Advance Copy

Making Sustainability Simple With Sonzai Studios

13.04.21, Australia

This conversation is available to enjoy on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Celeste Tesoriero is the ever-optimistic sustainability consultant, permaculture practitioner and Founder of Sonzai Studios. Growing up in Australia, Celeste was seduced by fashion but faced its toxic roots while working in Bali. As a woman who is not put off by big questions or complicated problems, Celeste ventured on to London to learn how to make positive changes from the top of the fashion pyramid to the ground. Today, she talks about the power of working cooperatively, setting emotive goals and Sonzai Studios’ mission to make sustainability simple.

Advance Copy: Hi Celeste welcome to Advance Copy. I wanted to start by asking you about your background and parts of your childhood that you think have influenced you to choose fashion. What you were like as a kid? 

Celeste Tesoriero: I relate my interests, my passion for sustainability and my love for the planet back to my mother. We grew up in the bush surrounded by nature and her love for nature was driven into me so I think the way that I saw the world was through her eyes. I’ve only realised that now as an adult looking back on this path of fashion design and sustainability and I think I can relate it to that childhood being in nature.  

AC: How did this develop into you picking fashion? It feels counter-intuitive, growing up in nature and being far away from the world of glossy magazines and luxury boutiques. What was that entryway for you?  

Celeste: Maybe that distance from it created the allure in the first place because I wasn’t surrounded by fancy things. We grew up quite minimalist and we didn’t have much money so girls in glossy magazines were this other world that I didn’t know anything about. Possibly there was a part of me that wanted to be a part of that world. But I was always creative growing up I was performing, singing, dancing and drawing. I had this zest and passion for creativity in every little aspect but I didn’t know which channel to drive it down or where I would end up. My fashion journey happened by accident. I was studying for a Diploma in Entertainment Design where we did every sort of design from set design, prop design, product and graphic design, illustration and fashion was one of the modules within that. During the fashion course, I instantly fell in love. I didn’t want to go out and see friends I just wanted to draw and design. I ended up getting a first in my class in fashion and from that point, it became a question in my mind “Do I want to be a fashion designer?” After studying for a year I was offered a job as a fashion designer for a brand that I loved growing up and from there I learnt on the job. 

“We are on the same level, have the same knowledge and are trying to find solutions to the same problems.”

AC: How did those dots join together with you flying all the way to London? 

Celeste: I worked as a designer for Australian brands and was relocated to Indonesia to design for a brand in Bali. Whilst I was living in Bali I started my own brand and that was an ethical and sustainable brand which I had for five years. As I was wrapping that up I decided that I wanted to see what the top of the food chain looked like in fashion, that was one of the things on my bucket list that I haven’t done yet which drove me to London. The funny thing is that it was my [experience] in sustainability that got me a job, it wasn’t my fashion design skillset. 

AC: Was it in Indonesia that you learnt more about sustainability as part of the fashion industry?  

Celeste: My lightbulb moment with the production of fashion and how hard that is on the planet and resources happened in Bali. I had already worked for brands for about six or seven years and had never thought about what the supply chain looked like. I worked a lot with China and factories that were very efficient but I’d never asked those questions before. I was in Bali and when my production was running late I needed to go to the dye house region to find out what was going on. The smell of chemicals nearly knocked me off my motorbike and instinctually I thought “I can’t be inhaling this.” I looked to my left and children were playing in the waterways on the side of the street, an old man fishing and families were living here. This was the moment when I thought “I don’t even want to breathe this in and people are living with this in their waterways and their air, and I am a part of that problem because I am producing here”. My lightbulb moment for sustainability happened in Bali and it was a rolling effect from there.  

“I can talk to directors and understand them at a deeper level of someone who has had a label.”

AC: Could you tell us about the time you spent in England where, I believe, you honed in on your skills as a sustainability strategist and consultant. What effect did these formative years have on you? 

Celeste: I was the sustainability manager for Roland Mouret and I was the first sustainability manager they had hired. I got to work with the CEO and Roland on creating their short and long-term strategies everything from our environmental profit and loss statement, how we are going to reduce our carbon footprint, what recycling we are using, what we are doing with our fabric scraps through to what is happening in our packaging process. I was thrown in the deep end and it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was given the opportunity to learn on a holistic level about every part of the business and ways you could do better and be more sustainable. That was incredible and I got to be a part of the British Fashion Council’s Positive Fashion Committee. That was round table discussions with all the sustainability managers from brands like Stella McCartney, Kerring and powerhouses like M&S. That was my moment of witnessing what the top of the [fashion] food chain looked like in a sustainability sense. Here I was sitting at a table where we are on the same level, have the same knowledge and are trying to find solutions to the same problems. I often saw fashion as a cagey industry and then there was this beautiful committee that the British Fashion Council had put together. I moved back to Australia with that experience and started to get approached by brands in Australia and New Zealand that needed help with sustainability. They knew me from when I had my brand and knew the work that I had done in the field. I think it’s a nice angle to come from because I can talk to directors and understand them at a deeper level of someone who has had a label  

“People don’t want to put their hand up even if they are doing something good.” 

AC: How did you piece these experiences together to create your sustainability consultancy, Sonzai Studios?  

Celeste: My core idea for Sonzai Studios is to help brands on any scale do better, communicate their progress and plan for the future. The services that can include are bespoke to all of my clients but there are three broad sections. There is communication because it’s important to talk about sustainability in an industry-relevant way and I work with people to make them feel confident. One of the problems we see in the fashion industry is that people don’t want to put their hand up even if they are doing something good because they’re afraid of the backlash. The other section is education and staff workshops because the best instigator for change is to empower your staff. There are good ways of getting them excited about sustainability and if you want to drive sustainability in your business you need the staff to care. The third section is design: advising on how to be more sustainable throughout the whole supply chain over the three sustainability pillars – environmental, social and economic.  

Going back to your question about how it all pieced together from different parts of my career, the way that I came at it was “I have had a brand and if I got to this point and needed help what would I need, and how would I want someone to help?” What I love is coming into a company and giving them a structure, and tangible tools that they can use on their journey. Talking about sustainability is a rabbit hole, you can talk about what you want to do for hours but getting that into tangible goals or to minute detail – that’s part of the challenge.  

“The best instigator for change is to empower your staff.” 

AC: Do you find that most of your clients come to you because they are passionate about creating change or because they are interested in including sustainability for their brand image, more than it being an innate, long-term interest? 

Celeste: There is definitely both and there is value in both. One thing I like to remind myself of is that I don’t care if they are interested in sustainability because it’s trendy, if they are doing something good for the people in their supply chain and the planet then I’m on board. There are problems with brands being unethical and dishonest about what they are doing and that’s greenwashing. That’s something I don’t condone or believe in. But why people pick up the phone and call me doesn’t drive my decision of whether I’ll take them on as a client or not. What drives my decision is whether they are serious. Some companies might be wanting to do this for fear-driven reasons of not wanting to get in trouble for doing nothing. With a lot of those people, it doesn’t come to fruition because when I tell them about the work that needs to be done the conversation often stops. It’s the companies that have an emotive connection to wanting to do it that do the work to get the results and at the end of the day, they are the ones that are going to be successful. The people who think that doing some sustainable work might be a good idea now to get more customer engagement or to get a quick hit and not put it into their long-term business ethos – it’s not going to work. 

“Rather than making sustainability sexy, we need to make sustainability simple.”

AC: In a recent podcast with Kate Soper, author of Post-Growth Living For an Alternative Hedonism, spoke about making sustainable living more hedonistic. She argues that we need to sell the concept as an idea which is fun and attractive. What are your thoughts on this? 

Celeste: A lot of the things that you have to do as a company – or should be doing to be an ethical and sustainable company – don’t sound very sexy. Getting people on board with every aspect of sustainability, I don’t think it’s going to happen. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing because we all have parts of our job that we don’t like or that don’t interest us. But we have other parts that drive us and keep us going to work every day. It’s about finding the specific things within sustainability that you are going to get into. For some companies it’s the ethical side like supporting indigenous women in their community and they’re not interested in recycling, and that’s okay. I don’t think we will ever get to a point where sustainability as a whole is sexy. But getting sustainability to a point where brands don’t think of it as a separate part of their business and it’s interwoven into every one of their sectors so it works like an ecosystem in permaculture – that can happen. There is so much to know and unless you are an expert in the field you can’t hope to know everything so it’s easy to put it into the ‘too hard’ basket – that’s a problem that we need to get rid of. Rather than making sustainability sexy, we need to make sustainability simple. 

“Sustainability saves you money and smart design is good business.” 

AC: What sustainability initiatives are inspiring your right now? 

Celeste: What I am loving at the moment is smart design. I have recently written a sustainable swimwear guide and I was so impressed by the brands that are doing smart design rather than a recycled fabrication or using natural dye. That’s good and as we said before – choose your focus. But what I am seeing more of is people being smart and resourceful with what they create with a wave of new brands that are getting clever with the design stage. For example, thinking of a swimsuit that can also be used as activewear and lingerie then making sure that the item can be used across those three different parts of our life. What we are trying to do is to buy less, produce less and be smarter with our buying habits. Swimwear brand, Baiia, makes a wrap one piece which can be worn in three different ways so it fits and looks flattering on different body shapes and you can use it if you are breastfeeding. By doing different things it becomes more than just a swimsuit. That’s the thing that’s exciting me at the moment, it’s not an afterthought of sustainability, it’s smarter design.  

AC: From a business perspective, by creating a product that is multifunctional or multi-purpose you are attracting different customers so arguably it’s also more profitable.  

Celeste: Absolutely. Many people have a stigma around doing sustainability initiatives and assuming they need to have a big budget for it and that’s completely incorrect. Sustainability saves you money, smart design is good business and everyone should be doing it. 

“It was a broken system that broke a long time ago and we’ve just been rolling with it.” 

AC: Through the pandemic and the lockdowns, have you felt the conversation around sustainability change in any way?  

Celeste: I think it made a lot of brands stop and think “Why are we going at this pace?” I’ve seen people make big decisions and what I view as sustainable decisions. For example, one brand has decided to completely stop wholesaling and to only be available online. The pandemic has made people rethink their business structures which is a positive thing because it leans towards going slower and producing less. All of these things are like a sustainable kick to the ribs of people who haven’t thought about it yet.  

AC: Who or what ideas are influencing you right now?  

Celeste: I am currently studying permaculture at the same time as my Diploma in Sustainability. Permanent culture is about living in a way that can be sustained in terms of growing food and managing ecosystems. I’ve got a few people that I am inspired by through that journey and I am finding it interrelating with a lot of different things that are sustainable fashion and sustainable living. In terms of people in the fashion industry inspiring me, it’s not one person but it’s people who are making brave changes. People who are putting their hand up and saying: “We are not going to do collections any-more because we don’t believe in this fashion system.” It was a broken system that broke a long time ago and we’ve just been rolling with it. [The pandemic] has given us the chance to say “I don’t think this is the best way things can be – I have a different idea.” Brands are having new, interesting, smart and innovative ideas. It’s a breath of fresh air into the fashion industry which is really needed. It’s just evolving and this evolution is really exciting.