It’s hard to imagine that an everyday product such as bed sheets can be riddled with toxic chemicals thanks to pesticides used in production, but unfortunately, lax laws in Australia mean that even products deemed as “organic” can be anything but...
Investment banker and mother of two Anne Foster is on a mission to change the face of homewares production, namely bed sheets, spurred on by a difficult second pregnancy with her daughter, Elkie, now two. “She had been diagnosed at 10 weeks in utero with a very rare disorder, that in over 95% of cases, children weren’t expected to survive. Over the remaining six months contemplating this (!) and how different this pregnancy and the first few months of her life would be to how in our heads we imagine the fairytale, I decided to start to focus on the good things that we were lucky enough to have around us… Interestingly, while I was researching her condition, I came across similar devastating illnesses in newborns and young children around the world, who lived near farms using pesticides or factories using toxic chemicals for fabric production. It was going on so blatantly in supply chains, but somehow, nothing was being done about it,” explains Anne.
Enter, Elkie & Ark. The hotel-quality bedding and cot collection is made using the highest level of organic certification, the Global Organic Textile Standard, and is 100% toxin free in every single stage of production. They also feel incredibly soft and are made to last a lifetime, meaning they combine a social conscience with durability and limited environmental impact. We caught up with Anne to hear how she combines a corporate role with motherhood and running her own business, how she stays calm and happy amongst the chaos of work and family, and why organic bedding is so important.
Words: Marisa Remond | Go to www.elkieark.com
How did Elkie & Ark come about?
I started the business not long after my second child was born. We had what you could call… a very difficult pregnancy and start to life with her! She had been diagnosed at 10 weeks in utero with a very rare disorder, that in over 95% of cases, children weren’t expected to survive. Over the remaining six months contemplating this (!) and how different this pregnancy and the first few months of her life would be to how in our heads we imagine the fairy tale, I decided to start to focus on the good things that we were lucky enough to have around us. Like clean water, surplus food, free education. The basics. Everything that she had access that would help her survive not just the first few months of her life, but make every day that much easier. We were incredibly lucky. She had access to a world class surgeon and nursing staff and hospitals. In the end, she turned out just fine!
Interestingly, while I was researching her condition, I came across similar devastating illnesses in newborns and young children around the world, who lived near farms using pesticides or factories using toxic chemicals for fabric production. It was going on so blatantly in supply chains, but somehow, nothing was being done about it.
I quickly realised that I had an opportunity to change this and to give customers a product that wasn’t just a better product – but was made with the planet and people in mind and just so much better too. I was so grateful for all we have. But being grateful wasn’t enough. I wanted to do something to change the environmental and human issues – before they even began.
I decided to find a product that everyone needed, that I knew well (from spending a lot of my career travelling the world’s luxury hotels!) but that I could change entirely how it was made and give so much more back to the environment and people who made it.
I wanted to make the very best product, the softest, most durable, most covetable and indulgent – but that fought to reduce water use and waste, that used sustainable farming, removed all toxic chemicals at every stage and fought poverty, trafficking of women and child labour. All the while, ensuring every sale not only paid living wages but helped fund education of the worker’s children, provided safe transport home for women, and that money from the end sales went back to supporting charities that were helping solve diseases in children all around the world.
Can you tell us a bit about your investment banking career and how you juggle that role with your work for Elkie & Ark?
I probably didn’t sleep as much as I should while getting the business going and while I was full-time caring for my kids! I worked every weekend and very late nights (which quickly turned to early mornings) then would be up again at 5am to feed my little one. It wasn’t sustainable and it didn’t leave any family time. Once my youngest was old enough for daycare and I went back to my career that I love in investment (in sustainable businesses!), I actually started to look for a partner who could help the business continue to grow.
I was lucky enough to have a friend, Nadene, who had been there supporting the business since day one and we decided that she should come into the business and help out, make decisions, add some incredible energy. So the answer is, I get help now!
How do you balance running your career and your own business with two children?
I do work from home a lot, which cuts down on time spent commuting and is so much more efficient than working in an office I have learnt! Much easier to concentrate. I love that I get to do a career I love, while still being there for my children when they need me (and yes, burning the midnight flame if needed once they are in bed, which with an international team, often works well anyway!) and also seeing a business grow to do the things I set out for it to do. When I started it, I didn’t want it to be a charity – but I wanted to show that through business we can provide people with the tools like education, safe environments, living wages, flexible working conditions – to help to get themselves out of poverty too. More businesses need to work this way and provide this opportunity for mums (and dads too.) As we grow the business, it is an ongoing aim to provide more family-friendly employment for women who too often get left behind in the work force after having kids, but have such incredible skills and intelligence and drive that just shouldn’t go to waste.
What has motherhood taught you so far?
To relax. To stop stressing about the little things and focus on what matters. Great friends, great family, great colleagues and lots of laughs. I think having had both my babies go through their first moments in life not in my arms, but under the bright lights and beeping machines of the Neonatal Intensive Care, made me realise that there are a lot of things in life we worry about that just don’t matter. And, there are a lot of things we take for granted that we need to remember we are amazingly lucky to have every day.
Can you tell us a bit about your daughter’s diagnosis in utero and how that has shaped the family you are today?
She was diagnosed with a very rare condition, where some of her organs hadn’t formed how they should. Very early on we knew that she would be lucky to survive, and if she did, we were warned that she could spend a year in hospital before she could breathe or eat on her own. That is a lot to dwell on for 7 or so months! The reality was, that pretty quickly when faced with a terrifying situation like that, you realise that you just need to focus on what you do have. You have to be realistic about the worst case, but give yourself the space to truly believe everything will turn out ok, even if the world is telling you it won’t.
One of the hardest parts was also knowing that I wouldn’t be able to physically be there for both my newborn and my son. I had never spent a single night away from him, yet I had to plan for being in a hospital far away from my family, to nurse my daughter back to health. It shaped us as a family because it made me realise how central children are and what we will go through to protect them. Interestingly, it shaped us as a family because it brought my extended family so much closer. As a result of everything going on, we all lived with my parents for a long time, so that we knew that if we needed to stay in hospital, or race off at a moment’s notice, that my son would have people right there to look after him at home. It means that my children (and my husband and I) are now incredibly close to their grandparents which is the most incredible thing to see and we are so lucky!
How do you stay positive? Do you have any tips or tricks to remain calm and happy when juggling business with motherhood?
Haha! I think those months taught me so many tricks about staying positive, calm and happy and able to juggle anything! The first trick, is to remember that (unless you are a neuro-surgeon) you aren’t a neuro-surgeon. Chances are, the world won’t fall apart just because you do something a bit slower than you initially wanted to.
Secondly, the biggest trick is to give yourself the OK to truly believe in just positive outcomes. Not to waste time on stressing about negative ones. Why waste your life imagining the bad things that can turn out? If you actually ever end up going through them, what good will it have done having imagined them first! If I have to, I want to go through bad things just once. Not in my head a million times first 😉
Lastly, if everyone is still alive, you’ve made it through a good day. The biggest trick to staying calm and happy is just to go back to focusing on the basics. As my son says, “I am lucky because I have a warm bed with lots of cosy blankets. I have yoghurt and honey. I have lots of friends. And I get to play with cars”. That’s kind of all that matters!
Why are organic sheets so important, how are they different?
We think a lot about the food we eat, where it came from, where it was made, and the pesticides and chemicals it might contain. We even think more and more about our cleaning products or plastic containers or body-care and makeup. We so often want to know they are organic or natural or have less toxic chemicals that can impact our families.
Unfortunately, fabrics don’t come with an ingredients list, so you never know what has happened to them before they get to your bed. Sometimes kids in particular can get a skin reactions to chemicals in fabrics, but often by the time we get fabrics, a lot of the worst chemicals have been washed away. But unfortunately, not always.
On their journey, fabrics often meet a suite of toxic and harmful chemicals, right back to the farm and through every stage of processing, dyeing, softening and finishing. It is incredible the way some ‘fabrics’ are made and how many chemicals they rely on. When we are talking sheets, these are the things you are sleeping on and breathing in every single night! For a third of your day!
Europe has banned many of these chemicals from being used at any stage of the production process having found them to be carcinogenic or having an impact on hormones. In Australia, we haven’t. We have fairly lax laws about what chemicals we allow to be present or used on fabrics when we import them and also, interestingly, allow people to claim a product to be ‘organic’ when it is anything but. This isn’t allowed in the US or Europe, but I see a lot of it here and a lot of the time, unfortunately, when we ask, the businesses themselves don’t understand what is truly going on behind the scenes. We ask an awful lot of questions every time we bring a new product in! It has taken me a year to source organic flax linen that is both luxurious enough and meets our sustainability and ethical standards!
Can you name 3 things that keep you sane?
- I love looking out across the buzz of the city from our balcony at night. The sounds of neighbour conversations, the lights, the cars, the effervescence of people and real lives.
- I am a Sydney girl, so of course love the ocean and salt water. And more so, seeing my kids clearly get the water baby gene too.
- And right now. I love the idea of being toasty warm in the summer sun. Come on summer! Hurry please!