EcoBling is an upcycled accessories label created by Katie Johnston. Katie upcycles materials destined for landfill to create modern and unique handcrafted pieces. Katie sat down with us to talk about how a jagged piece of wood on a string turned into a thriving eco brand.
Tell us about EcoBling.
It’s an accessories label using recycled materials—basically junk and waste destined for the landfill.
We plant a tree for each piece sold to offset any impact. We also have a solar powered workshop so we don’t do too much damage to the environment. Because we plant a tree with each piece sold, we’re actually taking carbon out of the atmosphere as well as creating habitats for little critters.
The trees are planted in African food forests so they provide food for the local communities and take the pressure off deforestation. Because it’s a food forest, they don’t need to log to create space to grow food. The program uses advanced technology to create high-yields so it feeds the local community.
The program is run by Trees for the Future and they take care of the planting and strategic management of those forests. So far I’ve been able to plant over 10,000 trees and I’m quickly approaching another 10,000 so that’s really exciting. We’re averaging about 10,000 trees a year.
I wanted to plant trees in Australia, and I did try several times to partner with tree planting not-for-profit organisations, however no one got back to me! It was disappointing that happened, but I do still sponsor local environmental projects, like pandanus work on Fraser Island for example. Trees are my most favourite thing in the world—I’m obsessed with them.
When was EcoBling founded?
I had the idea three and a half years ago, but I threw it out there, got started and pitched it at an event about three years ago. I went hot and cold on it for about a year. I talked myself out of it and then talked myself back into it, bouncing around with the fear of starting something and the fear of failure.
I have a mantra “feel the fear and do it anyway.” But fear isn’t a bad thing, it helps us make informed decisions, it just shouldn’t stop you from making decisions. It stalled me for ages. So EcoBling has been going strong consistently for two years now.
What inspired you to create EcoBling?
I was working for a social change consultancy in Brisbane as a centre manager. My role was to come up with ideas to engage the broader community in the business. I didn’t mind doing admin stuff and forwarding emails, but I was getting bored.
I was coming up with all these ideas for events and exciting things to grow the business, but it was just met with resistance. I got quite frustrated in that role and quite disengaged and one day decided that it was a good time to tell my boss exactly what I thought in colourful language which I don’t regret. That role ended that day so I went to the pitching event for EcoBling.
But at that same time, I had broken up with my partner, the house I was living in was going to be demolished and I had just been fired, so I was dealing with a lot! I had to be committed to EcoBling because of what it is, but also because I was technically unemployable so I made it work.
What was the first piece you made?
I had the idea before I even picked up a power tool or before I even knew I was creating eco fashion. I realised I was creating eco fashion after a few months in and I was like “cool, I’m part of this movement!”
I launched the idea at a pitch event and the day of the pitch event, I went to the local hardware store and bought a handsaw. I couldn’t afford any power tools and I didn’t know how to use them anyways. I found a bit of scrap wood in the backyard where I was staying—an old shed had fallen down. I sawed this slither of wood off and took it to this event as a sample.
Because it was such a hideous thing, my refrain for taking it was “look at this piece that I made, look how badly made it is. I need tools to make this piece wonderful—will you give me the money to buy these tools?” Everyone else was bringing stunning, fully branded samples and I had a bit of jagged wood on a string. It wasn’t even a nice piece of string—it was a piece of twine that had come off a wrapper. That’s the beautiful, glorious, well-thought out beginning of EcoBling!
What was the feedback on your jagged wood on a string?
It wasn’t great! The concept was so new and given what I had been going through having any pitch at all made me proud. A builder who was there totally related to the need for these tools. He sponsored me and bought the tools I needed to get started. I would have been able to get the tools eventually, but this gesture and having someone support me and my dreams so I could start making better samples was phenomenal.
In the hardest times I’ve been through with EcoBling, when I’ve just wanted to throw it all away, which I nearly have several times, I remember that gesture. I remember that one person in the world believed enough in me to support me and that’s all I need to bring me back to “I’m doing it!”
First EcoBling range—tell us about it.
I started with wood. I do steel and glass now, and soon I’m getting into pineapple leather, but first it was wood. I wanted to create production hubs in Indigenous communities in regional Australia. I had no idea how complex that would be until I started learning more about it.
My first range, apart from the wood, was the IndigiBling range. Instead of setting up production hubs in the communities, I sent parcels of wood out with a burner. I micro-financed the burner and this allowed the artists to practice their art and burn their symbols and stories onto the wooden jewellery. As soon as we broke even, they got to keep that burner and use it for whatever they wanted. It’s still going, it’s very special and it’s a sacred practice, burning art and sharing it with others.
Why did you start working with Indigenous people?
I’m fascinated by the culture and I know so little. I always wanted to learn more. I was reading different things, but it felt separate from me. I wanted to use EcoBling as a bridge so people could have part of that culture—an original piece created by an Indigenous artist.
On the other side of it too, I was noticing through my research, that Indigenous people are being imposed upon by Western culture. There is a lot of social pressure to not practice their culture. I felt like I had a beautiful opportunity to share their culture with my customers and bring financial opportunities to people in their communities instead of them having to leave their community to find work and with that movement lose sense of self and identity. I felt like it holistically tied in with what I was doing and my interests.
Who was the first Indigenous artist you approached?
A man called Steve Taylor and he manages a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in NSW. I knew those guys growing up and they were supportive of the concept and wanted to see it thrive within the organisation. He created the first piece—I have a video of him on our website. They brought the project to life. With their help, I was able to see my idea become a reality.
How has EcoBling evolved since when you launched it?
I always joke about Googling my way through life but I feel like that’s what actually what I do! Like I said, when I started EcoBling, I didn’t even know eco fashion was a thing! I knew a guy who tried to start a company that upcycled washing machines and turned them into planters—they aren’t around anymore. That concept really excited me.
Once I started EcoBling—and I’m a bit of a trailblazer in that right in terms of the amount of upcycling I do—I became an eco fashion designer which was really funny because I just thought I was a tinkerer! I found that out my new title by being invited to showcase a range on the runway in Seattle for Eco Fashion Week.
Stepping into that role, or that label that people assigned to me, has been really empowering. It helped my self-belief. But that all started with getting out of my own way. My mantra for opportunities that come up is say yes and deal with the fear later. I’ve been invited to some crazy things and had I had the same mentality when I first started, there’s no way I would have done it. I would have freaked myself out and said “oh that’s not for me.” If it freaks me out, I say yes. Even if it doesn’t freak me out, I still say yes and then I just figure it out.
I don’t have a plan—I joke about global domination of the accessories market. I don’t know how to get there, but I just follow opportunities and say yes to things that arrive along my journey. It’s evolving, but not in a way that I expected. I was studying to become a doctor so the road I’ve taken is very different from my 10 year plan I had five years ago. I like being random and being surprised by life. I don’t think we give ourselves permission enough to do that—we scare ourselves into staying where we are.
What sets Eco Bling apart from other sustainable fashion products?
It’s one of the few, if not the only, accessory labels that’s solely dedicated to upcycling. My rigidity on bending the rules about being “eco” has meant that I’ve been able to stay in complete integrity with the word “eco.” There have been opportunities that have come up that would make life and designing and producing so much easier and faster and more profitable. But I just hate the idea of being a hypocrite.
I find that there are a lot of designers, especially now that I’ve been doing runway shows for a while, who bend the rules. I act like an investigator and ask them lots of questions. I don’t call them out to their face and I ask them why they call themselves eco or ethical or green fashion—the intention is there—but they do bend the rules to make production faster and to make a bigger profit.
I think what sets me apart and something that I’m really proud of is that I don’t care about anything unless it’s fully eco. For me, it’s not fully eco unless it’s upcycled or recycled. There’s a lot of damage in fashion—fast fashion is the number two biggest polluter in the world.
Eco/organic/fair-trade fashion is phenomenal in comparison to fast fashion. Recycled is even better, but if you have to buy new, buy organic, Australian-made products. If you can’t get Australian products, buy organic, fair trade products. There is a lot of strategic marketing in all fashion labels—they drop any old word in and frame it however they want, so you can hear the words you want to hear to justify your purchase. You think you’re doing the right thing, but you’re sponsoring horrific exploitation and practices.
Are there any local brands on the Sunshine Coast you would recommend to people looking for eco fashion?
If I need to buy something new, I will 100% of the time go to Synerji in Forest Glen. You can also buy from their online store. I have never in my life met two people more committed to positive ethical and environmental practices. They set the standard for eco fashion. The integrity they have and how they show it is phenomenal. I know I’m sponsoring the creation of a better world.
What’s the most unique material you’ve used to create a piece for EcoBling?
I use so many weird things! There was an old piano chair at mum and dad’s and it had a broken leg. I did try and repair it, but it was unrepairable. I turned it into EcoBling and the way the legs rolled allowed me to create some beautiful pieces by just using the existing shape and contours of the chair.
And that’s what I do with all my recycled wooden bits and pieces—I study what already exists and design with what I have. In traditional design, you sketch it out and then find materials to make it. I flip the script—not intentionally, I just didn’t know what I was doing when I first started out! I get the material first and then I see what I have and then I design from there.
Did you call that piece “Once Upon a Chair”?
Yes! That’s important to me. The story of each piece is an educational tool. If I can’t get that across in a simple way—and that’s by writing what it was on the tag—if I can’t communicate what it once was, then the reason I’m doing what I’m doing is lost.
I’m not a fashionista who wants to just make pretty things and glam them up and wear them—I want to show the world what’s possible and what can be modern and beautiful in the most environmentally friendly way. Without a huge marketing budget, the story and the concept of EcoBling has been enough to get a lot more attention than I ever expected.
You’re embarking on a new venture—tell us about it.
It’s a very new concept and one that I’m really excited about! You know how you go to the opp shop and you might pick up a few wins, but the rest of the stuff is so fugly you wouldn’t touch it ever? I’m going to go into opp shops and get that fugly stuff and modernise each piece and transform it into a modern designer piece of clothing.
The reason I get so excited about it, is because I can’t mass produce it, so I get to be creative with each new piece of clothing. For a creative person, being able to invent dozens of things is so exciting. With EcoBling, I only create new products twice a year for trade shows—except the artisan range which is made from off-cuts and each piece is unique.
There is so much clothes waste in the world. Fast fashion is disgusting the way it bullies us and makes us feel inferior. I’m going to go in and get that fast fashion and recycle it into very durable, modern pieces. I’m hoping that once I get this up and going, I’ll get people to send in their old clothing. We can’t justify the level of consumption because we give some pieces to opp shops—so much of it goes to landfill and so much of it is made from plastic. The level of micro-fibre pollution from plastic clothing is horrible—it makes me feel ill.
How did you get invited to your first American fashion show?
I got the invite via email and I ignored it because I thought it was a scam! I got a follow-up email so I Googled them and found out they actually existed! I responded and said yes straight away! They asked me to email through a concept so I flicked back an email with a rather elaborate, time-consuming concept which involved huge, sculptural versions of what I sell retail. I didn’t want my pieces of jewellery to get lost on the runway.
The dresses were made from recycled bed sheets which were stunning. Seeing them walk down the runway with the wind swept under them was just perfect. I got so much media from that, I got ranked first considering I Googled “how to do a runway show.” Everyone was like, “it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” and I’m like “yeah, cause I had no idea what I was doing!”
It was beautiful, the opportunity was really special and my mum came over which was really cool. She has a photo of me that morning—I was checking on the sound levels for the music I had created (by Stuart from OKA) and I look back at that photo and laugh because I thought I was smiling, but I had fear all over my face! The runway coordinator was asking me all these jargony questions so I’d go to the loo and Google them all. I was so incredibly stressed because being there and watching people judge what you’ve created and basically judge you—that was terrifying. But I did it and I nailed it and it got me attention for other runway shows in LA, Vegas, Brooklyn, Vancouver—it’s been quite the ride.
How has being naïve helped you?
I’ve never been judged by not having a degree in fashion design. A degree is not your golden ticket to success. You have to be a lot more than a piece of paper. By being naïve, I’ve been able to do things in a year—it typically takes traditional designers ten years to get runway shows—because I’ve just been brave and haven’t known that I’m not allowed to call up a celebrity and ask them if they want to be an ambassador. I’ve just been going for it and it’s been so good not knowing what I should be doing—I hate that word should, it’s so boring. So yes, being naïve has definitely helped and getting out of my own way is gold.
Tell us about Katie.
I grew up on a farm in rural Central West New South Wales for the first twelve years of my life. It was very sheltered and very traditional—I wouldn’t say it was anything out of the ordinary, very safe and nurturing.
I went to boarding school when I was 12 and that was horrific. I got so bullied at school and in the boarding environment. It upset me so much, I cried and wanted to go home every weekend. I loved the school part of it, I love learning about new things and thrived off education. But the social side was rough.
I endured my six years and left school, went to Western Australia, travelled to England and lived there for a year as an activities instructor, came back to Australia to Wollongong for uni. I went to my first day of uni and at a business course I lasted 35 minutes and then I walked out. It was the most boring thing I had ever heard in my life.
I went back to Perth after that and set up two health and wellness clinics. When I first moved to Perth I worked at a bar and this being a navy community, they would come in from Garden Island and dock there and unleash. I met a lot of cool people, but after work one time I was chatting to this guy—as I would with all customers. He mentioned that he needed a ride home as he couldn’t fit in the taxi with his friends and he said he lived near me. Long story short, I was badly sexually assaulted. That moment was the most horrific, but most defining moment of my life.
I didn’t tell anyone for a year. It made me really think about how cruel the world can be and how much people are responsible for that and how I had a part to play in being something good in the world. I went and studied philosophy, anthropology, sociology and psychology because I wanted to understand why people are nice and why people are not nice and what happens to them to inflict pain on other people and animals and the environment. I graduated with distinctions in psychology and was no closer to figuring that question out—but learnt a lot along the way. I studied life coaching as well. And that led me to the social change consultancy and then EcoBling was born.
How to you stay happy and healthy?
When I feel like I’m on a downward spiral or things are getting chaotic, I always say “who cares.” I repeat it to myself over and over until I realise that nothing happening in this moment is more important than my health. I say that until I believe it and then the problems don’t feel that big anymore and become manageable.
I also live in an epic house tucked away in a beautiful community in Eumundi. It’s my nest and my sanctuary.
What are you local favourites on the Sunshine Coast?
I’m a proud vegan, so one of my favourite eats is Moo Free Burgers. Every morning I go to Humdrum in Eumundi—if you see a crazy-looking redhead there, it’s me! The northern end of Sunshine Beach is where I go if I need nature time.
What gets you out of bed each morning?
My dog and his need to pee!
What keeps you inspired?
When I said I planted trees because it’s measureable—that inspires me. Being able to see what I have done and what I can do—and have yet to do—and the impact that EcoBling has is so special.
I love the creative side of things and being able to bring weird and wonderful things into reality—that nourishes me. What generally inspires me is nature. I feel so at home when I’m away from everything to do with the human-built world and when I’m deeply immersed in nature. I understand what I’m doing all this for—hanging out with my favourite trees, that inspires me!
To find out more about EcoBling, check out the website.
Christina Cannes is the founder & publisher. She launched sunshine kollectiv because she believes everyone deserves to live in a happy, healthy community. And she wants to turn the media world on its head by changing the story—always choose love over fear!