With over 15 years experience in the fashion industry, including running her own namesake label, Celeste Tesoriero has seen the impact the industry can have on people and the planet. It's from this place Celeste found where her true passion lies, focusing on sustainability. A member of the British Fashion Council's Positive Fashion Committee, Celeste has worked with a number of luxury brands, to find ways for a more sustainable future. Evolving naturally into founding her own sustainable brand consultancy, Sonzai Studios.
We chat with Celeste about her time in the UK, tips for making mindful choices when purchasing clothing and what further steps brands can take to lighten their footprint.
For those that don’t know, we’d love to start by asking you what that entails and what you’re currently working on?
I work with brands in the retail sector (across fashion, jewellery, homewares & technology) to help them achieve a more sustainable future. The three sections of my offerings are strategy, communication and education. The most prevalent project I do is Sustainability Roadmaps. This is where I work with the Directors to create a tangible set of goals within a realistic time frame based on current industry practices, evidence-based research, international policies and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Within this project, I plan out their point of difference in the sustainability sphere - honing in on which pillar they are most passionate about. Sustainability is such an overused term now, it's imperative to know as a brand what you stand for and how you are going to communicate that. It also involves seeing where their greatest impact can be and guiding them to create changes that are meaningful and worth doing. As designers or directors, they don’t have the capacity to also be a sustainability expert - and setting goals without expert advice means they can risk being called out by customers for greenwashing (and might even be greenwashing without knowing it). Companies can all only strategise to the best of their education level, so if they haven’t studied the topic there's no way they are going to get it right. I see it all the time unfortunately, brands focusing mainly on packaging (which is only scraping the surface of what they need to be doing) and planting trees for example, which can be super problematic and an accidental greenwashing tactic. Sustainability work is ongoing, it does not stop and the industry is always changing - that's what makes my job so exciting. Of late I have done a few creative projects I am really proud of. I created a ten-point Climate Credential framework for the publication RIISE, and curated a new ecommerce marketplace, vetting brands and products against the framework so that the customer can rest assured each piece is responsibly-made. I am also running a dead-stock program with Indigenous-owned NFP, AIME Mentoring, where brands can reimagine their waste whilst raising money for mentorships to close the educational gap for kids on the margins.
"Sustainability work is ongoing, it does not stop and the industry is always changing - that's what makes my job so exciting."
Could you share a bit about how this path unfolded for you?
I have been a fashion designer for 15 years, including having my own eponymous brand for five of those. My lightbulb moment to the devastating impact fashion production has on people and the planet happened whilst I had my own label. It was then a snow-ball effect of learning for me, and I implemented new and more sustainable methods of production each season. In the end, even though my business was very successful and nominated for international awards etc I was restless. I stopped believing in consumerism, but was, at the end of the day, pushing a consumerist product. I decided to pack it in and head over to London for a palette cleanse. I really couldn’t see myself jumping straight into designing for someone else again after directing my own label so I focused on my passion for sustainability instead. I became the Sustainability Manager for luxury brand Roland Mouret and worked alongside the sustainability managers of brands such as Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood through the British Fashion Council's Positive Fashion Committee. Following that I returned to Aus and brands started contacting me for some sustainability help. My consultancy was organically born and a year later I also took on a Head of Sustainability role at RIISE. At the same time, I completed a Sustainability Diploma through the University of Tasmania and also now lecture on sustainable business and innovation.
I get so much satisfaction through helping others. I realised by helping as many brands as possible through my consultancy, I can have a much larger impact than just having my own label.
What is the most interesting or shocking statistic regarding sustainable fashion that you’ve heard?
There are too many! I’m on a push right now to get people to start practicing closed-loop circularity (using clothing waste to create new clothing) because only 1% of clothing gets recycled into clothing, the rest either ends up in landfill or downgraded into insulation for example. The other one that gets me at the moment is “By the time you have finished reading this sentence, 4-5 garbage trucks of textiles will have been landfilled or incinerated.” (BOF, 2018)
To balance that, we’d love to hear some hopeful examples of progress that you’ve witnessed throughout your career?
One example would be through my work with the British Fashion Council's Positive Fashion Committee. This sparked my passion for collaboration, as it was the first time I saw a previously cagey industry be open to pooling resources and ideas for the greater good. Here we were, the sustainability managers of all the biggest brands and companies in fashion (Vivienne Westwood, Kering, Matches Fashion, Net-a-Porter and Selfridges) trying to solve the same sustainability problems individually. This program allowed the conversation to open up to see if there is a quicker and better way to solve these problems together. It just made sense.
There is no legal qualification required to call oneself a ‘sustainable’ brand and it’s causing a lot of greenwashing. How do you think we can address this problem?
We are getting there. The main thing that needs to be done is policy implementation. In the food industry for example, there is a vigorous process to be able to call something ‘organic’, whereas you can label your clothing ‘organic cotton’ when in fact it’s just regular cotton. Unfortunately without rules, people are not always going to do the right thing. The other tool to address the problem is education. As I said earlier, many brands are probably greenwashing unknowingly because they have not sought expert advice.
Do you believe sustainable fashion should be inherently slow in its production runs?
Slow is not the right word. Slow makes you think that you are going to have to wait forever to get something and I think it puts people off. It is used as an antidote to ‘fast-fashion’ which I get, but there are no parameters around what a ‘slow fashion’ brand means and it is therefore slightly confusing. The key difference here is a ‘slow fashion’ brand is simply producing less. And brands should be producing less.
If they have very smart, local supply-chains, they may be able to make quite ‘quickly’, but might be producing 50 units rather than 5 billion for example. This is what is needed. There should be a maximum amount a brand is allowed to produce per year, weighing up the impact on natural resource use and extraction, and the impact across all the pillars of sustainability. What that number is, would need some serious data and science behind it, but if the earth has finite resources, how can we keep producing infinite amounts of new clothes?
What are some lesser known ways fashion brands can reduce their impact?
- Use green energy. It’s one of the easiest switches to make, and usually takes just a few minutes online! The energy use and CO2 emissions of brands offices, stores and warehouses is significant (even if they are a small brand).
- Be aware of your cloud use, duplicate files and technology choices. Most creative companies are using a plethora of programs beyond normal mail servers such as Adobe, Asana, Trello, Canva etc. All of these are storing information in the cloud, which takes CO2 to store. Google uses green energy for example, so having your business emails set up on Gmail is a good start.
- Make second-hand the first choice as a company policy. You’ll save money whilst reducing your impact. Everything your business needs to buy for daily use or projects doesn’t need to be new. For example for photoshoots, hire props, racks, extra clothing. For your office, buy second-hand furniture, plates and cutlery. Use recycled paper in your printers.
I take time to decide to buy, mainly because I want to test myself, to know if I am being pulled in on a hype or if I actually am going to wear that piece more than 100 times. I avoid cheap clothing as a rule because I know it won’t even last 100 wears.
We’d love to hear what you do in your own life to reduce your individual impact with the clothing you buy?
Basically, I don’t ever buy anything on a whim. I take time to decide to buy, mainly because I want to test myself, to know if I am being pulled in on a hype or if I actually am going to wear that piece more than 100 times. I avoid cheap clothing as a rule because I know it won’t even last 100 wears. I try to find designer pieces pre-loved on sites such as Vestiaire Collective, The Real Real or Depop. I also have my black book of brands I know are doing good things in the sustainability space that I prefer to support. So if I combine those three things, I’m always really happy with what I buy and never get the guilts!
The other thing I do is think of the entire life-cycle of the clothing. When I wash it will it release microplastics? What will happen to it when I no longer need it? Can it be re-sold? Will it biodegrade naturally at the end of its life? I never put clothing in the bin. If it’s an old stained tee shirt, I will cut it up and use it as reusable rags/cloths to clean my home. Old socks are great for cleaning, as you can put your hands in them so they also remove the need for gloves!
If you could paint your ideal picture of the future of the fashion industry what would it look like?
Community-based (swap/share economy), localised (minimised supply chains), value exchanges that aren’t money focused, holistic sustainability methods where every part of the supply chain is beneficial for the people involved, and strict (data-driven) policy around what people are allowed to produce.
What are your favourite sustainable clothing brands?
It changes all the time, as brands enhance their initiatives and grow. For my personal taste, in Australia I love Arnsdorf and Esse Studios. Overseas, I love Scandinavian brands such as Acne Studios and GANNI and Italian brands that are stepping into sustainability such as Bottega Veneta. There is a plethora of new brands emerging from the brilliant minds of the next generation who truly care about the planet, and that gets me really excited. I’m also fascinated by brands that are technology and science focused such as Pangaia.