The Highsnobiety Better Earth Manual is a guide for style enthusiasts in the age of ecological crisis — a crisis caused in part by the fashion industry itself. Here, you’ll find a growing set of resources about conscious consumption and the pioneers who are making a change in our industry.
If there is the nearest thing to heaven on this earth, it just might exist in Bali, Indonesia. Ronald Akili's Potato Head Beach Club was established in 2010 and has since blossomed into a 360 creative village that goes all-in on art, architecture (they recently opened an OMA-designed resort), gastronomy (including an actual Roberta's pizza oven), and music (Virgil and Peggy Gou are guests to have played sets in the past).
As the repurposed wood, Colosseum-inspired facade hints at on approach, a near-dogmatic commitment to sustainability sets it apart from anyplace else on the Seminyak shoreline.
Two years ago, Akili joined forces with former Nike Global Design Director Jesse Leyva to co-found the Wasted Collective staples line. When boiled down, the MO is so similar to Potato Head's that it could almost be read as a kind of merchandise extension. The pair are all about evolution rather than revolution, striving for a future where nothing good goes to waste. The reworked gear is pretty much trend-proof — seasonless fare that is not only built to last but looks dope. You wouldn't expect anything less from an art-obsessed, hospitality tour de force and someone who cut his design teeth at Beverton working on projects such as Nike Considered.
Let’s go way back. What was the thinking when you first started Wasted Collective?
Ronald Akili: We've been working on a similar thing for the past decade at Potato Head. It’s easier for people to choose a more sustainable option when they don't have to compromise on the experience. We’ve seen how the impact will start making in the industry. We started to think, "How do we start rolling this out further? What do people do when they step outside of our club or hotel and so on?" It’s the same philosophy in different formats.
We started thinking about product. We haven't really found a lot from an aesthetic point of view that relates to us. We started with the idea of The Wasted Collective. That’s when I met Jessie.
Jesse, you spent a long time at Nike...
Jesse Leyva: 20 years! In my time there, I was always pushing sustainability, but it was mostly never consumer-facing — more with creative direction.
I heard about what Ron was doing in Bali at Potato Head; it reminded me a lot of the same things we were doing back then. What can we do to make a small change that could influence a really big change? I also loved how Ron was taking the same approach of doing things differently but also not neglecting style. The experience was at another level. What if we could actually do the same thing with product, starting with apparel?
It’s interesting how Potato Head has fed in as such an inspiration
JL: A Lot of brands are like, "Hey, we're perfect." Potato Head never said it was perfect, but when you go there, and you're like, "This is pretty much a five-star hotel, and it's insane, and it is pretty much perfect." But Ron was always like, "It's not. We can always get better." And that's how we're treating the product. “We’re not perfect right now, but we're putting stuff out there. We're going to learn from it and we'll keep it moving from there."
It feels like people really demand that kind of transparency from their favorite brands these days. I think of how loudly Brendan Babenzien’s statement reverberated online at Noah last year.
JL: It’s why I loved Patagonia growing up. They always said they're a sustainable brand, sure, but they're always going to make great product first. I was like, "That's the angle we want to take." But then how do we take it for a different generation?
We’re never going to say we're absolutely never going to say we're perfect. We really want to see if we can push it to 100 percent.
What is the philosophy that underpins your approach?
JL: There are brands with massive innovation teams that can create things that have never existed before. But for 99 percent of brands, it’s up to the designers, product people, and the people who actually run the companies to say, "We're going to commit to actually using what's out there."
There are recycled fabrics that are really beautiful and that can hold up technically. At Nike Sportswear, SB, and ACG, we always had that mentality. Ron has the same mentality at Potato Head where it’s like, "How can we take what's out there and make it ours and twist it and continue to use it?"
We don’t want to innovate new styles, but improve on what’s out there. Ron likes Roberta's pizza, and so at Potato Head they have the oven from Roberta's. It’s genius — why try and reinvent pizza? They do it really well. It’s the same with how they work with Rem Koolhaas and OMA to build things or hire kitchen chefs from Momofuku. Junya Watanabe used to say, “If I'm going to do a duck canvas, I might as well work with Carharrt. Why am I going to try and recreate duck?" It wouldn’t make any sense.
Let’s dive into the fabrics and materials...
JL: I've always been a designer where it's like, "How can I take what's out there and make it my own?" We’re working with the recycled foam and plastics that are out there and trying to use age-old techniques that the guys at Bauhaus were doing around modular design.
It’s like, "Okay, can we do more with one platform?" Other brands do that, but they never follow through. We’re trying to build a great platform and maximize it to the full. We're building things in a modular way that we can Lego together if we want to create multiple styles. Before we actually started opening up tooling, and wasting materials, and wasting our RD&D, we put everything down on paper first.
Each product is different. Recycled materials are our big thing. But it was more about what’s out there and how we use it to redefine a classic as opposed to reintroducing or re-imagining.
Limiting yourself to what’s out there can actually lead you down some cool design rabbit holes, right? Like Nike did with the Space Hippie
JL: When I was with Nike Sportswear, we had no access to cool, innovative technology. So our design team was like, "We're going to take what they have and play around with it.” All of a sudden we're creating new shapes and forms, which they're still using today. Ron and I are doing the same thing. It’s awesome to have a blank sheet of paper, but it's even more fun and challenging when you put all the tools away
Instead of investigating areas that we cannot use, let's actually look at things that we can use. It speeds up the timeframe. Instead of us taking five years to come to market with a sneaker, we can do so in 18 months. Our space is like, "Let's give kids things they want. Let’s package it in a really great way. Let's make it extremely comfortable." Simple things that are not priority one, two, and three for other brands. Other brands may be like, "We want to break this record. We want to jump this higher.”
For us, we're like, "Can it be super comfortable? When I'm at the airport, can I take my shoes on and off really fast?” When I'm in the office then it's like, "Hey, let's go for a hike after work. Can the shoe handle that for me?" It’s the simple everyday benefits that we put at the top of our pyramid, as opposed to at the bottom.
I know running a sustainable label throws up unique challenges. What is the hardest part??
RA: The hardest part is just making the commitment. That and challenging the status quo where the product needs to be really good. It needs to be beautiful and it needs to be accessible to a lot of people. It just so happens to be sustainable. A lot of brands get it the wrong way around.
It’s like with food. I don’t care how healthy it is or whether it's plant-based etc. If it doesn't taste delicious, I won’t eat it. The same applies to product. It has to be good for the environment, but it also has to look good, too.
I love that food comparison!
RA: As Jessie was saying, the stuff is already out there. That also applies to food. I don’t believe anything processed is good for you. It’s not how nature works. It’s the same with product design and architecture. The solutions are out there already, it's just whether you are willing to make the commitment.
What are some of the difficulties when it comes to transportation and logistics, especially from an environmental standpoint? How can you use your status as a small label to work that in your favor?
JL: If we can eliminate the amount of transportation that it takes to actually make product, that's a huge win.
We actually looked at it as an advantage that we're based in LA and Bali. So, if we're doing our fleece and our tees, we want our print house to be in the same place that our t-shirts and our fleece are made. Why? Because there's all that transportation cost. You're talking about hundreds and thousands of units of t-shirts and fleece, and even moving them from one city to another city or multiple blocks or another country, you have all this transportation cost in between.
You can be using organic or recycled cotton, but then you're shipping it to all these other places. What we've done is gone, "Okay, what fabric sources, what print houses can we have that are all ideally across the hall — not across the country." So, everything from our T-shirts and our fleece are made and printed in the same factory. What's the trade-off? The trade-off is it's going to cost a little bit more.
The same thing applies to our cut and sew and then eventually sneakers. Once we find those partners, it’s like, “Season one's good, season two's going to be okay, and season three's going to be great.” We keep building.
Those are things Ron has instilled in Potato Head. You look at all the people he works with, it's the same DJs and same musicians who come back and back because they love the idea of it as a partnership. We're doing the same thing.
How do you guys feel about the claim that the fashion market is already way oversaturated?
RA: I always believe in progress over perfection. I see people asking, "Look, there's oversupply in fashion, why are you making more products, right? Why are you establishing new brands?"
We ask ourselves that as well. But it's either that or sticking to the status quo, even if the product sucks, or is not always accessible to people, or it's not comfortable. We want to make progress where it’s a closed-loop. Hopefully, we can push others to do the same. If they don’t, they become obsolete.
That’s how changes are made. When Potato Head first started, people kept telling us it's impossible. Honestly? It was really difficult, Graeme. But over time, we made progress. When we started, 70 percent of our waste went to landfill — in Bali there is no waste treatment system, meaning landfill goes straight to the ocean. Now, 97 percent of our waste is managed in-house. With Wasted Collective, the ambition is similar.
I’ve heard people say that it’s as simple as putting a halt on new brands. But that’s not a solution based in reality for me, unless there’s some kind of government legislation passed, which I doubt will happen. Brands will expire and new ones will come along. It's trying to affect that cycle from a design vantagepoint
JL: Ron talked about the loop. And for us, the pillars of design are going to create the loop. A huge trend in design and product design right now is this whole design for repair. That’s one lens.
Reuse, recraft, recycle — that’s our philosophy and pillars. We want design for reuse. We want to design for recraft. We want to design for recycle. So, when we're designing a garment, how can we take it back and we will take it through one of those filters again.
With the Wasted studio that we have in Bali, some things may come back into apparel or footwear, other things can come back as an accessory. Other things can come back as something that the restaurant uses or something that the hotel uses.
The idea is as the designing team is designing, we want to be designing not just for repair, which I think is a really strong thing, but we also want to figure out how we can reuse. How can we design to recraft? And a lot of that is becoming like, "Okay, what stitches are we using? What hardware are we using? We're using this hardware that maybe you can't recycle, can we actually put it in places that you can easily cut it off and you can reuse it?" And it's all these little things that we're trying to work through. So the pillars aren't just there for the introduction of our product's life cycle, the pillars are there so you can complete the loopback.
I wanted to ask about the price aspect which you brought up earlier guys. Just how ready do you think the consumer is to really pay that bit extra? I mean, we saw this week how YEEZY Gap hoodies were being chastised for being priced at a higher mark than typical hoodies in the store. Do you think the average person is prepared to pay extra for better just yet?
RA: The price and the sustainability conversation is one that a generation that isn't ready for sustainability loves to have.
Kids who are growing up today — who understand the different colored garbage cans and recycle cans — this is the life they've lived in. Somebody who's in their 40’s or 50’s, who are screaming at a price point, when they were five, 10 years old, they weren't living in this world.
The young consumer is growing up in the time of Patagonia, and guys like Brandon at Noah. I think that's how they're going to rate companies.
In design, there's always going to be naysayers. Like when sneakers went over the $100 mark, people were like, "You'll never sell at that price" But, if they're better for the consumer and they're better for the planet, I think a new generation will look past that. Is it happening now? Is it a hurdle? For sure it is a hurdle. But when you look at the cost of the garment, it's not just in the fabric.
What else do you mean?
JL: It’s also an economy of scale. That goes back to when I was saying how if the bigger brands can learn from what the smaller brands are trying to do, then everybody will benefit. So, this idea of sustainability is a lot different than the chase for performance.
The chase for athletic performance is a secretive chase — think NDAs, and we own this, and IP, and all this stuff.
The chase for sustainability, it's such a different conversation. So, for me, going in and having conversations with people and going, "Hey, you should talk to so-and-so brand. And they're really open with how they're making things." The sustainable world and sustainable lens in fashion is open. It's an open book. Everybody should be able to have the roadmap. It's just how and what the path you take to get there is. We're not in that performance space of IP and NDAs. We're in the space of, "If we can all learn how to do it, the economy of scale is going to make it all come down. And we all benefit from it."
The generational point is interesting. I think we’re already seeing that at fashion week where brands are moving off calendar and doing their own shows.
JL: When the pandemic first hit, every fashion company was saying and every athletic company was saying, "This is going to force us to do less." And I think everybody loved that. I even think consumers loved it.
The advantage we have is that our color palette can stay the same. Every fashion designer at a big house would love to be able to say, "Our color palette isn't changing." The smaller brands are really good at it and it's efficient; it's sustainable.
We talked to one retailer and they're like, "You guys don't have a lot of styles." We're like, "We will over the next few years." But, why would we introduce a brand with 45 styles and 250 skews when we know none of those are going to get booked and we're just creating stuff? Instead, let's start with the classics people want, let's get those really right. And let's try and get colors that we think will stand the test of time.
Finally, Geoff is an OG graphic design legend. Why did you choose to work with him?
JL: Geoff's approach to sustainability in the environment is very much the way Ronald approaches hospitality. He touched on it — if it doesn't taste good, who really wants it? Geoff's the same. His graphics must have a message around the idea of sustainability, but must also be beautiful. It's all like a circular piece.
The ocean, the trails, the mountains, the snow; those are all Geoff’s creative outlets. So we're like, "Okay, if we're able to solve Geoff's daily life down the road in the next three to five years, imagine what our brand could be? Can we actually design product that he can go hiking in? Can we design product he can actually go on an adventure bike ride in?" Can we make some great chinos, T-shirts, and hoodies that he can wear in the studio?"
Geoff was ahead of the curve where he was like, "I'm not going to take a corporate design job. I'm going to continue to maintain my freelance game and be able to have my studio. So I can have my defender, and I can go ride a bike, and I can go surf, and I can go skate some curbs, and I can go help my daughter at her school class. And I can do some art project on the side." We started looking at his lifestyle because I think it’s what a lot of young consumers and young creatives are going to aspire to be. There are a lot of Geoff’s in the world.