by Clifford Loh
For more than 30 years, Australia skincare brand Aesop has built a reputation for high-quality products and a quiet non-conformist sensibility, embodied in their distinctive retail design that are recognizable destinations in major cities. The brand aims to nourish through intelligent interactions between its products, stores and people; treading lightly with an unwavering commitment to excellence and sustainability. Since its majority stake acquisition by Brazilian Natura & Co group in 2013, the commitment to protect the natural environment and support the communities they engage with has been deepened by aiming to address the climate crisis and reduce their environmental footprint, starting with the an achievement of net zero carbon emissions by 2030.
Indeed, there is an ever-increasing requirement towards regenerative systems and the development of sustainable practices as we traverse on this journey, as consumers, to lighten our tread on the planet. But as brands and organisations scurry to reflect increasing desires and demands from investors and consumers alike, how can we see these scant and ephemeral initiatives as anything beyond marketing gimmick? What does it really take for impact and change?
Aesop’s recent cross-industry collaboration with UK-based Raeburn Studios is one undertaking. Entitled the “Adventurer Roll Up,” it comprises a wide-release grey-on-black pouch made from pre-consumer recycled cotton, and 300 limited-edition pouches made with reclaimed 1960s aeronautical navigation maps. The kit comes with a trio of handcare items like Aesop’s signature rinse-free hand wash, mist, and balm designed to enliven our daily routine of hand cleansing. We spoke to Christopher Raeburn, Creative Director at Raeburn Studios to find out more about the genesis of the “Adventurer Roll Up” and how he finds meaning in such partnerships.
Many brands in the retail industry are only now beginning to embrace sustainability and circularity. Why do you think that is and why is it only being seriously considered at this moment?
Looking at the positives, the good news is it can be seriously considered because the technology is now there to work in a circular way and to work towards it. I think 11 years ago when we started Raeburn that wasn’t the case, and even five years ago. There’s a lot of innovation that’s happened and we’re even now able to have that much more access. And the other reality now is that as individuals, but also globally, we’ve woken up to our responsibility on the environment and of course governments are making commitments that means brands can make commitments. So it’s all kind of working together. And you can approach this in two ways—you can look at the negatives at what companies aren’t doing and could be doing or you could say we all need to try and solve this problem together. So much for me is around corporations, crop industry, partnership as well and learning from each other. Part of the reason I’m so proud to now be working with Aesop on this partnership is because it’s not expected and that’s really exciting. Within Raeburn, we’ve done lots of partnerships previously with traditional fashion brands but for us to be doing something like this with a truly global brand like Aesop, and really making a difference, that’s super exciting.
I had read there were also maps of areas which require specific attention because of deforestation and endangerment, I wonder how the thinking behind looking at maps came about?
First, we were thinking about the product in general, and it was about the spirit of adventure. At the moment, reality for most people is that adventure is quite close to home because of the current global situation. We wanted to provide a product that would make sense for a daily commute or a small trip outside. But in the long-term when we start to travel again, having a companion that would help you on that journey. For me, because I’ve always been quite obsessed by maps in general, I felt it really made sense to work with the maps and to bring in that natural link to travel because of course maps bind us all together, all of these locations around the world. But I wanted more significance, not just choosing a map because it happened to be beautiful but actually choosing the maps because they resonated.
And so you’re right. We chose two areas, one is Borneo which unfortunately is a big focus for deforestation and the other is the Aral sea, and what is very chastening is that in the one with the Aral sea, when you look at the map which was made in the 1960s and then you look at Google Earth and how the Aral sea looks like now, it’s shrunk so much because of the impact we’ve had as humans.
So that’s also a vessel of time in a way, that looks at our own human impact on the environment. Incorporating it in a design in this manner is a more poetic way of galvanising a call to action. Even though it’s not ultimately in your face, it’s a very genteel way of speaking about the things that matter.
It’s the way we approach design in general within Raeburn, and of course with this partnership it has to be design-led first and it has to be a really cool product that’s meaningful and benefits someone’s life.
Part of understanding the provenance and also the afterlife of an object is being conscious of the material that is chosen. I read that this was specifically pre-consumer recycled cotton, could you talk about the material characteristics and why it is suitable to be thought of as something that can return to the earth?
The way that I look at the design practice within Raeburn, we try to do things in one of three ways. We either do things that are remade—they are already made from something existing, and we also offer free repairs for life on the remade things. It’s about then having something that has lots of longevity. The second one then is making things from recycled material, and that can be recycled again. So again, a closed loop. And the third one is making something from a natural material that in theory can go back to the Earth.
One of the problems that we have sometimes as people is we tend to blend the second and the third, so we mix a natural material with a synthetic and it’s very difficult to actually then take those things apart. By making something like this with pre-consumer cotton, it has to have a little mix of some virgin cotton to go in to give it the strength so that it’s strong enough and the tape is cotton also. The good news is it’s going to be really robust, it’s going to last for a long time anyway. But eventually when it wears out, it’s all made out of natural materials so you can compost it eventually if you need to—but we’re talking a long, long time.
It’s interesting you spoke about composting because I wanted to move into the next question about aspects of your own lifestyle in which sustainability is also incorporated into your own thinking and living. I also read that you spoke a lot about fermentation and composting, every kind of lifestyle way in which you can incorporate a more sustainable thinking. I’m wondering if there are other aspects of this that is also incorporated into your lifestyle as well?
I think we can analyse the things that impact the planet and try to reduce those items. For me, personally wherever I can, I cycle. I don’t drive, at all. I actually became vegetarian close to three years ago as well. There are some quite simple steps you can take—I don’t suggest that everyone needs to be vegetarian but sometimes you can limit some of the things you know are quite impactful and find the right balance. With the composting as well—that’s something very simple, where I researched online what I can do as an individual to reduce my impact and I was fascinated that 70% of your household waste can be composted. Your rubbish and things, in fact can be composted, so sometimes it doesn’t even need to go into recycling or general waste. So that’s what helped to start that experiment for me. It’s about collective change as well and I don’t for a minute live a perfect lifestyle. I have a lot of impact on the planet—we all do. But we also know that if we can make a few positive incremental changes together it makes a big difference.
"It’s about collective change as well and I don’t for a minute live a perfect lifestyle. I have a lot of impact on the planet—we all do. But we also know that if we can make a few positive incremental changes together it makes a big difference."Christopher Raeburn
“There needs to be more curiosity about the provenance and value of apparel, as well as what to do with it at the end of the day—whether that is extending the life of a piece or returning it to a closed-loop system,” your brother Graeme Raeburn said in an interview with Wired. While this question pertains to the life of a garment, do you think this sentiment extends to other products as well? This idea of whether it’s a closed loop system or how you as a designer can be conscious about extending the life of a piece you create.
What we’ve done with the Aesop pouch is a really good example. You mentioned about this idea about circularity, so for this project we started with these beautiful original 1960s aeronautical maps, they’re made from fabric rather than paper, and they’re around 60 years old. We were able to take these pieces and sew them into the roll up that you see here, they’re completely remade and sewn right on the machines behind me.
I’ll show you also the recycled cotton version—which we’re doing in higher volume. It’s a really good example of what you’re speaking about, because the remade version is an existing item that we’re remaking into something else. And what’s really great about the roll up in general is that it’s really simple, there’s no metal, no zips, no hardware, and on the inside you have your three Aesop products and you have flexibility here with the other pockets you can put additional items into. And of course if your Aesop products run out you can replenish them or you can replace them with others.
The reason why I think it’s a really good example is that this one is done with recycled cotton and pre-consumer waste that is then used to make it into this. By designing it in this way it then really has longevity, it’s very flexible the way that you can use it. It’s about future proofing the item. The great thing with this, because it’s all natural so in theory it can go back to the earth. So you actually begin to design things thinking about their end of life. The quote from my brother is a very good one and the products that we made in this partnership really help to emphasise this.
My final question surrounds the ethos of the Raeburn business where the notions remaking, reducing, and recycling form its core tenets. You once said in an interview about doing less but better and how this sentiment is a guiding ethos across the Raeburn business. Part of doing less or choosing less but better is also about learning to be conscious of how we can consume. What are the first steps a consumer can take in leading a more sustainable lifestyle?
I think we’ve all been guilty about having a glut of stuff. We have too much overall, and I think we need to be more considered about the items we’re purchasing—do we need them and do we need them in such volume. I think that’s a really key provocation and it’s obviously a tricky one for me because I need to run a business—a clothing business—so we of course want people to buy clothing. But then we also want to make sure it’s done in a right way and that’s why we do offer things like free repairs for life. And actually asking people to do their research on brands is also key. Because you’ll realise quite quickly the brands or companies that are talking but not doing and the ones that are really doing. I just think as well, it’s really important to be fair with yourself, you can’t change everything overnight. And you shouldn’t get demoralised if you set an ambition that you can’t achieve. I think if we just try to make incremental changes towards improving things that’s great, that’s absolutely fine, that’s what I try to do.