• Fashion

What it’s like to start a sustainable fashion business

“It’s like running a daily marathon”

It’s the year of the great resignation, or at least the great reshuffle, where after two-plus years of working from home, combined with the current heaviness of the world is inspiring many to rethink their path for something more meaningful. In fact it’s a shift that started well before the pandemic, with one 2018 Harvard study citing nine out of 10 people indicated they would work for a lower salary if the job gave them more meaning. 

Changing jobs is one thing, but starting your own business centred around sustainability is another thing entirely. 

We interviewed Tina Funder, ex-advertising creative and founder of new vegan handbag label LOM Australia to find out just what it’s like to do your own thing.

Tina Funder

LOM Australia founder Tina Funder

Firstly, what prompted you to start your own company?

I have worked in creative advertising for hundreds of clients over the years, and I have always  desperately wanted to create my own product. My criteria for the product-to-be was that it had to  be innovative, purpose-driven and commercially viable.  

In 2019, I read about Adriano and Marti creating Desserto, an innovative leather alternative material  made from cactus. It blew my mind and prompted me to look more deeply into the leather industry. I  was horrified by what I discovered. A year or so later I (became vegetarian) decided to take the  plunge and create my own sustainable label. 

How long did it take from concept to launch? 

About 14 months. However, the idea simmered for months before I decided to invest. In fact, I did an  e-commerce course where I had several other ideas I was considering (all sustainably motivated), but  I landed on vegan handbags because I love fashion and I’m passionate about protecting our planet,  animals included.  

Why cactus ‘leather’? 

I have researched a lot of different leather alternatives both plant-based and PU based, and Desserto  stood out to me for several reasons. The key benefits of the cactus being: it requires zero irrigation (no water waste), is fast growing and naturally regenerates the soil, has an excellent carbon sequestering capacity, is cruelty free, 100 per cent vegan and the byproducts are directed to the food industry as feed stock. I am constantly sampling with different varieties and there are many different alternative leathers on the market now, it is a growth industry. 

What did the process of starting a business from scratch look like? 

I reached out to my network and as many people as possible in the fashion industry to ask questions  about manufacturing and design. The more people I talked to the more leads I got and I finally found 

the right people to work with for product design and sourcing, then the process unfolded a bit like  this:  

  • Material sampling
  • Product sketching and technical design development
  • Developing my code of conduct 
  • Sourcing and interviewing manufacturers
  • Product sampling rounds (there were many)
  • Material and supply chain checks (ensuring everything is certified)
  • Brand identity and packaging development
  • Sourcing and sampling of sustainable packaging
  • Drawing up legal contracts
  • Final pre-production samples and external auditing
  • Website build, SEO and social media marketing
  • Shipping and courier integration
  • Launch! 

What were the hurdles along the way? 

There is literally a hurdle every single day. Too many to list, but here are the most significant  challenges I faced.  

Made in Australia

I was desperate to make my bags in Australia to support local industry and avoid additional  shipping costs and carbon emissions. However, the cost of manufacturing in Australia makes  it inaccessible for smaller brands and I found that many local manufactures lack the  infrastructure to create the styles of bags I now sell. This was a heart-breaking discovery, and  like most Australian brands, I now manufacture offshore. After interviewing manufacturers  all over the world, I am very happy with the team I landed with in Guangzhou, China. They  are incredibly attentive and adhere to my strict, ethical code of conduct. I am also exploring  different bag styles and limited apparel drops that could be made locally. 

A complicated supply chain

Controlling the supply chain offshore. This is an ongoing, never-ending juggle. And something that I am constantly trying to improve on. It is incredibly challenging to make sure every element of every bag is sustainably and ethically sourced. There are many  elements to a handbag, so I am constantly questioning my manufacturer and encouraging  them to find more eco-friendly and sustainable solutions, whilst maintaining a good working relationship. There are still elements of the bags that need work, for example, sourcing  organic cotton thread and exploring the use of brass versus zinc alloy hardware.  

Which packaging is best?

Packaging took a lot of research and sampling to balance a premium brand experience while ensuring every element of the packaging is recycled, recyclable, compostable, and toxin-free. This is even down to the waxed cotton string used to tie the swing tags to the bags! 

How to navigate shipping

Shipping is a bit of a nightmare. Exponential e-commerce growth during Covid lockdowns has  increased demand and pushed prices up, and there are huge hold-ups with shipping by sea. I  choose to import products by air using a green courier, then I use a B Corp certified, carbon  neutral courier service to distribute my products to customers.  

Getting all the details right comes at a cost, but until larger corporations adopt more sustainable  approaches, sustainably made products will continue to be more expensive. 

What’s next?

I feel as though I have run a marathon to get to where I am, and now I need to climb Everest to grow  my brand and get my handbags out into the world. I have confidence that the product is beautifully  crafted, so once people have them in their hands, the word will travel.  

I’m not expecting overnight success, I’m taking things day by day and focusing on nurturing  relationships and collaborations with like-minded brands to help spread the word about LOM  Australia. And, of course, there are always new and exciting products on the horizon to keep things  fresh. 


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