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From the source: Anthony Chesler, Thread Together

During the pandemic, Australia’s most vulnerable people have faced particularly difficult challenges, from those experiencing domestic violence to asylum seekers, refugees and the homeless. Thread Together works with fashion brands to dress these Australians with dignity while also fighting against textile landfill. CEO Anthony Chesler explains how the organisation works and its plans for the future.

Inside Retail Weekly: What’s Thread Together about?

Anthony Chesler: Thread Together was founded in 2012 by Andi Halas, a very inspirational woman whose family owned Seafolly.

One day, Seafolly had a small production fault in a product, and rather than disposing of it in an unethical way, they took it to the Asylum Seeker Centre in Sydney. When Andi arrived at the centre, she came across a young family of refugees who had recently arrived in Australia rummaging through black rubbish plastic bags looking to provide clothes for themselves and their children.

She stepped back and thought, “I have a good network in the industry and if I could put that network to good use and redistribute clothing [to people in need], that would otherwise go to landfill, that would be a great outcome.”

Thread Together is a marketplace; we collect product from hundreds of fashion partners around the country, that we then get to people in need in the most efficient way possible and as quickly as we can. We’ve grown largely organically for the first few years on both sides of the marketplace, and in the last 12 months we’ve exponentially grown on both sides in terms of the new partners donating clothing to us and the new customers needing to access our services. It’s about providing clothing with dignity, so we only work with new clothing.

We collect the clothes at our own expense and take it back to our centre. We work with a small team of employees; we supplement this team with job seekers from the government’s work-for-the-dole scheme, which gives us additional capacity to deliver our service. Being philanthropically funded, we don’t charge anyone for services and clothes.

Being entirely reliant on philanthropic funding, we look at ways in which to fundraise. We have to look for sponsors and to establish partnerships and we’ve got some generous partners that are helping us to continue to deliver our service. We’re a fairly innovative and entrepreneurial organisation, rather than having a traditional charity mindset. We brought in the cast of Filthy Rich and Homeless in May 2019 for our annual fundraising lunch. We’re looking to do things that are different to other charities. We don’t think anyone’s doing what we’re doing at the same scale.

We pay for commercial rent on the space we have, and it’s necessary to cover the cost and outgoing salaries and wages and our operating costs to deliver our service. We’ve been fortunate to have a partnership with Commonwealth Bank, which has been generous in providing funding to us to allow us to deliver our services. We’ve also received funding from a number of retailers recently in response to the bushfire relief effort. Retail Apparel Group (RAG) has been a generous donor of clothing for a number of years, and earlier this year they provided us with funding to deliver some of our mobile wardrobe services.

IRW: Tell me about how you get clothing to people in need.

AC: There are four ways we get clothing to people. We have a fleet of mobile wardrobes – vehicles fitted out with wardrobes that drive into communities and provide clothing to vulnerable people. We used them extensively during bushfire relief with funding from RAG. We also received funding from Bendon Lingerie and Goodman. We have acquired two additional vehicles for our fleet, and those vehicles take the clothing into communities.

The second way is through our online wardrobe. Our charity partners and social service agencies log into our site and they’re able to place orders with us for clothing as though they were shopping online. We receive those orders through volunteers and people who work for the dole. We pick and pack them with love and send them to people who need clothing.

The third way is through our retail experiences for vulnerable people. We’re building a new site on Oxford Street in Darlinghurst. These are opportunities for our partners to refer clients to have an authentic retail experience. They come in, work with volunteer stylists and get clothed with a full wardrobe.

Lastly, we put wardrobes into organisations that have the space to do so, then some of their clients can access clothing in a more private manner rather than coming into our store experiences.

IRW: How has the pandemic impacted Thread Together?

AC: There are about 13 per cent of Australians living below the poverty line and it continues to grow. It will spike significantly as a result of the pandemic. In responding to the pandemic, we’ve been doing everything we can to continue to deliver our service.

We’ve had to close our retail experiences and keep our vehicles in neutral, but we’ve driven all the foot traffic that accesses our service around the country to our online wardrobe. Now our partners can provide a virtual referral to a family so they can place an [online] order with us.

We implemented that soon after the pandemic hit, and we’ve seen an outstanding response through the number of orders we’re receiving and clothing we’re getting out to customers.

Domestic violence and homelessness don’t stop during the pandemic, so we’re concerned for the vulnerable. It’s important to get clothing to them, and we’ve had to iterate our own delivery model to do so. We’re social distancing in our warehouses – it’s challenging for us, as we tend to have hundreds of volunteers work with us every week. That’s been significantly challenging but that said, we’ve got a dedicated team who are helping us to sort, pick and pack orders.  

We’re clothing 1500-2000 people a week, which we’re expecting to spike as a result of the pandemic. We think there’ll be a lag and we’re now in winter. We tend to see a demand in our services during seasonal changes.  

We’ve continued to receive clothing donations from our partners, despite some of them being in hibernation. They’re still planning for the reboot and as a result, they’re forecasting what will and won’t be part of the season, and we’re receiving those generous donations, which isn’t excess – it’s product that hasn’t sold.

We’re very grateful, we’ve got an amazing network of fashion partners. The Iconic and Under Armour are fantastic examples of engaged platforms and brands that understand what we do and contribute to us, not just in terms of clothing donations, but volunteer time. We’ve got work to do, so they help us out. We have unskilled volunteers but we have access to skilled volunteers, too.

IRW: What are some of the interesting projects that you’ve got on the horizon for Thread Together?

AC: We’ve just launched a new fleet of mobile wardrobe services which hit the road in New South Wales this week. The vans are fully merchandised with brand new clothing and accessories, allowing for the charity to be agile in assisting a great number of people whether they’re everyday Australians who lost their homes in the bush fires, those at risk of experiencing homelessness, Indigenous communities, refugees and asylum seekers, survivors of domestic violence or the long-term unemployed.

One of the vans will be based in Wagga Wagga. Outfitting this region will be executed by charity partner Anglicare, which will service the Riverina region. The remaining three vans will be used for mobile services in metropolitan Sydney and along the North and South Coast of New South Wales servicing bushfire- and drought-affected areas.

We have a new Fashion Hub going up on Oxford Street in Darlinghurst in July, in addition to our Kensington store, which will be another amazing space for vulnerable people to come in, feel dignified and have a beautiful experience in accessing beautiful clothing.

We’re looking to have similar experiences in Melbourne and Brisbane. We’ve got those experiences in Adelaide, Canberra and Sydney, so we’ve got some discussions in flight at the moment with partners both in Victoria and Queensland to identify spaces for clothing hubs and to also help us facilitate the use of our vehicles. We’ve got new vehicles coming along, new sites and new geographies we’re entering.

IRW: How does a retailer donate clothing?

AC: We’ve got a frictionless onboarding process – just get in touch with us. They’re welcome to donate clothing to us at any time of the year in whatever volume that they have to offer – we don’t turn away product from any donor. We collect it at our own expense. They have to tell us how many cartons and pallets are ready to be collected and in return, we issue them with a donation acknowledgement receipt, so they get a tax concession depending on how they treat their trading stock.  

There are no constraints on their part to join and they can do it as frequently as they like. Some partners have a significant amount of excess at different times of the year and share it on an ongoing basis. Others share only a few cartons – as long as the product isn’t damaged and it’s new. They can be samples or returns not suitable for resale, we’d be delighted to receive it and distribute.

IRW: What other ways can retailers help?

AC: We work on the four Ts. The first is time. We need time for people to help us with unskilled volunteering, like working in our centres, or as a volunteer stylist in one of our retail experiences or helping us do order fulfilment in our fulfilment centre.  

The second thing is around talent. We’ve got a pipeline of work and our fashion partners are strong in marketing, copywriting, content, so we need help in all those areas. Our online store also needs work and we need better user experience with customers, so we can leverage the skills of our partners who have the capacity to provide volunteering in talent. That’s what we’re doing in the moment in terms of COVID-19 – people are helping us do more work remotely at the moment.

The third thing is ties. We know that through the benefit of networks and connections, we can expand and continue to grow our reach both on the social side and our fashion partner network. We are only too delighted when a partner introduces us to a charity partner that needs support, or if they introduce us to another fashion partner. A lot of our growth has been organic in that way, we always have shortages in certain categories – we’d love to be introduced to more sock and underwear suppliers.

The last where fashion partners can help us is ‘treasure’. This is looking at opportunities around in-store activations and online. A retailer can have a donation point of sale. We’re very much open to storytelling with brands. We know what clothing does to an individual and how it empowers someone; we know what it feels like to put on a new tee and we want to replicate that feeling for vulnerable people. If everyone came into a store and made a 10¢ or 20¢ roundup at point of sale [to donate to us], that would be a substantial gamechanger for us. Some of our partners are piloting that with different technology at the moment. That helps us meet our operating costs and drive storytelling through the brand. We don’t want people to just give us money if they’re not engaged with what they do.

Earlier this year, Afterpay raised funds for Thread Together via its app and website when active Australian customers checked out on its platform, $1 per transaction was donated.

IRW: You’ve previously worked in the supply chain. What experiences have you brought to Thread Together?

AC: What I learned in my previous role is the importance of always adding value to your clients, understanding the value you can bring and ensuring it’s well-received by your clients, whether it’s around improving operations and sales or network optimisation, around warehouse consolidation or the way they buy freight and logistics services. It’s all around value exchange.  

You need to make sure if you bring value, it’s actually being appreciated. I’ve helped many organisations improve the way in which they operate and how efficient and effective they are to drive profit improvement at the end of the day.  

For me, increasingly, I’ve had a shift in the way I view value contribution beyond shareholder value. Value closely resonates with me around giving back and seeing the benefit you give to people who are less fortunate than yourself. I see that every single day in this role because we’re seeing people’s lives change with the provision of clothing. We work with bushfire-impacted individuals and they express the gratitude of the normality that we’ve been able to provide them with new clothing. We’re working with individuals incarcerated and released and providing them with a new wardrobe, too.

That value exchange is front and centre and it’s at the coalface, you’re seeing it, but I’m also using my skills to scale the organisation and help us be more efficient and effective. We can’t afford to hire more people – we have to use technology and be smart about how we create work for ourselves because we rely on a small team and a tribe of volunteers. I’ve brought technology into the organisation to allow people to shop online and allow people to track where their orders are at. Everything you’d see in an efficient warehouse operation – we’re trying to strive for that on a small budget.

IRW: What frustrates you most about the fashion industry?

AC: I think the cost to manufacture has substantially come down. Barriers are significantly lower than they’ve ever been historically, so anyone can design something and be able to manufacture it very quickly, then sell it through different channels. So, then you have a significant amount of excess and more clothing than will ever be needed to dress people. It’s so seasonal. Rather than having just half a dozen lines a year, you’ve got 15 lines and every time you go into a retail store, you see new product. It’s exciting if you love shopping, but a lot of it doesn’t necessarily get sold and it needs to be ethically destroyed or redistributed. There are a lot of organisations that aren’t taking an ethical approach to that.

The thing that frustrates me is the amount of product that doesn’t get sold and, look, I think over time that will change. Increasingly, more socially or ethically responsible brands are looking at how they manufacture for end-of-life and understand what role they play and how they fit in. Thread Together is part of the solution to end-of-life. We think it’s the most ethical solution.

The frustration is probably around the volume that we’re seeing and continue to see. I don’t think that it will subside for at least a generation. It’s hard to know. Because we’re distributing new clothing, for us, some would argue we don’t want to see it reduced because we want to provide new clothing to people in need. But the reality is the fashion industry is doing so much damage to the environment, that if we could slow down the manufacturing process and reuse, repurpose, share, rent … it would have a positive impact on everyone, including those people who need clothing.

I don’t know what it would mean for Thread Together if there was no new clothing, but that said, we’ll continue to look at ways that we can work with our partners to dress people who need clothes with dignity.

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