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At the 2019 NZI Sustainable Business Network Awards (L–R): Garry Taylor (NZI), Richard Carroll (Little Yellow Bird), Jess Matthews (Little Yellow Bird), the Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy, and Rachel Brown (CEO, Sustainable Business Network)

Sustainable awards triumph for Little Yellow Bird – By Iain MacIntyre

Corporate uniform and branded clothing manufacturer Little Yellow Bird has had its social and environmental-based business model championed at the 2019 NZI Sustainable Business Network Awards.

The 2015-established firm, which supplies to over 400 companies in the hospitality, retail and corporate sectors and in 2019 branched out to the school sector, was bestowed with both the Hardwired for Social Good and Supreme Transforming New Zealand awards.

Judges of the awards, which were presented in a black-tie ceremony on Auckland’s waterfront on 28 November, were impressed by Little Yellow Bird’s ‘deep and authentic commitment to social good throughout the organisation, business model, supply chain and funding approach’.

“This commitment is brought to life in the custom reports that are delivered to each client,” stated the judges. “With their vision to transform fashion into a circular economy – from ethical production to conscious consumption – they produce exceptional-quality garments that are transparently made and fair for all.”

Little Yellow Bird supplies uniforms and ethical clothes to businesses and schools – its social and environmental-based business model won it the 2019 NZI Sustainable Business Network Awards’ Supreme Transforming New Zealand Award

Little Yellow Bird founder Samantha Jones describes the supreme award recognition as ‘a huge honour’. “It was literally a shock and humbling to be awarded it, up against the incredible businesses that were there this year,” Ms Jones tells FTD.

A former Royal New Zealand Air Force logistics officer, Ms Jones says she began the company when discovering a serious shortfall in the marketplace. “After leaving the Air Force, I needed to buy a corporate wardrobe and found that there was nothing out there that matched my values – fair trade, ethically made and sustainably produced.

“Little Yellow Bird is absolutely committed to ethical manufacturing which is key to our success. There are plenty of other uniform companies out there, but more people needing corporate workwear are supporting us as they share our values and want to make a difference.”

Supply chain

A Living Wage Accredited and Certified B Corporation employer – regarded as the highest standards of social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability – Little Yellow Bird tracks every item of clothing in its supply chain, from source to sale.

The process begins by sourcing the “best natural and sustainable fibres we can find,” Ms Jones says. This includes organic and rain-fed cotton, which is produced via crop rotation and natural fertilisers such as animal urine, instead of via toxic pesticides, artificial fertilisers and heavy water supply drawings.

Little Yellow Bird regularly audits the factories that manufacture its clothing – which is exclusively undertaken in India – in order to maintain a high bar of social, sustainable and safety criteria, including a minimum working age of 18. All cotton farmers and factory workers in the chain are said to be paid fairly for their work, with profits reinvested into local community development projects.

Azo-free and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)-certified dyes are used in generating the firm’s high-quality and bespoke fabrics, with 95% of the water in the dyeing process returned to drinking quality and the remainder used in bricks and roading materials.

Furthermore, the firm ships as many products by sea freight as possible to minimise transport emissions. With a lag of about six weeks for products to ship from India, Little Yellow Bird consequently maintains adequate local warehousing stock to ensure fast dispatch to its clients, which are predominantly located in New Zealand and, to a lesser degree, in the United States and Australia.

Little Yellow Bird general manager Richard Carroll with operations manager Jess Matthews

Little Yellow Bird general manager Richard Carroll emphasises that such planet-preserving endeavours are all fully tracked and measured “so we can calculate the savings made from the non-use of pesticides, sourcing rain-fed organic cotton and avoiding the use of plastics in our packaging.

“We have reduced the use of pesticides by 20,000 kg per annum and have saved over 12 million litres of water each year by only sourcing our cotton yarn from rain-fed organic cotton farms that are GOTS and Fair Trade certified.”

Plastic and remanufacture

Noting predictions that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, as well as observing that at present 99% of textile products end up in landfill, the firm is making strides to address both issues.

On the latter, as well as endeavouring to make lasting products, it is striving to make new products from old materials and products that can be returned to the firm for remanufacture. On the former, it now ships all orders in paper mail bags or cardboard boxes, explains Ms Jones.

“When we first started out, every product arrived individually wrapped in plastic. We asked if they could not be shipped like that and there were a lot of issues at the supplier end: they said no, because if there was any damage, who would pay for it?

“In the end, we just put an agreement in place that if there was any damage to the products because of not being individually wrapped in plastic, we wouldn’t seek compensation. So far, we haven’t had a single issue.

“So now a box or carton will arrive with 50 or 60 t-shirts not wrapped in plastic and just one layer of plastic in the outer of the box. That means we have eliminated thousands of pieces of plastic by not having individually wrapped items coming into New Zealand.” 

Mr Carroll estimates this initiative alone has delivered an annual saving of over 200 kg of plastic. Furthermore, Ms Jones says the firm does not use any plastic bags when sending product to customers. “For a while we used compostable plastic and now we’ve completely gone away from plastic entirely and are just wrapping the orders in card. Again, if anything gets damaged, we have a policy that we will replace it, but nothing has ever been damaged or got wet.”

Expansion plans

Having established a foothold supplying the corporate market – including such organisations as New Zealand Post, the University of Canterbury, the International Antarctic Centre and Venues Wellington – the firm is now exploring the school sector, adds Ms Jones.

“Children especially shouldn’t be wearing clothing and uniforms that are likely to have been made by children in sweatshops in overseas countries,” she states. “We’re hoping to educate schools and children about sustainable clothing and practices, and that they can do this and still retain their unique uniform branding.”


Iain MacIntyre is an award-winning journalist who specialises in transport issues within New Zealandi.macintyre@xtra.co.nz


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