In designing products for a sustainable lifestyle, Untouched World utilises the research and development nature has done over billions of years. In 2007, their proven track record in sustainability was recognised by the United Nations, becoming the first clothing company in the world accredited to use the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainability emblem on their products. Since then, CEO Peri Drysdale has been working along with Sustainability Education Advisor Dr Barry Law to consult with the United Nations on the outcomes of the Decade for Sustainable Development. And it doesn’t stop there: former US President, Bill Clinton has sought Peri’s contribution on how to improve the world’s environment at the Clinton Global Initiative conferences. Our successes, Peri tells Sublime, ‘simply encourage us to continue to challenge ourselves, to remember that we do have a voice, and know that anything is possible.’
Sublime: When did you become interested in sustainability and how?
Peri Drysdale: I grew up in a very pristine beautiful part of the world, on a sheep farming property above the Rakaia river gorge, at the foot of the Southern Alps of New Zealand, where water ran pure and clear, the sky was clear and blue and native flora abundant. My paternal grandmother compiled the first book on New Zealand native trees and plants, a book still used as a reference text today. As a child we were taken on picnics to far away corners of untouched parts of the country and my father always showed us all the native plants and how clever nature is. We drank from the streams, and swam in the rivers. His view was that we were only custodians of the land and its native flora and fauna for future generations.
Both sides of my family were on the first ships with European settlers to arrive in Canterbury, New Zealand. Both sides of my family made close connections with our first people, the Maori, after they arrived (which can be another story!). As I travelled around the world selling our first knitwear brand, Snowy Peak, I was seeing increasing environmental degradation going on, from visit to visit, and I became very concerned, especially about what the industry I was in was doing to the planet.
S: How have your own personal beliefs and values contributed to Untouched World?
PD: I grew up aware of the conflict in the world – so much of it due simply to different beliefs, mores and understandings. I also knew that until people feels secure and safe, they would not look after the environment. When I started my business I began travelling to Japan, Asia and Western European countries. I would acutely feel the differences between these cultures and my own experiences of life. Gradually getting to know and love the people of these countries I was doing business in, I realised all the richness there is to gain by making the effort to understand other cultures. I came to understand that so much of what might have once seemed right or wrong to me, is something very different to someone else in another culture and country. I thought, if only people of different cultures and religions could spend time together they would realise what we all have in common, rather than what our differences are, and a great perspective would develop over what is actually important and what isn’t, the world would be a happier place. To me, a good place to start was right in my home country, where I wanted to embrace both Maori and European culture in what was to become Untouched World; not with a goal to merge cultures as in blending red and yellow to get orange, but in a way that both could truly benefit.
S: Your logo represents the Maori Kite, the emblem of an ideal relationship between man and nature, but how did the brand name evolve?
PD: Untouched World had started as Untouched World by Snowy Peak (our first knitwear brand). It began as the un-dyed biogro certified organic wool sweaters line that we sold on wonderful in-store fixtures created out of small tree branches lashed together.
We had sold these into Japan, into Isetan Department store, and they asked for some summer cotton product so they could make a corner for Untouched World. Other retailers started asking us for outfits to go with our sweaters, and a summer collection for the same reason. In that time, before spaces became branded, one would go and sell directly to any knitwear department around the world. I was lucky enough to have Shozo Honda, then President of Prada Japan advising me; and my General Manager, who was from the Reed British clothing family, had international experience with that business. We had been working with an Italian designer Vittorio Giacomelli, and we asked him to come up with a lifestyle concept that would reflect New Zealand and include the Maori, our first people. Their research uncovered the Maori kite and we instantly knew that this was a great metaphor for the brand ethos we wanted to build.
S: … and that lifestyle concept is …
PD: Untouched World is about providing a platform for the human spirit to grow to its full potential. This platform is founded on a base of environmental sustainability and renewal. I had been both overwhelmed with my concern for our planet and its people – ‘what difference could one person, one company make?’ I asked myself. But, at the same time, that inspired me to create something beautiful, desirable and of the highest quality, something that would have a multi-layered positive impact both through the company stakeholders and through the company’s revenue.
S: You say you transform raw materials into luxury fabrics; how do you ensure a balance between aesthetic appeal and minimal environmental impact?
PD: We have found that by working with nature and understanding what solutions nature has evolved over billions of years a lot of the answers are there. We study the total lifecycle of our fibres, yarns, fabrics and garments. Merino wool grown high in the NZ Southern Alps forms the basis of a lot of our collections. In merino sheep nature evolved a fibre construction that would keep a merino sheep in the middle of desert cool during the day, and warm in the night when temperatures fell. In my mind, it is the most perfect fibre to wear in the cold, heat and trans-seasonally – and brilliant for travel. Where else do you get a fabric with these temperature regulation properties, that doesn’t pick up odours and needs much less washing… just an airing overnight and its fresh again. Merino is easy care, just throw it in the washing machine, comfortable next to the skin, wicks moisture away so you don’t get chilled when going from high temperatures into air conditioning, or heated indoors to chilly outdoors; and above all it looks and feels luxurious.
We have a beautiful 100% mechanically processed bamboo fibre, which is cool and crisp and airy on a sticky summer day and we do a lot of knitwear in brushtail possum fibre, which is a recovered material available only from New Zealand, and creates the most beautiful knitwear that is light and soft to wear. Since we first started Untouched World there are many more options of materials available in buttons, trims, labels, etc, without us having to develop everything from scratch. Our promise is that we will use the most sustainable option available to us, without compromise to style, comfort or performance.
Our designers and development team do have to work harder to find solutions than if the brief did not include full sustainability consideration of both environmental and social impacts. Its not just about fabrics, but also about styling, multiple use versatile garments, garments that will shine in the wardrobe for years to come.
S: What caused you to set up the Untouched World Charitable Trust and how has the organisation benefited the work of Untouched World?
The Untouched World Charitable Trust (UWCT) was a way of putting our money where our mouth is, as it were. We wanted something to coalesce the thoughts and minds of our stakeholders, and something that might prompt the question ‘why?’ and generate thinking and dialogue. The UWCT delivers ground breaking ‘leadership-for-a-sustainable-future’ programmes for 16-17 year olds. In the last 12 months, we have started inviting our customers to nominate students for scholarships on these programmes, and this has been very popular and grown the awareness of the brand as our customers have reached out to their networks to offer the chance for a scholarship to our programmes. We manufacture our own knitwear, and for our highly skilled workforce this UWCT gives them a real sense of purpose that what they are doing is not only create beautiful garments and products, but contributing to a deeper, more far-reaching impact.
S: How do you inspire and motivate the consumer to engage with the idea of a sustainable future?
Knowledge is the key. Once eyes are opened about the impact of actions, behaviour changes. We try to do our part in this by ‘being’ the change and saying why. We make beautiful quality clothes and products that are versatile, practical, easy – they facilitate a busy, active lifestyle. People can see and feel they don’t have to give up style and comfort to do their part for a sustainable future. We try to open eyes positively, for example showing the lifecycle of a garment on a point of sale in retail begs the question: what would the lifecycle of another product look like? The laundering of a product can have the biggest environmental impact. We chose 16-17 year olds for our leadership programmes as we felt that this age group would take this knowledge and awareness forward into their lives, whatever field they end up working in, and our small contribution can be maximally leveraged. Through our work our suppliers change – they have to, if they want our business. Our staff and families change too, and they take change through to their schools and communities.