Zoltan Csaki: How can we make sustainable clothes?

Zoltan Csaki: How can we make sustainable clothes?

Zoltan Csaki: How can we make sustainable clothes?

Zoltan Csaki: How can we make sustainable clothes?

Acknowledgement of Country: This interview was conducted on Gadigal Country. We pay our respects to the traditional custodians of this land, past, present and emerging. We recognise their deep connection to the land and their unique cultural heritage, which continues to enrich our shared community.

Zoltan Csaki is the co-founder of Citizen Wolf, and one of the most influential people in fashion ecommerce in Australia. Combining technology and on-demand manufacturing, Citizen Wolf is rewriting the fashion industry with a radical sustainability mission.

In this conversation, Zoltan uncovers the secrets of the fashion industry, their innovative approach and their unstoppable dedication to their commitments.

How does Citizen Wolf challenge and transform the fashion industry?

Citizen Wolf exists to unfuck the fashion industry. It's meant to be provocative because we can’t keep on doing business as usual. 

The fashion industry is incredibly destructive, with overproduction being the default model. It claims to be sustainable, yet continues to mass produce things at a fast pace. There's also an incredible amount of carbon emissions in production. 

With the default model, you have to work with minimum order quantities. You’re almost certainly guaranteed to be producing more than you can sell. 30% of the clothing produced in the world is never worn and goes straight to landfill.  

The system fundamentally needs to change. Citizen Wolf exists to prove that there's a more sustainable way of making clothes at scale. 

We focus on making clothes on demand. It’s the best way to be environmentally conscious. And we've built the technology for custom-fit. Customers have to wait, but they will get a better product and the best ecological and environmental outcomes.

By the way we work, there's zero overproduction. We send absolutely nothing to landfill, which not many fashion brands can say. Our t-shirts emit 48% less carbon than the equivalent fast fashion garment. Though we still produce things, it's a step change, and it's fundamentally better for the planet.

Was circularity fully implemented when you started the business, or has it been a process?

Circularity in the fashion industry can be problematic to define. To me, true circularity means making something that can be turned into the same thing again.

It means we make a t-shirt today, you wear it for as long as you want. We do free repairs for life and we have a take-back scheme. When you don't want your t-shirt anymore, you bring it back to us. We turn it into recycled yarn (along with our production offcuts). We then knit new fabric and make our new t-shirts. That is true circularity – being able to make the same product again, and again, and again (vs say downcycling).

Since day one, we've always had a natural-fibre-only policy. We've only ever put natural fibre into the world. This allows our supplier to recycle them easily. The recycled yarns are spun around the core of virgin organic cotton, which gives it  better strength.  

We currently have a 50% recycled and 50% organic cotton blend, but we’re looking for a 100% recycled cotton option. Our supplier is in Spain, which is not ideal from a carbon perspective. It would be best to recycle locally, but currently we don’t have textile recycling facilities in Australia capable of producing yarns fine enough to create T-shirt jersey.  

Our circularity was achieved in 2021. Before then, we had an upcycling model. We kept our production offcuts, and made them into tote bags and recycled yarn with Sydney-based textile company, Dempstah. As our business grew, we had to look for different ways to deal with the waste, which led us to the new solution.

What motivates you to overcome challenges in this journey? 

Sustainability is a journey. Before launch, we drew a hard line in the sand to only use natural fibre and we never compromised on that. And then, producing custom-made rather than mass production to bring all the environmental benefits.

It's not easy. When we started, we faced scepticism at every step. The fabric suppliers, pattern makers and manufacturers weren’t very supportive of the idea. They didn’t think it could work with the small supply chain in Australia. 

We ended up starting our own factory. We bought three sewing machines and found a seamstress to work a couple of days a week. Now we run our own manufacturing facility with our laser cutter and a team of seamstresses in Marrickville. 

To have the custom-fit functionality, we then decided to create our own Magic Fit® fit technology. Adding to the factory, we now also have our own technology to make clothes. 

What motivates us is the belief that everything is possible. How hard can it be? We're not launching rockets; it's clothing. There must be an alternate path to the default industry. But it’s not easy. 

How can the government help local manufacturing businesses?

The problem we face is that the textile industry isn't considered advanced manufacturing. Even though we work so hard to be good stewards of the planet, we can't access government grants.

One idea for the government is to mandate recycled materials and incentivise local production. This could reshape the local fashion industry. Also, regulations against greenwashing will make sure sustainability claims are accurate and credible.

Government can lead the change because they're less driven by price. Their influence can help create a more sustainable ecosystem.

What’s your advice for other circular businesses? 

For any business, building your community is crucial. If you run a direct-to-consumer model, you have to be good at performance marketing. It's a skill unique to your business and that can't be outsourced. 

The first group of people who believe in what you're doing is key. If you can't do that, you can't get off the ground. If you're disconnected from your customers and produce mass quantities, you're taking a risk. 

We were fortunate to work with our advisors and investors as we grew. We waited until we had built our community before we raised money. We ended up funding over a million dollars from 500 investors. Most of the investors are our customers who not only love what we do, but fundamentally share our values.   

What vision do you have for Citizen Wolf and the future of fashion?

We're proudly a B Corp and have been improving our metrics. We've reduced carbon emissions and water usage, but we can't control everything. We've existed so far by vertically integrating. I'd love to take it further down the chain, which is fabric mills and organic cotton and merino wool farming. 

We started Citizen Wolf to prove it could be done. Most people think it’s too hard to change. If you do nothing, it's hard to convince the industry to change the way. So we had to go into practice and prove that there was a different and fundamentally better way of making clothes. 

We call this reengineering. We use technology to allow us to work differently. We’ve proved it with t-shirts. Our goal is to make all casual clothes custom-fit to your body using nothing more than our Magic Fit® technology. This includes clothes you and I wear every day. We're not about trends. We're about a better way of making clothes.

Fashion is a fragmented industry. The biggest brands only account for single digit percentages of the global market. So, no company can change how business is done at a system level. Systemic change only occurs when a coalition of brands gets together and changes the way they operate collectively.

I think there's a chance we can change the world. We’ve built the technology for ourselves. But if other brands can use it easily, we have a fighting chance of changing the system. 

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This interview is part of ReCo Circular Sydney 2023 Series, supported by the City of Sydney Knowledge Exchange Sponsorship program. Explore more free content at: reco.net.au/circular-sydney

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Interviewed by Matthew Wright-Simon. Co-edited by Pak Chuen Lee and Danling Xiao.

Matthew Wright-Simon is a creative facilitator and founder of Engage Change, a specialised engagement practice that has led many strategic projects, forums and initiatives across the commercial, government and not-for-profit sectors. Matthew also runs Newday Leadership Summit. Connect with Matthew on Linkedin

Pak Chuen Lee is a digital marketer with a passion for sustainability. Pak (Patrick) holds a master degree of commerce and marketing. He’s committed to making a lasting impact through his expanding expertise in digital media. Connect with Patrick on LinkedIn.  

Danling Xiao is the co-founder of ReCo Digital. Danling has an unwavering passion for creativity, spirituality and the pursuit of positive change in the world. Connect with Danling on Linkedin

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