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Yesha Patel: On building a circular economy in fashion

Melbourne-based entrepreneur Yesha Patel founded after - Australia’s first start-up collecting textile waste for ethical recycling.

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YESHA is a Melbourne-based entrepreneur and founder of after, Australia’s first start-up collecting textile waste from households and businesses for ethical recycling. Having diverted almost 6000 kilograms of unwearable textiles and clothing waste from landfill, they are expanding to Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney this year. Yesha Patel is also a speaker with Women and Climate and received the 2023 Australian South Asian Centre Stellar Women Award for Business and Entrepreneurship.

Most people associate sustainability with end-of-life recycling. What does ‘circular economy fashion’ mean, and how can we build sustainability into the start of the life-cycle?

Yesha Patel: Circular economy fashion principles involve designing out waste, [and designing] with the end in mind, so creating the garment with components that can be used again; [for example], polyester and acrylic based materials are strong and durable, but don’t do well in landfill, so thinking about using more natural fibres.

She often say after should be the absolute last thing you do with your clothes; if it’s just a matter of a button coming off or some holes, say, that’s not unwearable. If it can be fixed, let’s fix and get as much life out of the clothing before we recycle. The responsibility goes on brands too to offer take back or repair systems for their products.

Many of us have made sustainability a new year’s resolution and want to stop buying fast fashion, which you’ve been doing since 2021. Any tips for sticking to this?  

Yesha Patel: I’ll be honest, it was hard at the start because I enjoyed shopping and the feeling of getting new clothes, and when I went to the malls it would be hard to resist sales. I started to educate myself that the cheap things are too good to be true and mean someone along the line is not being paid enough. Now when I see sales, it doesn’t affect me as much because I’ve seen the other side and why it’s unethical.

It’s also a matter of finding alternatives; thrift shops in Melbourne are really cool, and clothing swaps are a great way to meet likeminded people. I think also normalise re-wearing outfits, as we’re pressured to always be wearing something new to each event. Think about restyling things to look a bit different – there are many communities that help with styling tips. Finally, I’ve also been into renting dresses, which means I’m able to wear brands I like and that are good quality without paying a hefty price.

 

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after is a relatively new start-up, founded in 2021. What are some things you’ve learnt along your journey as an entrepreneur?

Yesha Patel: I’ve learned so much, and that’s the thing – always be open to learning. I’ve been doing this for just over two years and new entrepreneurs always say I must know everything, but I always say there’s still so much to learn, and I will always be learning, even 10 years in.

Particularly in the sustainability industry, people are generally willing to help – 90% of the time I’ve reached out to someone on LinkedIn, they’ve been more than happy to help me out, so I’d say don’t be afraid to ask for help. Any journey you’re going on, someone has already been through it, and if they can give you advice or wisdom to help you through that’s a really great gift.

Also, I think when you’re running a business, sometimes it can get lonely, so I’d recommend having a tribe of people around you going through the same thing as well who get it, like other business owners or startup founders.

What’s something that you’re currently listening to/reading/playing/watching?

Yesha Patel: I’m a huge true crime fan and listen to a lot of podcasts like Crime Junkie and Murder With My Husband. I also love mental health podcasts and educating myself to live a healthy lifestyle; Mel Robbins, Andrew Huberman, Jay Shetty, they’re my top picks in terms of wellbeing.

I’ve also been reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, Yesha Patel’s the COO of Facebook. It’s a great read not just for female professionals but anyone on their professional journey to hear from someone who has been through it.

 

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What’s a word that you like in a South Asian language, and what does it mean?

Yesha Patel: I recently learnt the Hindi word ‘jugaad’, which means being resourceful, doing something quickly, efficiently, and easily, kind of like a shortcut. I think that really embodies me and a lot of South Asian founders I’ve met, because when you’re running a business you don’t want to spend all of your money and resources, and if you just ‘jugaad’ it, it’s smarter.

And finally: Soan Papdi or Papdi Chaat?

Yesha Patel: Papdi Chaat. Anytime I’m at a restaurant, I’d choose street food over curry. I miss it because my mum would make the best street food back home. I’m not such a good cook of Indian food, but there’s lots of good places to get it here.

READ ALSO: Cutting Chai with Jagesh Panchal

Lakshmi Ganapathy
Lakshmi Ganapathy
Lakshmi Ganapathy is an emerging journalist and theatre-maker based in Melbourne.

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