Words | Jonathan Lobban
The radical partnership between Sea Forest and M.J. Bale hints at a brighter fashion future. Jonathan Lobban gets salty with Sea Forest Founder and CEO Sam Elsom.
JL: Sam, we just want to start with a quick apology on behalf of the photographer, James Giles, who asked you to jump in the water fully clothed.
SE: Oh, mate, you know I love the water in Tassie. It’s my morning ritual. It’s how I take on the day. When I first started coming to Tassie the cold was confronting, but a friend was telling me about the benefits of an ice bath, and I thought I should just dive in and swim for five minutes every morning.
JL: With that beard of yours, you do have Wim Hof vibes ...
SE: [laughs] I need a lot of hair to keep me warm! Weirdly, the water isn’t that cold today. It should be colder at this time of year. That’s a concern.
JL: Of course, we’re not at Triabunna, Sea Forest’s base in Tasmania. We’re here today in Swansea. Tell us about it?
SE: So, yes, Swansea is about 40 minutes up the road from Triabunna. It was a redundant aqua culture site that we’ve refurbished into a land-based production facility. Whilst we’ve been growing all the asparagopsis seaweed that we’ve been feeding to Simon Cameron’s sheep at Kingston farm for M.J. Bale’s products, on the marine farm at Triabunna, this is a different approach. We’re growing seaweed here at Swansea on land-based ponds. There are 660 of these tanks. It’s a huge operation, a massive industrial site, but it’s a beautiful place as well. It’s a really special place on the Tasmanian coastline. It’s about 30 hectares and we’ve got access to the rocks and the water and the beach. In time, it will be a pretty serious production facility for Sea Forest.
JL: ABC’s Landline program recently did a report into asparagopsis, and they introduced you as a ‘former fashion designer’. Are you getting tired of that description?
SE: Ha! That was who I was, but it does feel like someone else’s life now. It feels like such a long time ago, a different lifetime compared to where I am now. But I don’t mind, it’s part of who I am, I guess.
JL: Still, it’s ironic that the first client for your asparagopsis seaweed was M.J. Bale, no? Not that we consider ourselves ‘Fashion’ with a capital ‘F’.
SE: Yeah, 100 per cent. I’m pumped that it’s gone full circle, and that we get to work together creating better environmental outcomes for an industry that used to be my life and passion.
JL: It was Tim Flannery who inspired you all those years ago to commercialise the farming of asparagopsis, wasn’t it?
SE: Yes, I came into this space because of my interest in sustainability and the climate and being a member of the Climate Council. I guess I was just fortuitous to have tuned in to a webinar with Professor Tim Flannery. And then subsequently, catching up with Tim afterwards and discussing an IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report that had been released. The IPCC is an organisation that’s made up of over 130 scientists that come together to discuss environmental systems – basically climatic systems of play around the planet, and how they’re all beginning to impact our way of life. There were some graphs that we pulled out, and Tim was looking at the exponential rate of change that we faced from inaction around climate change. And, ultimately, the takeaway was that we’re just not doing enough. That we were nowhere near hitting the targets that the climate scientists say we need to by 2030, which was to halve global emissions.
JL: What did you do next?
SE: I spent some time feeling frustrated and annoyed, but then I came to the mindset that if solutions exist, we’re best to channel that frustration into action. I looked at what solutions existed that I might be able to have a swing at, and one of them was seaweed. Tim was particularly passionate about seaweed, having written a book called Sunlight and Seaweed. To me, [seaweed production] seemed to be very relatively simple in the context of the other solutions that existed at the time. So, I started with desktop research, which led to phone conversations with experts in the space, and then I stumbled eventually onto the CSIRO work. The CSIRO was feeding 30 different varieties of seaweed to livestock to see the impact it would have on emissions. They had made a surprising discovery with this asparagopsis, which is a native red seaweed. It’s about 30 centimetres in size, a small red filamentous plant, and had never been grown or cultivated anywhere in the world. But what the scientists found was that when a tiny amount of this [seaweed] was fed to ruminant livestock, it could reduce methane emissions by up to 98 per cent. This was incredible, but no-one in the world knew how to grow it. And there was no commercial supply. This became, I guess, our challenge at Sea Forest and the reason why we started the business. I was fortunate to get the support of some amazing people. We’ve now built a company that employs 55 people on the southeast coast of Tasmania, and we’re now a large commercial industry-scale supplier of the product.
JL: We’re starting to build some momentum as well. In what was a pretty maverick, and seemingly unscalable project, we went from feeding 48 Kingston sheep your asparagopsis in 2021 [Trial 1], then went to 500 sheep last year [Trial 2]. We created handmade knits from the Trial 1 wool in Victoria, as part of our Lightest Footprint project. Now we’re progressing with a leading Australian university to make garments from the methane-reduced wool at scale.
SE: I know, and I think that is great. I think about this a lot in the context of our work. We have developed a solution that only works through collaboration, right? So, our seaweed itself isn’t going to solve climate change, but through partnerships like we have with M.J. Bale and Simon Cameron of Kingston farm, that’s how we create actual results. All solutions require an ecosystem approach, and we have such a huge challenge when it comes to climate change, and, in your case, showing how to start decarbonising the fashion industry. I just applaud M.J. Bale for not sitting around waiting for government or other industries to act, but just getting on and driving change yourselves. You guys have passion and commitment and have been in the trenches with us the whole way problem-solving. I take my hat off to you, I really do. Stoked to be working with you and stoked to be part of an ecosystem driving these amazing outcomes.
JL: Likewise, and we’re glad you’re getting some recognition. Last year you and your wife, Sheree, were in Milan’s Teatro alla Scala – wearing our Kingston tuxedo, no less – nominated for a Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana (CNMI) Sustainability Award. You lost out toa little-known company called Gucci. That must have been surreal?
SE: Yeah, it was definitely wild to think that a seaweed farmer could find themselves in that environment, and also in such a glamorous setting. We were on the red carpet with Giorgio Armani and Cate Blanchett... it was pretty surreal. I got an inkling that we might not have won when they sat us up in the boondocks, but it was amazing to be a part of it. To see a video about our business up there on the screen in front of everyone was a very nice moment.
JL: Maybe, just maybe, one day you might finally throw off the ‘former fashion designer’ tag and be known as a ‘Tasmanian seaweed farmer’?
SE: I would be very proud of that.
JL: How about ‘livestock dietitian’?
SE: Yeah, not so much.
SHIFTING INTO NEUTRAL
A look inside M.J. Bale’s journey to disrupt the fashion industry, one sheep at a time.
SCOPING THE SITUATION
In 2019, ahead of going carbon neutral, M.J. Bale commissioned an environmental scientist to execute a carbon scoping study on one of our legacy products, a two-piece Merino wool suit. The study showed that 52 per cent of all emissions related to our wool suit – measured from cradle to grave – came from wool production, with the majority of emissions (more than 70 per cent) attributed to sheep methane.
HOW IT STARTED
Discovered in 2015 by Australian scientists from the CSIRO, asparagopsis taxiformis is a native red seaweed which, when used as a kind of digestive aid, reacts with the enzymes in sheep stomachs to disrupt the production of methane (which warms the atmosphere between 28 and 120 times more than carbon dioxide). Scientists discovered that asparagopsis could abate methane emissions by up to 80 per cent when fed to the animal as just 0.2 per cent of their daily diet.
A GROUND-BREAKING MOVE
In late 2019, a meeting with Sam Elsom made M.J. Bale Sea Forest’s first client. In the winter of 2020, Simon Cameron of Kingston farm in Tasmania began the world’s first commercial farm trial for methane reduction in sheep. After 300 consecutive days of seaweed feeds, 105kg of methane-reduced wool was produced during shearing in June 2021. In September 2021, 500 Kingston sheep began seaweed feeds, producing approx. 1.3ton of methane-reduced wool.
In 2022, M.J. Bale executed the ‘Lightest Footprint’ project – processing, spinning and hand-knitting 35kg of Kingston methane-reduced wool into sweaters – entirely in Victoria, using carbon- free transport (bicycle, engineless boat). While Trial 3 is currently underway in Kingston in conjunction with a local science agency, we are working with a local institution to create garments at scale here in Australia from Trial 2 wool.