Rag and Trader’s Becky Smouha – Excellence in Sustainability winner in the Armidale Business Chamber and the Regional New England North West 2016 Business Awards.
What does Rag and Trader do?
We are a retail and online store offering women’s fashion, gifts and a selection of children’s wear. We source all our products sustainably and ethically. Our garments are sweatshop-free, use only organic materials, and a selection are handmade locally. For example, we have leather bags that are made solely from offcuts that would otherwise end up in landfill.
What led you to start Rag and Trader?
My family are in the rag trade and while I never intended to join them, starting out as a journalist, I somehow ended up in fast fashion. Increasingly, I was drawn to sustainable fashion and was exploring this prior to moving to Armidale. The actual start in Armidale was almost spur of the moment. The opportunity for a little pop up shop arose, and it was here I introduced my own line of handmade and hand dyed garments. The local interest in handmade goods conscious of its carbon footprint gave me the courage to pursue the Rag and Trader concept.
Why slow fashion?
Fast fashion is thrown away, with all the profits going back to the corporate and nothing to the community. I realised quickly that I couldn’t make money off someone else’s misfortune. What if I ran a store completely based on sustainability, offering fair wages and working conditions? A grand experiment!
My focus is on localised fashion, reducing our carbon footprint and offering fashion choices that you not only feel great wearing, but can feel proud of making.
I am passionate about supporting emerging and local designers. Many stores only stock designers that have an existing following. How do you do that without being given that first chance? For most regionally-based designers, their only alternative is to sell online. I take a mentoring approach, collaborating on logistics such as sourcing swing tags and branding.
By building a store based on slow fashion that is organic, handmade and fair trade, we are selling more than garments: we are selling beautiful stories.
Tell us more about your local approach?
We currently have ten local brands in store; the number fluctuates depending on the capacity of the individual designer at any given time. All our offerings are organic and handmade locally. From time to time we can help a client with a custom order. As our designers are local, we can talk to them directly. With our focus on local, our stock is suitable for season and climate. For example, one of our beautiful designers knits all Australian Merino scarves and gloves, and we are still stocking weights suitable for Armidale’s frequently brisk evenings and unseasonable cold snaps.
Tell us more about your sustainable business model?
I had started eating organically and thinking about clothing as a by-product of agriculture. I was keen to not only sell organic goods and have a fully transparent supply chain, but to ensure we practiced what we preached in store.
Every business decision we make is based on its potential impact on our carbon footprint. Our bags and wrapping paper are made from recycled paper, packaging is recycled or biodegradable, made of a plant compound that will break down in less than a year. We use green electricity and all our furnishings are upcycled.
We are always looking for new ways to be more sustainable. I started the store with my own money, which helped me focus on making each dollar go further.
Can a sustainable business be profitable?
In many ways, there is less risk. We are not trying to work to the deadlines of fast fashion, and we are not trying to sell clothing in volume. Once something is sold, we get something new in. As a result, we get new stock in every two weeks, keeping our offering unique and fresh. Our products particularly appeal to people who are connected to the land, and the connection here in the New England is so much stronger than in the city.
Any advice for a business just starting out?
When you first start out you need to give it at least a year. As much as you believe in your idea, it takes time to get over to others and for people to take you seriously. Being hands-on in your business is critical. The first year in store I worked six days a week, no lunch break, focused on meeting people and testing my ideas.
Where to from here?
I have lots of different plans. I have my own in-house label in development. I’m also hoping to expand to another area, utilising the same principles as my Armidale store. I will stock sustainable brands local to that region.
I like to think that the Rag and Trader is at the forefront of a community shift to sustainability. After all, we don’t own the land, we only borrow it from the future.
Becky is representing Armidale at the 2016 State NSW Business Chamber Awards. Good luck, Becky.