Welcome to Episode 46 of the Sustainable Ecommerce Podcast!
My guest today is Jo Mercer, founder of start up slow fashion brand Matilda Life. Jo has spent her entire career in retail, and is perhaps most famous for her highly successful Jo Mercer Shoes retail chain. She’s coming back into market now with a lifestyle women’s apparel brand built around the DNA of Australian made, ethical and sustainable.
We talk about the strongly and passionately held values that are the driving force behind Matilda Life, and what it means being a values driven brand. Not just in what they make and sell, but also in how that weaves though all of what they do, including things like how they’re setting up their upcoming bricks & mortar store, how they choose partners and perhaps most crucially, how they intend to influence customers towards a healthier and more sustainable approach to purchasing clothing.
After chatting with Jo, I’m left with the enduring belief that Matilda Life, despite still being a tiny startup, serves up a great model for the fundamental values any ethical & sustainable brand can follow.
About Jo Mercer
Jo grew up in England, heavily influenced by her grandmother who was driven by wartime & post-war scarcity philosophies. Thus, family life growing up was focused on reuse, limiting waste and composting. These fundamental principles have become an integral part of what Jo believes to this day, and now heavily influence how she sees the Matilda Life brand.
Since moving to Australia at 18, she’s been entrenched in the retail industry, from department store assistant to creating the highly successful shoe store chain Jo Mercer Shoes. Through that process she’s literally seen it all with regards sourcing, sustainability issues and the benefits of ethical sourcing. For her, most rewarding of all has been seeing the local social and livelihood benefits to Australian manufacturing. With that in mind the overarching principle for Jo in building Matilda Life has been to make everything here in Australia. For her, that’s the core of her values-driven brand.
Why is Australian Made so Important at Matilda Life?
Aside from a deep passion to support local business and keep these essential skills in Australia, for Jo sourcing from local makers enables a greater degree of transparency in the supply chain. They can ensure fair wages, good employment standards, not to mention great transparency of materials sourcing. Being closer to the action and working with local artisans also means they have greater control and oversight of the product quality too.
It’s also a very important part of the customer story. Australians genuinely want to support local business, and so often are surprised and delighted to discover someone that actually makes things here in Australia.
What does Sustainability Mean For Matilda Life?
For Jo, this is an opportunity to build a brand that reflects her personal values. For example, Matilda will only make their garments using organic materials, so that at the end of their hopefully very long life, they can be composted and returned to the earth. That means no synthetics or blends. It also means zero plastic, which covers everything from garment labels through to item packaging, swing tags, postal packaging etc. All their shipment packaging for example is compostable and paper-based.
While the brand doesn’t claim to be perfect from a materials and sourcing point of view, this philosophy does inform their choice of suppliers and they have a rigorous set of standards that suppliers must uphold.
Just as important is the brand’s message around how customers should think about the product. They are being designed to be high quality, timeless pieces, suitable for everyday wear. The expectation is that customers will buy these and wear them for years to come, wear them until they wear out, rather than buying with the expectation of short term use. In many ways then the brand is focused on slow fashion as a key sustainability foundation.
Fast fashion, hyper consumerism and cheap products are a major issue for our planet. Fundamentally, someone somewhere is paying the cost of cheap products, whether that be the makers themselves or the plant through poorly thought through end of life disposal.
What are some of the challenges of being a sustainable fashion brand?
Probably one of the biggest challenges is certainly around unit economics. The fashion industry is incentivised to produce in huge volume to keep unit costs down, and at the same time choose cheaper materials. One of the main drivers for that is the high cost of physical store locations, which can create huge margin pressure, even when running your own retail outlets. Unless you’re a global brand, customers simply aren’t willing or able to pay huge premiums for simple every day garments, and so with higher unit costs to produce, the brand has to be super cost conscious in other ways.
Once of those is choice of store location, which means a trade off between the rent and the amount of foot traffic.
What does Matilda Life’s Growth Strategy Look Like
To sum it up, slowly, gradually and profitably.
Telling the sustainable and Australian made brand story is hard online, and Jo’s view is that while the brand got started online, she pictures the brand opening up a small chain of boutique stores in non-mall locations to keep costs and margin pressure low. Perhaps 2-3 stores in Sydney & Melbourne and 1 each in the other major population centres. Everything in the stores will be Australian made, from the reclaimed timber flooring through to the lighting, once again aligned with the Made in Australia philosophy.
Online will continue to play an important part, but the challenge is to ensure that part is truly sustainable. Online has challenges in that regard, especially in fashion where returns & exchanges can be high, with a corresponding high footprint.
The in-store experience is therefore overall very important, and Matilda Life stores will also host collaborations with other like-minded Australian made brands that enable their shoppers to pick up and support our home grown industries.
Where can you get Matilda Life Products?
I think my big takeout from today is interesting case study we have in Matilda Life, exploring it as we are, still very early in the life of the brand. And for me what makes that interesting is just how strongly Jo’s values are serving as the blueprint for how the brand operates.
She’s obviously passionate about avoiding plastic waste, which puts strict boundaries around product materials choice and packaging selection. But beyond that, her belief in supporting our local Australian manufacturing capability influences so many decisions, from where they make their own products, to how they fit out their stores, and which brands they choose to work with and stock alongside their own products.
The result is a brand that has a profound DNA, and who’s activities are entirely congruent and authentic to its values, and those are lessons any brand should take note of.
And talking of congruency, I really believe that’s a vital building block of success for Matilda, and any other brands following a similar track. Startup brands, especially in the fashion space have monstrous disadvantages compared to fast fashion, high volume brands.
Choosing high quality, sustainable fabrics is typically most expensive as a starting material, which immediately means price has to be higher. Making timeless pieces and encouraging responsible garment ownership means slower purchase frequency potential. Limited scale and a deep aversion to overproduction mean the unit economics are much harder. Jo’s chosen to avoid expensive rents from shopping malls for her stores to keep margin pressure under control, but choosing cheaper, lower footfall locations means less traffic into the store.
What all of this means is that if, like Matilda, your brand is competing with the constraints of quality-based pricing and low traffic, crafting a powerful brand story that immediately resonates with your customers and captures their attention across all channels is absolutely pivotal to success. And in that context, it’s the congruency between your brand values and all aspects of the actual operations of your business that will be the bedrock for your story.