Here at Miljø, we spend a lot of time speaking with many incredible entrepreneurs, makers and creators who have each forged their own path into the world of sustainability. What we sometimes forget, is that sustainable and ethical commerce is far from the easiest route to take for any young, emerging brand. And this was certainly true for Nikki McAllum, the inspiring founder of Australian ethical and sustainable label The Road, whose own journey has been one marked by serendipitous moments of self-awakening, discovery and persistence.
For Nikki, it all began with the 2013 Rana Plaza accident in Bangladesh that killed 1,100 people; a devastating event that shone a light on the terrible conditions that garment workers face in developing countries. It was a harsh wake-up call that caused Nikki to reassess her comfortable job as a lingerie designer for an Australian commercial brand. “For me, most of commercial fashion is basically just communicating with factories or to get jobs done. You don’t really do much here anymore. It’s not face-to-face and it’s totally removed,” Nikki says.
Hungry for answers, Nikki dived deep into research to try and understand more about what she could do and along the way, she discovered Lucy Siegel’s Wearing Out The World, a chilling expose of fashion’s unethical practices. And after seeing Seigel give an empowering talk at the Sydney Opera House, it was the final push Nikki needed to quit her job and start afresh.
Enter The Road: a sustainable fashion brand centred on transparency and good ethics. Starting with nothing but a burning desire to do better, Nikki and her husband spent years researching and travelled extensively to India to explore the possibility of an ethical supply chain from end-to-end. And it was here that Nikki found her inspiration. “What struck me was how far advanced they were in India in this space. They were able to grow their cotton organically, mill it, manufacture it, and market it to us [in Australia] with the full certification”, Nikki says. While it remains expensive to do it this way, it’s Nikki’s hope that with more brands like hers getting on board, it will become more affordable and eventually, become the rule – not the exception.
“My whole intention in starting this brand, is not just to be able to produce and create ethically made products, it was also to make it affordable. It shouldn’t just be for the people who can afford it.”
Beyond it’s tightly curated range of timeless organic cotton basics (including tank dresses, bodysuits and tees for men and women), The Road has also become a influential platform for Nikki to champion transparency via its famous $13.64 campaign which is underpinned by the brand’s ethos: ‘ethics should no longer be a luxury’.
As Nikki explains, “My whole intention in starting this brand, is not just to be able to produce and create ethically made products, it was also to make it affordable. It shouldn’t just be for the people who can afford it.
We wanted to highlight the true cost of manufacturing ethically, so for a short time only we offered our plain shirts for the absolute cost that it cost us to get it made and to get it shipped here: $13.64. If that’s how much it gets to our door without any profit, what are we buying from H&M, Kmart at $5, $3? And where is that money being distributed? It was a way to get people thinking about how much should things cost.”
And what about the future of sustainable and ethical fashion? Nikki is both an optimist and a realist. The downside to sustainable materials like organic bamboo are the often 0ld-school methods of production that can be as equally toxic and harmful to the environment and there is much debate about it’s celebrated status in the eco-world. Through her research, Nikki believes that the best answer will be post-consumer-use recycled cotton, when it can be produced in a cheaper way and imported into different countries. Until then, organic cotton is proudly used in all of The Road’s products.
It’s clear that the success of The Road has indeed (with all puns intended) been a long road of constant learning and growth for Nikki. “[The Road has been] my journey with myself, my life and my purpose. This journey we’re all on, in becoming more aware and conscious. The journey that the world is on in terms of becoming more ethically motivated,” explains Nikki. And you get the sense after speaking with Nikki (and witnessing her vivacious passion and sharp insight in action), that this journey is one that has only just begun.
As Nikki says, “You have to have a story, you can’t just be ‘I’m a brand’. Why? The what is pretty much the same as anyone else, it’s a t-shirt. But why. If you can really tap into yourself and figure out the why, then you’ve got a story.”