News / Business

Ethical fashion leader finds a new home in Brunswick

Low rents lure FairTrade clothing pioneer to Sydney Road

Etiko founder Nick Savaidis describes the company’s mission as helping people to “shop their values”.

Mark Phillips
Monday, May 24, 2021

ONE of Australia’s ethical clothing pioneers has come home to Brunswick.

That’s how Etiko founder and director Nick Savaidis describes the relocation of the company’s office and retail outlet from the outer eastern suburbs to Sydney Road.

For Mr Savaidis, it is a dual homecoming. He spent his early years in Miller Street in Brunswick so it is a return to the suburb he knows well.

The relocation also situates Etiko (the name is derived from the Greek word for ethical) in its heartland among socially conscious consumers who care that the clothes they wear and the food they eat are produced ethically and with care for the environment and animals.

Mr Savaidis says Etiko had long harboured ambitions of moving to the inner north but it had not been possible until Covid-19 caused a swathe of vacant stores in Sydney Road and rents dropped to an acceptable level.

“I’ve got friends in businesses in Brunswick and for years they’ve been telling me to move into the area but I could just never justify the rents they wanted to charge,” he says over a coffee in a café in a side street just off Sydney Road.

“One of the few positive things to come out of Covid is that rents have become more affordable and when they’ve come back we jumped at the opportunity to move into the area.

“We can tell from our online sales it’s a good area but we also know a lot of people who are passionate about the same issues we are, whether it’s animal rights, human rights, the environment, live around the area.”

Formed in 2006, Etiko is a leading retailer and wholesaler of FairTrade accredited footwear, clothing and sporting goods both domestically and increasingly internationally.

Shopping their values

Its products, which are made in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, are certified by FairTrade for paying a living wage to everyone in the supply chain and for not using child or slave labour or sweatshops. Etiko’s range also contain no animal products and seek to adhere to environmental standards.

Mr Savaidis, a former secondary school teacher, began the forerunner of Etiko in the early-2000s when he acquired the exclusive Australian distribution rights for an American ethical shoe brand, No Sweat. In 2006 he began selling soccer balls and shoes to the retail market under the Etiko label. It was the first clothing company in the southern hemisphere to gain FairTrade certification.

The company is increasingly a wholesale supplier — its largest single customer is RMIT University — and 40% of its sales are now to North America.

Mr Savaidis describes the company’s mission as helping people to “shop their values”.

“If you ask most people do they oppose the use of child labour, sweat shop and slave labour, they all say yes they do but when it comes to buying clothing and footwear, it’s not always the case that they apply their values.

“In their defence, it’s always been pretty hard to buy genuinely ethical and eco-friendly clothing. There’s not that many brands out there and they tend to be more expensive. We’ve made a point of trying to make our products affordable.”

Business as a solution

Mr Savaidis’ own social awakening came early in life. Like many Greek migrants, his mother Athina supplemented the family business by sewing clothes both in factories in the inner northern suburbs and at home for piece rates, and he vividly remembers her disappointment at discovering that the clothes she made were being sold in high fashion shops in the city for hundreds of times what she was paid for them.

“I remember at one stage going into a shop in Collins Street when I was only about 11 years old with a cousin who quite into fashion and we saw some of the clothing my mother had made being sold for $30 to $50 and I remember mum at the time was being paid about 15 to 30 cents per garment.”

At high school and in his early teaching days, Mr Savaidis sought to make others aware about the evils of sweat shops and child labour, but it was not until he worked for several years as an educator in the remote Northern Territory Indigenous community of Yuendumu that he saw the possibilities of changing consumer habits in a positive way.

While business is responsible for many of the problems in the world, Mr Savaidis says it can also be the solution to them.

“A lot of people said what’s the point of doing literacy and numeracy classes if there’s no jobs … I had a discussion with my immediate boss and we talked about what we could do to create employment and that started a period of five years of setting up social enterprises on remote communities.

“We were basically creating employment and then teaching literacy and numeracy around the jobs we created and all the businesses were community owned. I realised then that business doesn’t always have to have a negative stigma attached to it, it can have a positive effect.”

He is proud that Etiko has gained the highest possible rating in ethical clothing audits but says the majority of the Australian fashion industry has a long way to go.

“I work with producers in Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka and everyone we work with is part of a FairTrade certified supply chain. So Etiko is kind of recognised as the leader in this space … but the reality is that of the 500 or so fashion brands which are audited, only about six can prove that they paid workers living wages, which is an indictment. These are companies which are turning over billions of dollars a year internationally or hundreds of millions of dollars a year in Australia but they don’t seem to be able to pay workers a living wage.”

Happy to be home

Etiko moved from Boronia into its new shop, which previously sold wedding gowns, in Sydney Road in April. Mr Savaidis says his family, which migrated from the Greek province of Pontus, is stoked that his landlord is a Pontian community organisation.

“I’ve got friends in businesses in Brunswick and for years they’ve been telling me to move into the area,” says Nick Savaidis.

Looking enviously at the queues that snake from De Jour jeans down Sydney Road and around the corner into Blyth Street every Saturday, Mr Savaidis says part of the reason for moving to Brunswick was to increase door sales.

But he also hopes its prominent location will help to educate consumers about ethical clothing and the FairTrade movement. He is exploring selling other FairTrade goods, such as food and chocolate, at the shop.

“We’ve only been operating for a few weeks now but we’ve been staggered by the number of people who have come in to tell us how excited they are that we’ve moved into the area, that a brand like Etiko existed, which made me kind of realise I should have moved here five, 10 years ago.”

Since 2013, Etiko’s turnover has been growing by 20–25% per annum to around $1 million now. Later this year it will circulate a prospectus to potential investors through an equity crowdfunding program to raise up to $500,000 which would allow him to scale up the business. Under the plan, consumers would be able to buy shares in Etiko through a crowdfunding platform for between $250 and $10,000, Mr Savaidis says.

Having come home to Brunswick, it seems like Etiko plans to be around for a long while.

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