Let’s talk about one of the biggest problems we face globally: waste. Australia only recycles 60% of the 74 million tonnes of waste we produce in a year. What’s worse? We send a huge proportion overseas, primarily to China, Malaysia, and multiple countries in Southeast Asia, burdening other continents with our wastes and in doing so, failing to take responsibility for the numerous products and packaging that we consume.
Talking about textiles, 90% of our waste ends up in landfill, producing methane gas – a gas which is ‘nearly 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide’ (CCA). Among the alarming global waste situation, there is also hope, inspiration, and most importantly, systems of change.
This is where Seljak Brand is an industry leader for recycling. Run by sisters Karina and Samantha Seljak, the company targets wool waste streams for remanufacture in Australia and Europe. Seljak Brand collects factory-floor wool waste, post-consumer waste and deadstock yarn from blanket and upholstery mills, most of which is shredded and spun into new yarn to weave unique recycled blankets. We asked, why blankets?
'They aren’t trend driven, they are practical, non-gendered, beautiful, close to the heart, and as a product they have longevity, fostering conscious consumption,' said Sam. Seljak Brand started in 2016 and has since been an inspirational model for change. In utilising a circular economic model, donating to charities, and working with universities and other partners, Seljak has further investigated the remanufacturing possibilities of waste streams in Australia.
‘Our blankets are a vehicle for us to show people that there are alternative ways of producing and consuming things, and disposing of things,’ said Karina. Drawing from their respective academic and industry backgrounds in communications and economics for Sam, and textiles and business for Karina, the women engaged with the communities around them, and took inspiration from the small and large-scale ways people recycled waste products with passionate innovation.
Whilst living in New York, Karina was engaged in manufacturing for the food industry where the company she worked for would send their ginger pulp down the road, into its new life as chocolate.
‘People were trading the by-products from the food products they were making… adding value to waste,’ Karina said. The sisters shared their stories from Europe, America, and Australia before travelling India together, ‘visiting textile social enterprises, and textiles facilities... to understand the global textiles trade more,’ said Sam.
The two ‘built a shared basis of inspiration’ for what would become Seljak Brand – an innovative movement against textiles waste.‘We didn’t have a vision to create a blanket company, we had a vision to find a waste stream that we could create a product out of – if we found a different waste stream, we could have created a completely different company,’ said Karina.‘We were staunchly aware that we only wanted to deal with waste, so when we came across a waste wool stream we were stoked. We were not only able to work with a wonder-fibre, which is what wool is, we were able to use something that would otherwise be wasted.’
One of the many ingenious practices of Seljak Brand is the company’s promotion of and engagement in the circular economy. Founded on the idea of zero waste and premised on circularity, the circular economy is an alternative model for the economic production of goods, thereby avoiding streams of waste. For Seljak Brand, this works through sourcing pre- and post-consumer wool waste and remanufacturing such waste into a product that is ‘regenerative by design’, said Karina.
‘Ultimately, creating something with longevity that people want to love, want to care for, and have forever is more sustainable than remanufacturing – which in and of itself is energy and resource intensive,’ Sam said. Along with the weaving of histories into new blankets, Seljak Brand also crafts new stories with new possibilities into their blankets, letting artwork continue the conversation. Drawing their artistic inspiration from local Australian landscapes, the blankets are an artistic medium through which to explore issues like pollution and climate change: ‘the defining issue of our time,’ said Sam. ‘Through each blanket we explore what environmental issues those areas are facing… with the reef [it’s] the warming temperatures of the water and pollution, for example,’ said Karina.
Karina drew from concern for the Great Barrier Reef in the Lune blanket, miming the rich life of the bioregion in orange and blues for the sun, moon, tide, and the colourful biodiversity underwater.
The design for their Pyramid blanket found inspiration in the green, volcanic landscape of the Sunshine Coast hinterland, exploring the problem of rising temperatures through the ascending peak of the pyramid structure.‘The blankets are a celebration of beautiful areas and enjoying those areas – taking your blankets out into nature and enjoying the process of how we can treat our planet better, and how we can be climate activists without being doom and gloom.’
Along with an environmental ethos, Seljak Brand also focuses on global humanitarian issues and has donated over $8,000 and more than 250 blankets to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC).‘For the first four years we were donating a blanket to the ASRC for every ten blankets sold,’ said Sam.‘We work with them on a lot of different campaigns, and we have a donation model built into the blanket purchase. Now for every blanket sold we donate $5 to the ASRC.’
The sisters disseminate global issues through their blog; organise community events and work with other brands, industries, and charitable bodies; run panel discussions, guest lectures, and collaborate and engage in university research programmes; and have been featured as case study in curriculum. Seljak Brand is fostering the ‘coming together to solve the problem of textiles waste on a broader scale,’ said Sam.
In engaging with the rich history of wool production in Australia, Seljak Brand recognises the significance of Australian wool. Seljak Brand’s ‘closing the loop’ system avoids waste through their take-back offer. Once the blankets have been well-used and are no longer wanted, the company will take them back to remanufacture them, once again, into new ones.
Yet being industry leaders does not come without its challenges: ‘closed-loop design sounds like the holy-grail for the textiles industry, but it comes with a lot of complexities… it can mean creating new products from scratch,’ said Karina.‘We started the business trying to make a difference and be part of a system change. Capitalism ultimately means that everyone is existing within a predefined system of business. [We were] wanting to change that, but also having to work within that.’
In awe of their pioneering recycling efforts and leadership towards sustainable futures for industry, we asked what the most rewarding experience was for Sam and Karina.‘Feeling like we are contributing to a greater movement is the most rewarding part of [the job]… it feels amazing to be able to work on that everyday,’ said Sam.
So, how can we help? ‘Spreading the word is the best thing people can do to support Seljak Brand to increase their impact. Engaging with the things that we buy and use, realising these alternative models exist [and] educating and supporting each other’ to move towards change. We're in!