launched Our World on our website and that’s a platform we’ve designed to educate our community on the great initiatives we’re currently undertaking in business. I think there’ll always be areas to improve and these are the challenges that really excite and drive us to be better and do better. Working with different materials, there’s so much learning to be had, and what we can push and where we can still improve."